In Case You Forgot, Nintendo Once Made a Classical Music Video Game (and It Wasn’t Good…)

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My obsession with video games predates my obsession with music. I was an early acquirer of Nintendo’s game-changing Wii console, thanks to a family friend that worked high up at the local Toys-R-Us. And I can’t tell you how many hours I spent spelunking through dungeons in The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, trying to roll a perfect 300 in Wii Bowling, and becoming the dream star in the action-packed Mario Party 8.

Wii Music, however, somehow, someway, completely passed me by. Perhaps I had already moved on to Guitar Hero by that point, or on to other, “real” ( 😉) consoles like Sony Playstation and Xbox 360. But in the name of researching this strange, all-but-forgotten chapter in music technology history, I decided to order a $10 copy of Wii Music on eBay and revisit my old console pal.

The game arrives and I get that familiar jittery feeling of excitement as I tear through the shrink wrap. I dust off my Wii, futz around for some Scotch tape to affix the sensor bar atop a modern television that is now too thin to support it, and fire up the console.

Developed just months ahead of the Great Recession, Nintendo managed to skirt any financial disasters with a soundtrack comprised almost entirely of public domain oldies, lullabies, and songs borrowed from other in-house titles, like one of my all-time favorite games, Animal Crossing. There are some notable exceptions — “Scarborough Fair,” “Every Breath You Take,” “Please Mr. Postman,” and “Daydream Believer” are all playable tracks.

One might assume the creators benefited from pre-Music Modernization Act copyright laws which created loopholes for the exploitation of copyrights prior to 1972… But that’s neither here nor there, let’s talk about the game.

The Gameplay

Upon booting, I’m greeted by a deranged looking violinist claiming to be a “musical maestro” named Sebastian Tute. He speaks in indecipherable gibberish with an Italian cadence. As an Italian myself, this is quite thrilling. He wants me to discover that I, too, am a musical maestro (remember that word, we’ll come back to it).

Game on, Sebastian.

Let’s begin with air piano, shall we? Hammering away with the Wii remote and attached “nunchuk,” the resulting music is a sort of consonant mess that sounds veritably computeristic. My avatar seems to be having fun though. It sounds like the musical equivalent of falling asleep in makeup and going straight to work the next morning.

Next, we set out to learn the guitar. Sebastian tells me it can be played without the nunchuk controller, but that if I do indeed use the nunchuk, I’ll feel as if I’m “truly a guitar player” in this virtual light dome. (Right, Seb.)

I did discover that while the nunchuk does not alter the pitch of the fretting hand, if you shake the controller you can create vibrato! Maybe this game isn’t so bad after all.

Sebastian starts to overstay his educational welcome right about now. He teaches me to play the trumpet on the Wii remote, whereby certain buttons change the pitch and others create an arpeggiated delivery. If you raise the controller, you can perform a caterwauling big band volume swell. Playing in time, though, is still altogether impossible.

Lastly, I learn the violin controls. I played violin in elementary school and I wasn’t very good — I’m still not. And it doesn’t help that the game decides to inject an unruly tritone into the very beautiful melody I’m crafting while violently swaying around in my living room like Lindsey Stirling.

Now that I’ve learned all of the instruments, Sebastian shows me how to play a tune.

The game uses “Be-Bops” — small black notes with big pink noses (the latest installment in Nintendo’s boudoir of racially insensitive avatars… Remember the Goomba?) — to help me figure out how to play in time. Consequently, I imagine this is a helpful aid for the portions of the Caucasian populace who clap on beats 1 and 3 in church.

The first song Sebastian wants to teach me is “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” After struggling through a first pass, Sebastian gives me permission to improvise! I appreciate his creative license, but his examples are appalling. There were a lot melodic “resolutions” pivoting off of the 6th and 2nd, and he even once added a gratuitous♭7 to I major.

My own improvisation is slightly better, mainly because I just pound away at the controllers as fast as I can to create a flurry of nonsense that sounds something like a music box that got soaked in Monster energy drink. Halfway through, a full band enters to accompany me and actually kind of makes it all better, harmonically speaking.

Now that I have the basics, Sebastian takes me to a jam session located on a fantastical TV stage, against a giant, LED-lit backdrop. I look like Liberace making a cameo in The Matrix: Reloaded. My band is made up of piano, cello, marimba, castanets, and Latin percussion. We try our hand at “Twinkle” one more time. We kind of nail it, the castanets are a real standout, I obviously slay.

After the session, Sebastian imparts on me some great Ellington-esque advice.

“Don’t worry if you didn’t play it perfectly, because there’s no one way to play a song…” – Sebastian Tute

The game lets me save my jam as an LP and design my own jacket cover. I wish there were a “none more black” option, but I compromised on a cute frame and a giant sticker of myself at the piano. And just like that, I’ve made a record. Not bad for my first day as a musician in this world. I could get used to this.

After graduating from Sebastian’s Musical Maestro Academy, I can now start creating my own jams, learning cover songs, and this time I get to pick my own venue. I choose the “Sweet Stage,” which is a giant cake — I figured this was probably a fantasy for bands like the Grateful Dead so it might as well be mine, too.

Not only do I get to pick the venue, I get to choose my part. The options are: Bass, Percussion, more Percussion, “Chord” (singular), Melody, and Harmony. I decide give the drums a shot. It’s a complete fail. There is no rhyme or reason to which controller controls which part of the kit, and moving the controllers faster only turns the groove into a dance beat, whereby I end up with a sort of trap groove with random ’80s snare hits that sound like the dog sabotaged your Logic session on a bathroom break.

Sebastian pops up to tell me that I can return to the studio and do an overdub session to adjust my part. I can only imagine this is Nintendo’s euphemistic way of telling me I blew it. So I obliged Sebastian and gave it another shot, and this time, I discovered that holding down the A/B buttons lets me trigger cymbals and play the toms. Now, I finally feel like I have some control.

After the overdub session, I save my jam as yet another LP. My two album per hour release rate is on par with most Soundcloud rappers these days. The game then brands my unit as “The Dre Band.” This isn’t a bad name, I guess — I’ve definitely played in bands with worse names in real life.

But this isn’t even the best part of this moment. I’m finally able to crack into the game’s coveted “Mii Maestro” mode, where I get to conduct a full orchestral version of… you guessed it: “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.”

The Performance of a Lifetime

The lights dim. We fade up on a resplendent concert hall. The house is packed. There I am, front and center, in my absolute best — coattails perfectly ironed, baton in hand.

The orchestra tunes up, and we’re off! I wave the baton in time with the music, churning out a wobbly version of “Twinkle.” A few bars in, I discover that I can control their tempo with the fervor of my movement, and then it’s really on! I make the orchestra speed up and swell to a dizzying 220 BPM. I make players hold single notes for as long as I please, the rest of the orchestra waits eagerly at the fermata for my signal to come back in. I have all the power in the world.

Since the entire orchestra is populated by avatars from the console’s “Mii Channel,” it was pretty wild seeing my 7th grade friend sitting in on timpani, and the Mii version of Darth Maul I made after watching an internet tutorial, and, oh hey, there’s my dad!

After experiencing the kind of rush I imagine the world’s greatest conductors feel when they utterly destroy a performance, Sebastian pops his head back in to tell me I scored 29 points, which from the way my avatar is hanging his head, is an abysmal score. He makes sure I don’t feel too bad, and offers to unlock another piece for me to try. This time, I’m tasked with tackling the theme to Bizet’s opera, Carmen.

Oh boy. You can see for yourself how that turned out.

Achieving 71 points, my performance of Carmen is an improvement, but whatever, the points don’t matter. This time around I discover that holding the B or A buttons while conducting triggers an accent, wherein the entire orchestra jumps in the air and you’re treated to a grandiose and resounding bash from the rhythm section. How exciting!

The critics raved:

“Tentative. Maybe a tad indecisive! A little unsteady. What a performance!” – Sebastian Tute

And just like that, my career in Wii Music comes to a close. In just 40 minutes, I graduated from the conservatory, mastered four(-ish) instruments, conducted an entire opera, and made two albums.

So how do I feel about this game? If I’d paid $40 for this ten years ago, I think I would have claimed my disc was shaped like the Virgin Mary so I could sell it on eBay and get my money back. The one redeeming quality is that this game comes with an ear training exercise, which begins by asking you to guess if the note Sebastian plays is Do, Mi, or Sol, with no reference. Bravo!!

This game is terrible.

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