When Samba de Amigo first appeared on the Dreamcast eight years ago, it marked a new standard for exciting rhythm-based gameplay and expensive, game-specific peripherals ($79.99 for a pair of maracas!). How fitting, then, that in this golden age of musical peripherals, Samba de Amigo has found a new home on a system with built-in maraca functionality. Unfortunately, time and the burgeoning rhythm-game genre have dulled Samba's once-novel gameplay, and the Wii controls have precision issues that can border on maddening. Still, if you stick to moderate difficulty levels or play with a footloose friend, these maracas still have plenty of shake in them.
Samba de Amigo is all about shaking your "maracas" along to the beat. There are six target areas (high, middle, and low for both your left and right hands) arranged in a hexagon. The notes you need to match appear in the center of the shape and radiate out to the target areas. When a note is in the target area, you shake the controller to play it. In addition to this familiar challenge, you'll have to do rolls by shaking the controllers furiously, match poses and hold them for a few seconds, or dance by shaking your controllers in a certain motion. The latter task is where you get your first taste of how imprecise the controls can be; literally any shaking will register as a successful dance move.
This isn't necessarily a bad thing, if you've got the right attitude. It's quite fun to get into the rhythm of a given song, and having a built-in space to improvise your own dance moves is a great way to help encourage immersion. Samba de Amigo shines when you really get into it and dance along with the beat in addition to just hitting your notes. This is easy to do when playing a friend (cooperatively or competitively), or when playing the solo career on easy or normal. Once you get into the hard and superhard difficulties, things begin to turn sour.
As the notes come faster and faster, you need to be more precise to accurately hit different notes in quick succession. The Wii registers high, middle, and low levels when you point the controllers up, straight ahead, and down, respectively. When varied notes come at you quickly, you have to move your arms and snap your wrists quickly, but you'll find that many of your shakes are registering on the wrong level or just not registering at all. To have any hope of passing these songs, you have to move away from your carefree, rhythmic approach toward a more exacting, robotic style. Even as you strive to make your motions more precise, you realize that the imprecision inherent in the Wii controls is constantly working against you. On top of that, just a handful of wrong notes throughout a song can be enough to keep you from getting a passing grade. The only motivation to play the tougher levels of Career mode (aside from masochism) is to unlock new songs to play in other modes, but you'll be hard pressed to forge onward when you are hitting more than 90 percent of the notes and still not passing the song.
Fortunately, most of the songs can be unlocked without descending too deep into the madness of the hard difficulty levels. There are a number of fun songs to play along to, including a number of great songs made famous by the Gipsy Kings, as well as a good assortment of familiar mambo, marimba, and tango music. There are some pop tunes that vary in quality, from the smooth version of Rihanna's "Pon de Replay" to the terrible butchering of two Ricky Martin songs. You can also pay to download new songs via the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection, a novel feature for a Wii rhythm game.
There's plenty of activity on the screen while you're shaking your maracas, but you might not want to look directly at it. Insane characters jump around frantically (not appearing to match the beat of the song) in bizarre, brightly colored locations where the scenery dances as much as the inhabitants. If you are doing particularly well, the scenery will transform into a pulsing rainbow-saturated alternate dimension, where your bonzo entourage will continue to jump around frantically. It can definitely be distracting at times, but you'll usually be too focused on your notes to care.
There are also a bevy of alternate modes and minigames. You can play each song in the normal fashion or try out a dance-focused version if you want to cut loose. You can battle a friend and try to out-maraca each other or play a cooperative mode that will tell you how compatible you are and how long your relationship will last. These modes provide welcome variations on the standard gameplay, but the same cannot be said for the minigames. Most of them can be aced by just furiously shaking the controllers. Volleyball is the exception to this rule, as you control disembodied hands in a match of beach volleyball that is initially amusing but ultimately lame.
Samba de Amigo offers fun on a limited scope, and how much you'll enjoy it really depends on your attitude. If you know some folks who enjoy dancing and general silliness, you'll enjoy getting together to shake your groove things from time to time. The single-player is too limited to provide lasting entertainment value, and the controls will frustrate anyone playing on the harder difficulties. The lack of expensive peripherals and reduced price point make it an appealing rhythm game for budget-conscious buyers, but even they had better be willing to check their expectations--and inhibitions--at the door.