Actually, 'Wii Music' isn't that bad

Image: Wii Music
How cool does playing air trumpet look? Not very. Nintendo's newest game — "Wii Music" — launches today. Despite much advance skepticism, it's more fun than it appears. (But you'll still look like a dork playing it.)Nintendo

You’ve got to love a game that lets you play “La Bamba” with a bagpipe, a jaw harp, a sitar and not one, but two cowbells.

OK. Maybe you don’t have to LOVE the game, but you have to appreciate it on some level …  some very strange and twisted level. (No, seriously, you have not heard “La Bamba” until you’ve heard it played with a bagpipe and two cowbells … at triple the usual speed.)

But let me get this off my chest: How does a company with as much gaming savvy as Nintendo has make a music game that doesn’t have, oh, compelling music right out of the box?

I mean, what the eff? Shove “Wii Music” into your Wii game console and you’re greeted with “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” “Do-Re-Mi” and “Yankee Doodle.”

Yankee. Freakin’. Doodle.

And “La Bamba” is an unlockable song. Yes, you actually have to achieve this song, and by the time you do get to some interesting music, all the “Twinkle, Twinkle” you’ve had to listen to will have seriously tempted you to put an electric drill to your ear just to make the pain go away.

Ahem. OK, that said, let me move on. “Wii Music” is not as bad as you … and you … and you … and, oh yeah, me … thought it was going to be. Despite much speculation to the contrary, it doesn’t seem to be the epic gaming stink bomb that just about everyone predicted.

“Wii Music” hits store shelves today with many a skeptical, jaded and mocking eye pointed in its direction. And really, it’s Nintendo’s fault. Videos and advertisements pushing “Wii Music” have made it look, well, ridiculous (see above photo) not to mention booooring. I mean, how excited can you get about the game after watching this demonstration video, or this one?

It’s enough to make you run screaming to the nearest closet overstuffed with plastic “Rock Band” peripherals.

But this is important: “Wii Music” is not a Nintendo-ized version of “Rock Band” or “Guitar Hero.” Yes, it’s a music game and yes it is so very, very Nintendo, but you might actually, just maybe, have some fun with this game if you approach it without expecting the kind of competitive rhythm gameplay that the aforementioned hits have burned into our collective pop culture psyche.

And while there is much that’s ridiculous about “Wii Music,” the ridiculousness is, oddly enough, pretty fun. Oh yeah, and there’s actually a lot that works in this surprisingly deep game.

The thing is, “Wii Music” is all about creation, not competition. Think of it as a sandbox full to the brim with musical instruments. You can play these instruments all by yourself, or you can invite your friends over and make some music together. And more than that, “Wii Music” will record your performances so that you can watch them and – here’s the interesting part – alter them to suit your whims. But more on that later.

Like any music game, “Wii Music” gives you songs to play, but unlike a host of “Guitar Hero” knockoffs, this game doesn’t require you to play these songs the way they were meant to be played, giving you points as you strike the correct note or slapping your hand when you fail to hit the beat.

Instead, “Wii Music” encourages you to see how you can change up the songs by playing them with different instruments, a different beat or a different musical style (e.g., rock, classical, reggae, etc.)

If you play your instruments in the rhythm they’re meant to be played – ticked out for you via bouncy characters on the screen – a song like, say, “La Bamba” will sound like you expect it to. But if you start strumming your guitar twice as fast, the game automatically adds notes that fit perfectly into the tune but give it a different flair. Improvise your own drum flourishes or pluck the bass at your own tempo and the song changes even more.

As for playing the instruments themselves, there are no additional peripherals needed here. Using the Wii Remote – and, optionally, the Nunchuk – playing the instruments is fairly intuitive: You swing the Remote and Nunchuk downward to beat a drum, you strum the Remote sideways to strum a guitar, you press the Remote's buttons to play a horn, you swish it side to side to play a violin. The swinging and swishing and button pressing actually works quite well and you can elicit a variety of sounds from each instrument.

No, it’s not as immersive as, say, holding a fake plastic guitar in your hands. But I, for one, am fresh out of storage space for these things. If you are a fan of peripherals, you can buy the Wii Balance Board and use it along with the Remote and Nunchuk to play the drums. Simply tap the board with your feet to strike the kick drum and high hat. It makes for some pretty realistic drumming (you know, for a game).

And “Wii Music” certainly puts a vast array of instruments at your fingertips. In addition to the usual drums, bass and guitar, you can also play the dulcimer, shamisen and the taiko drum. More bizarrely, you can “play” a dog, a cat and a cheerleader – the latter of which shouts "go!" "cool!" and "pretty!" to the tune of the song you’re playing. And just to prove that they’re not total dorks, Nintendo included a beatboxer, a rapper and DJ turntables.

It’s a lot to absorb at first, but “Wii Music” is full of tutorials, so much so that the game feels like an interactive music lesson. While it does get to be a bit much at times – I was having flashbacks to the forced piano lessons of my childhood – this game really could teach players something about music, and that's an admirable quality in a music game.

That said, it took me an hour of learning the ins and outs of “Wii Music” to understand why it was actually, you know, fun.

And here it is: Using the Custom Jam mode, you can take a song such as “La Bamba” or The Police’s “Every Breath You Take,” tear it down, rebuild it from the ground up and create an entirely new song.

Because “Wii Music” records your performances, you can select and play each instrument in a song, layering one performance over another. Play the beat however you want. Speed up the tempo. Change the style from rock to jazz to country. Play whatever outlandish combination of instruments you like. By the time you’re finished, you will have created a song using the notes and chords from, for example, “Every Breath You Take” but the song will be completely unrecognizable as such. It’ll be your own song, in fact.

This is where the goofy gets good. I invited a friend over and we spent 45 minutes creating our own version of “My Grandfather’s Clock” using a barking dog, a meowing cat, two cheerleaders, a ukulele, and a toy piano. Likewise, I actually turned “Sur le Pont d’Avignon” into a pretty cool electronic tune (if I do say so myself) using the turntables, two violins, a cello and some cowbell (I do love me some cowbell).

There's no denying that Nintendo missed the mark in a couple of key areas with “Wii Music.” That is, while there is a minigame mode that offers a bit of competitive play, there are far too few games (three) and they’re not all that interesting.

And, of course, there’s the music. Sigh. Of the 50-some songs that are available, only a handful are interesting – Madonna’s “Material Girl” and John Lennon’s “Woman” among them. And the tinny MIDI quality doesn't do anything to make the set more appealing. It’s sad, really. This game could have been so much better if only it had been loaded up with quality music.

But this is a casual game for casual players. Audiophiles and hardcore gamers looking to strut their inner guitar hero have plenty of other avenues to explore. With "Wii Music," the kids in the house will enjoy playing along with the kiddie music while teens and grown-ups will get a kick out of building their own songs in this musical sandbox.

No, without the competitive gameplay and the peripherals, “Wii Music” does not offer the kind of immediate party magic that a game like “Rock Band” does. But if you have the patience to give it a) a try and b) a bit of extra time, it does offer a unique experience and the kind of depth that’s definitely worth checking out.

Is it worth $50? I say rent it first and then decide if it rings your (cow) bell.