Guitar Hero 3 was a smash hit for us and our friends last year. Not a party went by without someone turning on their Wii and handing out the guitars. It was a great game. The difficulty may have been out of whack a little bit but overall it was an excellent party and solo game.
Than came Rock Band and the whole experience got turned up a notch. The first time I played, being a rock drummer and all, I took the drums and said to put it on Hard difficulty. Shouldn’t be a problem for a real drummer. Oops… failed out in the first quarter of the song. Real drums have about as much in common with the game as real guitars do. But I digress. No longer could music games be limited to one instrument. The social aspect of Rock Band was incredible. Teamwork, planning, and the ecstasy of shared victories and shame of shared defeats propelled Rock Band to one of the best multiplayer games of all time. Guitar Hero was history. But not for long.
Now we have Guitar Hero World Tour (reviewed here on the Wii). The full package includes a guitar, a mic, and a drumset. Up to four players can play at a time in the main game with vocal, guitar, bass, and drum parts. Since Rock Band set the bar so high and did so many things right, it’s useful to make comparisons between the two games. How does this game fare in light of what Rock Band did so well?
First off, the gripes.
1) It’s very difficult to see how the other players are doing. The a small, undecipherable mater system on screen that you can refer to, but in the heat of music making it’s very hard to get a good grasp of how everyone is doing. Rock Band’s meter got it exactly right and Neversoft (the GH developers) need to just swallow that fact and implement a similar system. Far too often, things start flashing red and it’s all over.
2) And it only takes one person to fail to make everyone fail the song. There are no “saves”. Once one person drops out, everyone is dead. It’s pretty harsh and, really, not any more realistic than saving people. A rock band can actually still go on even if the bass player’s jack comes out of his bass or the singer suffers a cocaine and Jolt-induced heart attack on stage. Why they chose to make this so harsh is a mystery… though it does stay consistent with the previous games of the series. I was quite disappointed about this one because one of the great social aspects of Rock Band is the instant team building feeling you get when bringing someone back to life. Then again, you do get a greater sense of accomplishment when everyone makes it through a tough song in one piece. To make up for the lack of saving, you can have anyone use Star Power to help everyone through tough sections.
3) Ah, but activating Star Power on drums is something of a black art. You’re supposed to hit both cymbals at the same time. Sometimes this breaks your streak and sometimes it doesn’t. But I feel it’s almost not worth it sometimes if it’s going to break your streak. They need to find a better method of activating Star Power on the drums in the next game. Rock Band’s system isn’t perfect either, but at least you know exactly when you’ll activate it and aren’t in danger of breaking one of your crucial streaks.
4) The lyrics are hard to read on the Wii version! Whatever font that is, it’s ugly and usually illegible. We play on a 42″ HDTV and use component cables so that’s about as good as it’s going to get. Luckily, the words you sing don’t really matter, but I don’t always want to be freestylin’, yo.
5) Song library. Wayyyyy smaller than Rock Band 1 and 2′s. Way smaller. But this will grow over time.
6) The music creator system is a joke. The creation system is unintuitive and extremely difficult to figure out. Even if you do figure it out, the instrument samples they use are horrible and your song will sound like bad MIDI (is there any other kind?). Rock Band doesn’t have a creation system and Guitar Hero should have just left it out and concentrated more on the main gameplay.
So, those are the main gripes. It fumbles the ball in many ways, though none of them are deal breakers by any means. What are the bright spots?
1) Better note charts. All the instruments feel just a little bit more like you’re playing the real music. The open note idea on the bass lines is pretty cool.
2) The drum set is much better. I love having the cymbals raised. It’s slightly more like playing a real drumset. Unfortunately, the bass drum pedal only has about a centimeter of give so that doesn’t feel quite as good, but overall I have much more fun playing these drums than Rock Band’s.
3) Better guitar… the feel of Guitar Hero’s guitar is better than Rock Band’s, especially the strum bar. We prefer the clickier feel of GH’s bar. The raised color buttons makes it easier to find your way around than RB’s sytem as well. The Star Power button is a new addition and works well once you get used to it.
4) The character creator/editor is much more fun and interesting than the Rock Band system’s. The variety of stuff to outfit your rocker with is staggering and there is some outrageous stuff to buy.
5) Overall feel is more rockin’. They nail the rock and roll atmosphere. The character creator helps, but the graphics and menus just drip rock. From the time you first boot the game up, you just want to rock. Rock Band is just a little more sterile than Guitar Hero in this regard.
So, there’s my little pseudo-review/comparison of Guitar Hero World Tour. It’s definitely the better game on the Wii, but if I had to choose between GH:WT on the Wii or Rock Band 2 on the PS3 or 360, I’d give a slight edge to Rock Band 2. The mutliplayer aspect is just a bit better done on RB2 because of the save system and ease of seeing how everyone is doing. Luckily, the Wii instrument peripherals should work on RB2 when it comes out on the Wii so we can get the best of both worlds.
I love that there is healthy competition between these two games. That means they will both be constantly striving to improve their games. They’re both already excellent games and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend either one to people. But we’re in for at least a good few years of excellent music gaming.
Verdict: Required Listening
(the box art is more exciting than the game…)
It was just a week ago that I declared I was not too keen on getting a copy of Wii Music. Initial reviews scared me away from buying the game, at least at full price. Well, I caved and got a copy. Since this game is all about music, I’ll make this SoTM a review of the entire game rather than just its soundtrack.
Short three word review: A Major Disappointment
Longer review: I was looking forward to this game since the day I first heard about it, which I believe was around the time the Wii itself was released. Back then I heard it had conducting and that was enough to get me excited. What a perfect use of the Wiimote that would be! I was looking forward to conducting song after song of my own virtual orchestra. Since that was going to be the highlight of my experience, I’ll start there.
Conducting is indeed pretty cool. The orchestra will follow your tempo and adjust their volume according to how vigorously you conduct. If you stop conducting, they’ll hold their note and all look at you which is pretty hilarious. It’s a good time for at least a little while. But there are some issues. One problem I have with the conducting is that if you do a regular conducting pattern, it doesn’t always register your beat. It seems as though it was designed for a one beat pattern. Also, if you beat too delicately to try and get the orchestra to play pianissimo, it sometimes won’t register the beat. Anyone who’s had difficulties hitting delicate shots in Wii Golf can understand that problem.
The main problem with the conducting minigame is that you only have a whopping five songs to choose from. Sure, Zelda is fun but that’s by far the most interesting of the lot. Even if all five tunes were killer, they’d get old in no time. You’d think Twinkle Twinkle would be the worst, but it’s actually a pretty good rendition with fun harmonies. The limited song list pretty much kills this mode after the first hour. You can extend the life of the mode a little by having four people at a time conduct. Everyone has to agree on the tempo and when to hit the cymbals but that’s pretty much a novelty. Even the high score system was mediocre. You don’t get the top ten scores for each song, just the very top score.
Turns out the minigame that is the most fun is the handbell game. Up to four people can control two handbells each and play in their own handbell choir. You can adjust difficulty and tempo if it’s too easy. Ironically, this game is the most like music games that are already wildly popular, Guitar Hero and Rock Band. You ring your bell when your color hits the “bell hit” line. Sadly, this mode is also hampered by a limited track list, another whopping five songs.
The other decent minigame is an ear training test of sorts, where you identify pitches, order pitches, and do other assorted musical quizzes. There are 8 levels of difficulty, but we couldn’t for the life of us tell the difference in difficulty between the first and eighth levels. With the less-than-stellar musical samples they use for the instruments, it’s also difficult to identify which instrument is playing a wrong note in some of the tests, too. Nintendo missed a chance here to implement a deeper ear training mode which could help budding Mozarts really develop.
Speaking of kids, that does seem to be the demographic this game is aiming at. I can see them having some fun with the Jam mode and the minigames. The songs are also geared toward younger humans. I would, however, rather spend my time introducing any 5 or 6 year olds to a real instrument. They can handle piano or violin. Giving them their first taste of making music through the warped Wii Music music making just seems odd, maybe even detrimental to their development as a musician.
I haven’t mentioned the jamming mode much in this review because it seems like a waste of time. It’s hard to tell what you’re supposed to do, if anything. But if you just randomly play with your Wiimote you’ll make sound and maybe contribute to the song you’re playing, but often it just sounds wrong. And ultimately it’s just not a satisfying way to make music.
The Mii’s inhabiting your Wii are implemented very well. I give them a big thumbs-up for that. From your orchestra to the handbell ringers to the crowds, you’ll see your Mii’s everywhere. I love Wii games that use Mii’s so effectively like that. We spend a lot of time making our Mii’s so it’s nice to see them in our games!
It’s quite a shame that the best mode in Wii Music (handbells) is based on a proven game mechanic. A big opportunity to use the Wii controls innovatively has been wasted. It seems Nintendo just couldn’t come up with a fun way to make music using their spiffy controller, which is quite surprising considering how long the game was in development. Of course, Nintendo probably looked at the Wii Play sales figures and decided they could shove another cutesy mediocre game out the door and sell a zillion copies too. And… they’re probably right. But if you read this review, please don’t make the mistake I did. The game is worth a try, but not at full price. Whenever it hits $30 or less, then give it a try. It’ll be a good for an hour or three.
Verdict: Not Too Shabby (but not at full price)
Today I thought I’d recommend a few books for people looking to get into the game music biz or looking to improve their craft. These are all books that have proven to be quite helpful in educating me about music and the business of game music. And a disclaimer, I will put links to Amazon for all these books but I don’t see a dime from these recommendations, so there are no ulterior motives here. These are just some books that you might find useful.
The Study of Orchestration by Samuel Adler: I refer to this as my bible. It has an excellent overview of all the individual instruments of an orchestra as well as how they work together in their groups (strings, brass, woodwinds, percussion), and how the groups function within the orchestra. It is full of musical examples from lots of different literature which illustrate the concepts very well. The descriptions of the various characteristics of different ranges of each instrument are very helpful. There’s nothing like good old experience when writing for live instruments, but this book will definitely give you a head start.
The Complete Guide to Game Audio by Aaron Marks: This book is a wonderful primer for getting into game audio. It covers several topics including music, sound effects, and voice. I particularly enjoyed the author’s personal stories about his dealings with game company execs. Hearing his stories helped me be a little more confident in standing up for myself and my craft in such dealings. I hope his stories encourage other audio providers to feel the same way. The book includes several examples of what to expect when dealing with contracts and other legal matters, which is extremely helpful. It doesn’t delve too much into the technical, but there is some good material on how to make your sound effects stand out. Overall, an excellent overview of our industry and a great “pep talk” for getting into the industry.
On a related note, Aaron Marks teamed up with Jeannie Novak to write Game Development Essentials: Game Audio Development which looks like it’s an updated take on the same things. I’m sure there’s much to be updated in the seven years since the first book was released. I haven’t read it yet, but I look forward to it as apparently I’m profiled in the book.
Practical Recording Techniques by Bruce Bartlett and Jenny Bartlett: This book definitely eased my apprehension when recording various live instruments. It will help you get the best sound out of that pianist, guitarist, and flautist that you hire for your music. It covers every kind of mic out there and tells you which mics you should use for which situations… and even how to best position them. The book definitely eliminates a lot of trial and error that you could go through. No sense reinventing the wheel. Check this book out.
Mastering Audio: The art and the science by Bob Katz: I’m still wrapping my head around some of the stuff in this book. It completely changed how I look at mixing and mastering. But the main point is, my music sounds better because of this book. It’s easy to neglect or ignore the steps of music production that come after composition, but you’re not done creating music until all the bits and bytes are in your game. Mastering isn’t just a technical requirement of producing music. It’s part of the art, and an art itself.
So there you go, the books from my “essential collection”. Pick up one or two and I’m certain you’ll get just as much help out of them as I have.
With September coming to a close, it’s time I hurry up and pick the game soundtrack to review for the month. And chances are you’ve had this soundtrack drilled into your head after hour upon hour of gameplay. I only have a level 45 mage so I’m sure that most of you have much more experience in the game than I have, but even getting to level 45 has allowed me to memorize at least some of the pieces from the game. And, happily, they’re not half bad.
If I could pick one word to describe the WoW soundtrack, it would be “suitable”. There’s nothing groundbreaking by any means, but instead an appropriately crafted lot of music. The two biggest gripes I have with the soundtrack are:
1- The music comes from the Lord of the Rings school of music, meaning overall it’s pretty clumsy and obvious. There is nothing subtle or deep about the music. It just hits you over the head with its mood. But, while LoTR has a memorable melody or two , WoW does not, instead employing too often at least a portion of a minor scale as its melody. All of this may actually be just fine though, considering the player is going to hear each piece so many times. So that’s not really too big a problem. The music is “suitable” for its purposes. That said, whenever you enter Stormwind and hear that music, you can’t help but feel a little noble or courageous.
2- It too often sounds too much like samples. If I recall correctly, they hired a live choir for some of the pieces but at times the orchestra sounds tinny and thin, as samples often do. I’m sure if they had known when they were developing the game the insane amount of success they would have with the game, they would have gone live with everything. Indeed, the expansion Burning Crusade used the Northwest Sinfonia Orchestra. But WoW definitely suffers from some sample-itis.
Those two issues aside, the composers of the WoW soundtrack did a good job supporting the gorgeous world with proper music. They could have pushed the envelope a little more and increased the production values by hiring a live orchestra, but overall they helped further immerse the player in the game world. And that’s what game music is all about, right?
Verdict: Not Too Shabby
I missed last month’s soundtrack review (strange how a wedding can derail work like that!). So I’ll be doing two this month. For August’s title, I decided to go with Donkey Kong.
We had some friends over last night and watched the delightful documentary King of Kong which chronicles the pursuit of the Donkey Kong high score world record. I highly recommend the movie. It was very well made and captured the highs and lows of a somewhat peculiar obsession. It was actually quite a bit more dramatic than I was expecting. How these guys can get 1 million+ points in Donkey Kong, I’ll never know. My high score is in the low 20,000′s.
Anyway, having just fired up MAME and played some DK, I was surprised how well done the music was. The melodies are extremely shallow (3-note and 5-note tunes endlessly repeating, ouch), but what really stands out is how the game employs a very early example of dynamic music. Pick up a hammer and the music switches to hammerin’ music. Get low on time and the music switches to the low-time loop. Finally reach your girlfriend and the victory music kicks in. It even has a love theme or two.
The sound effects are very happy and rewarding, but they also serve to become the music itself. Because the melodies are so short, the little melodic barrel and girder jump sound effects actually become part of the music themselves. The player not only controls Mario, but also the musical soundscape. It’s pretty cool. Donkey Kong was an important step forward in the evolution of video game graphics, having a visual character all its own, but it also employed some forward-thinking audio implementation. The music itself is ultimately below-par, but the way all the sounds work together to draw the player into the game is impressive.
Verdict: Not Too Shabby
I love playing Peggle. PopCap did a great job making a fun and addictive game. It’s the definition of a casual game. Play with one button. Play as long as you’d like. Easy to learn, hard to master. It is genius.
BUT they made a strange choice for the victory music. After you’ve cleared the last orange target peg, part of the Ode to Joy from the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony plays. It’s a magnificent piece of music, perhaps one of the world’s greatest composer’s greatest achievements.
The problem is, it gets old. Really old. The first few times you hear it, you can’t help but laugh. Such a grandiose piece of music for such a silly cartoon-y game, those goofballs! But, like I said earlier, this game is addictive. You’re going to play through several levels in one sitting. Then more after you get some pesky work out of the way. Then more… and more… and then the Beethoven has worn out its welcome. Something that’s fun and different at first (Beethoven is pretty different for a casual game, or most games) but then wears out its welcome is just a novelty. And novelty is not what you want for such an important part of the game.
You want to be rewarded when you clear a level. Sure, at first it’s a fun reward. But there are a few properties of this music choice that make it unsuitable for prolonged use. 1) The choir is singing very loudly, some would say it sounds shrill. Yeah, it’s definitely shrill. 2) The quality of the audio file itself is pretty bad. It almost sounds clipped. 3) The music itself is very old and has been heard too much already in many other contexts.
The Ode to Joy is brilliant when heard in context, in the last long movement of a huge symphony. It’s rewarding in and of itself. When you take it out of its context, you are playing with fire. How do you do it justice? Well, that’s what gives the player the initial chuckles. The jarring juxtaposition of genius and silliness. But, the genius soon loses out to the silliness and we need to hear something else.
I tested out a couple other pieces of music. The theme to Star Wars had a similar problem, though it was much more tolerable because it has no choir. What I finally settled on and have loved hearing through the hundreds of levels I’ve played (I’m one level away from the top level possible… man, I played Peggle a lot) is part of Buckbeak’s Theme from Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban. It is not as bombastic as Beethoven’s piece but still says “victory!” in its own more relaxed, majestic way.
If you want to try your own music, just convert whatever music you want to use into OGG and rename it “odetojoy.ogg” and place it in the directory “Peggle\music”.
As for the rest of the audio in Peggle, I enjoyed it. The in-game music is nothing to write home about. Some bland tracks, but it keeps out of the way (see Seinfeld post below). The sound effects are very good and the got the most important sound just right, the bouncing on the pegs. They do their trademark rises in pitch after successive peg hits. Very nice.
Anyway, now you know my big gripe with the game. Now you should go play the game if you haven’t yet. I don’t know what I’m going to do if the rumors are true about Peggle coming to DS, by the way. I will play through it again.
Wow, is it really July already? That means it’s time for a new soundtrack review! I picked one that I’ve been listening to a LOT lately, since I’ve been playing the game so much: Grand Theft Auto 4.
This soundtrack is impressive. The sheer amount of music just boggles the mind. I keep switching radio stations… click, click, click, but it takes forever to come around to the first radio station again. I’ve played the game a fair amount and I have yet to get tired of the soundtrack. From minimalist to rap, it’s all in there, even some good classic rock (always my favorite for GTA). The DJs and ads are as funny and well-produced as ever. Good stuff.
The voice acting for the game is above average, though not great. Many of the accents just aren’t believable unfortunately. The sound effects are appropriate and plentiful. Overall, the sound just helps the city become more alive. Some of the car sounds don’t come off very well, but apart from that the sound design is very good.
One knock against the soundtrack is the inability to play MP3′s that are stored on your machine (on the 360 at least). As fun and interesting as the radio stations are, I miss the custom MP3 station from the previous games. Sometimes I just want to hear my own stuff.
Verdict: Required Listening
I thought I’d start a new series by reviewing a soundtrack every month. What works, what doesn’t… let’s take a look at what other games are doing with their soundtracks!
This month’s soundtrack comes from the game Grim Fandango, the classic LucasArts adventure.
Simply put, it is perhaps the best soundtrack ever made for a game. I recently listened to the soundtrack as I was preparing to do my own film noir tune for a game I’m working on. Sometimes listening to a parody of a genre is more informative than researching a particular example of the original genre and this is a good example of that. They’ve distilled the film noir jazz sound into its essence so well, you’d think the music came from the black & white age.
Peter McConnell created a masterpiece with his score for this game and all other adventure game developers should look at this classic as an example of what’s possible in game music. One of my goals as a game music composer is to help raise the quality of game music. I’m glad that other composers, though few and far between right now, are out there with that goal in mind too. This soundtrack has great depth and it avoids cliches, something every composer should look to do. Pick up a copy of the game. It’s worth it for the game itself, but everyone needs to hear what’s possible with a game soundtrack.
Verdict: Required Listening