Today we spent some personal time with Ubisoft's new Nintendo DS game: Jam Sessions here at the Screenburn exhibition at South by Southwest. As you can see from the promotional video, it's more of a virtual guitar interface than it is a game, but is very entertaining nonetheless if you're into these types of products. They surprised me at the booth by handing us a guitar pick instead of a DS stylus and it worked rather well.
You can safely say that I represent the niche market that Jam Sessions will reach out to -- I'm a huge fan of Bemani and always look for similar games on my portable and home consoles. If I ever travel, I keep Eletroplankton, Elite Beat Agents, and Rhythm Tengoku at striking distance. They're a fun release for me because I can't actually play instruments to save my life and I'm really into music. Naturally, when we heard about it so I couldn't wait to jump on a plane and get here. Guitar noob impressions, design sketches, and screen shots follow the jump.
You're going to suck at this game
You see, in those other games I like I'm an instant great musician without much effort or learning curve. Thus, I was disappointed to find that this game is the direct opposite -- you can produce an infinite amount of music with it, but you better well be prepared to spend some hours learning songs.
Ever tried to play a rock song on a Yamaha keyboard? Jam Sessions is sort of like that, but with an easier visual and tactile interface -- more like an alternative input system than a game. It took me 20 minutes or so to get a half-decent Mary Had A Little Lamb going. They had the notes there to Tom Petty's Free Falling, just like in the video. I think I might be able to hang with that guy after a few months of practice at best.
If you take anything away from this impression, it should be that you know know that you'll enjoy it more by accepting the fact that you're more than likely going to suck at it. Unless you can play a real guitar, chances are you'll sound like a Fender going down a flight of stairs for a few hours.
Jerks that are quick to point out that they can play "real guitar" when you fire up Guitar Hero can now switch to referencing this game instead and look less toolish.
Harder than expected
The concept is simple enough: program the notes you want on the directional pad (up to 9 notes at a time for each corner of the D-pad) and your stylus controls the string. If you're not holding down the D-pad you'll hear a dry note as if the musician is pinching down the string. I have zero problems with the interface or the sound it reproduces: the pressure-sensitive control will play notes as hard as you strum them. The problem though is that I wasn't having fun because how hard it was to sound good when doing so.
I spoke to a few other gamers that also shared my musical handicap while others that shared my frustration, while others had different reservations: one guy was upset that you couldn't hit multiple chords at once. "You have to make a button for (multiple notes held together) so power cords are kinda weird."
There's other stuff in the game: a Karaoke mode and Tutorial mode help you break out of the novice sandbox. All in all the game is solid and will interest a small niche of music gamers. You'll get more out of it than an Electroplankton experience, but it isn't designed nor destined to become the next Guitar Hero.
So in conclusion ... I was a little disappointed because it wasn't as infectuous as the other music games I've picked up this year. I thought I would love it hands down, but to my surprise it was going to take some work before I could. And by work I don't mean "keep trying to beat this level over and over" -- no, this is different. You have to learn a dumbed down version of sheet music if you want a shot at sounding decent.
Will I buy it? Yup; but with the knowledge that it will take much longer than my other DS games before I can actually rock out with it.