Michael Jackson's unique vocal talents and performance style have made him one of pop's most enduring icons. The dance routines of such songs as "Thriller," "Beat It," and "Billie Jean" are ingrained in popular culture, but thanks to their complexity, few have the skills to replicate them. Michael Jackson: The Experience gives you the opportunity to try your hand at some of his most famous routines, sing his songs, and battle it out with friends. Its Kinect credentials make it easy to pick up and play, with a variety of difficulty levels and an inability to fail out of songs, which ensures that even dancers with two left feet are given a sporting chance. A vast set of instructional videos give more determined dancers the opportunity to perfect routines, though the lack of detailed visual feedback on your movements--offered by the likes of Dance Central--and significant input lag cause a dissatisfying disconnect between your motions and the ones you see onscreen.
The input lag stems from the game's unique approach to dancing. Rather than just monitor your movements, the Kinect camera places your image onscreen beside a group of virtual dancers, whom you try to replicate. It's an interesting effect, putting you in the middle of the action on stage and making you feel like a superstar performer. However, while your movements are tracked accurately for scoring purposes, your virtual self's movements are not. There's a significant delay between performing a move and seeing your onscreen self replicate it, which is incredibly distracting and makes keeping time difficult--not to mention that the way your movements don't sync with those of the background dancers makes you look like a terrible dancer. Each of your movements is rated as bad, OK, good, or perfect, depending on your performance. Five stars in the corner of the screen fill up as you rack up points, with an overall score appearing underneath. If you perform several good or perfect moves in a row, you increase your multiplier. If you're especially good, you get the chance to activate King Power by raising your fist above your head when a crown appears, giving you bonus points.
Points give you little more than bragging rights among your friends, though, because no matter how few you get, it's impossible to fail out of a song. While this makes the game much more accessible, it removes some of the challenge. There's no incentive to strive for higher scores; no bonus content to unlock, and no leaderboards to see how you measure up against other players. What is challenging is the choreography itself. Most routines are based on those in Michael's music videos, with a few original creations inspired by his dancing thrown in too. Signature moves, such as high kicks, toe stands, and moonwalks all make an appearance, and they are extremely tricky to replicate if you're not blessed with Michael's skills. A set of static pictures on the bottom right of the screen highlight upcoming moves, but they're difficult to follow while looking at the virtual dancers. You can vary the complexity of routines, though, by choosing from one of three difficulty levels.
Master Performance is the most difficult level of the three, with complex routines to follow and a full singing part. Lyrics are displayed at the bottom of the screen while you're performing, and you're given a rating based on your pitch and rhythm. Unfortunately, like dancing, there's a lack of visual feedback for your performance, so you won't find a pitch bar like you do in Rock Band or Guitar Hero. If you drop the difficulty down to Performance level, the singing part is reduced to certain sections of the song, while dancing parts remain the same. The easiest difficultly is Dance, which drops the singing altogether and leaves a gap between each movement, giving you time to readjust before the next toe stand or booty shake. If you're finding it all a bit much, there's a Practice mode where you can choose a particular section of a song to perform repeatedly. Unfortunately, you can't slow down the music during practice, which is a missed opportunity to make things easier.
Things are slowed down in the MJ School, but oddly, it's entirely separate from Practice mode. It features a number of tutorial videos from dance instructors who run you through warm-ups, stretches, and moves from Michael's songs. Though the videos are well put together--breaking down each routine into simple, easy-to-follow steps--they can still be a little daunting if you're not blessed with much in the way of dancing skill because they all feature complex moves. Even if you never watch the videos and practice moves, songs are still a blast to perform, largely due to the quality of the material on offer, which includes famous routines from "Thriller," "Beat It," and "Billie Jean" as particular highlights. Other featured songs come from Michael's Motown days, and include "Rock With You" and "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough." From the '80s, "Bad" and "Smooth Criminal" are available, as are more recent songs like "Ghost" and "Money."
Playing with friends instantly makes the game more fun--even if it's only because you're laughing at their poor dancing skills. Up to four players can get together for a dance in Versus or Cooperative modes but sadly not simultaneously: Each person must take it in turns when dancing because the game only recognizes one player at a time. Your friends are free to dance backup, but they won't be scored for their efforts. In Versus mode, each person performs a different section of the song, with the winner being the one with the most points at the end. Co-op is similar, though instead of competing, the points for both players are totaled up at the end for a combined score. Other than that, though, there's nothing else to do, which makes "The Experience" part of the title something of a misnomer. There are no music videos, no behind-the-scenes footage, no interviews, and no download store at which to acquire more tracks.
The visuals are similarly lackluster, with sparsely populated stadiums making up the vast majority of backdrops. Some songs fare a little better, featuring elements of music videos, with "Thriller's" spooky graveyard and flying bats capturing the Michael Jackson vibe. Sparkly visual effects help to liven things up a little, particularly when you gain a star and an explosion of glitter flows to Michael's famously gloved hand. The dancers look good as well, wearing costumes inspired by Michael's music videos. They're easy to follow, thanks to their bright-neon look, and because they're stylized video recordings of actual dancers, they move realistically too.
Because it lacks a Career mode, unlockables, or even any music videos, this isn't so much an "experience" as it is a simplistic dance offering. Nevertheless, despite the bare-bones package, there's fun to be had performing the excellently choreographed dance routines, which accurately capture the Michael Jackson vibe. Most of his biggest hits are included, and lapsed fans will feel nostalgic seeing the classic moves and hearing the classic songs. While it might not set the world of dancing games on fire, Michael Jackson: The Experience is good for a dance or two, particularly if you're a fan of the king of pop.