GDC 07: Jam Sessions First Look

This DS goes to 11. We get a first look at this guitar simulator from Ubisoft.

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Is there no end to the things the Nintendo DS can do? In the past the handheld has been used for everything from whipping up an Italian pasta meal to directing male cheerleaders in their dance routines. Now, with the upcoming release of Ubisoft's Jam Sessions, you can add one more job to the DS's resume: guitar simulator. We had a chance to get an early peek at this music game yesterday during a visit to Ubisoft's headquarters.

The first thing you need to know about Jam Sessions is that even though it's technically a music game, the emphasis is put more on the "music" than the "game." Unlike more traditional music games, Jam Sessions' open-ended nature makes the game seem more like it's meant to transform the DS into a musical instrument than to be anything approaching Guitar Hero. Essentially, you spend most of your time in Jam Sessions strumming virtual guitar strings using your stylus (or a guitar pick, your finger, or anything else) on the DS's touch screen. The game's touch pad interface is tuned to discern downstrokes from upstrokes, as well as full strums (sounding all six strings) from half strums (where you strum only half the strings). As a result, all of these different strumming methods will produce slightly different, but remarkably authentic acoustic guitar sounds from the DS's speakers. Also, the velocity of your strumming will determine the volume of the sound coming from your guitar--the quicker your stroke, the louder the sound from your guitar will be.

It won't make you a virtual Buckethead...but Jam Sessions might help you do a pretty good James Taylor impression.
It won't make you a virtual Buckethead...but Jam Sessions might help you do a pretty good James Taylor impression.

Strumming is only half of it, however. Playing the right chords at the right time is the other half, of course, and Jam Sessions will feature a huge variety of chords to play. At any given moment, you have access to eight different chords that you can signal by pressing either the directional pad or the face buttons while strumming (depending on whether you are using the right- or left-handed configuration in the game). Up, down, left, and right will execute four separate chords, and you can signal another four by pressing diagonally up, down, left, or right. You assign these chords to specific buttons on a load screen, where you can save two sets of eight chords, giving you access to 16 total chords per song. You can then save these presets to specific songs to bring up whenever you like. To swap between chord sets while strumming, you simply hold down the shoulder buttons. Available chords include basic major, minor, and seventh chords, as well as more esoteric-sounding sus4, add9, flat-5, and diminished chords. You can also play muted strums to add a percussive effect by strumming without pressing any buttons.

Though Jam Sessions is technically the follow-up to a Japanese rhythm game known as Hiite Utaeru DS Guitar M-06 (Sing and Play Guitar M-06), the game will have a few new features that weren't included in the original. These include an improved training mode that breaks down the basics of rhythm and chords for music novices, a recording mode where you can lay down a track of your best virtual strumming to keep for later, and a rather robust effects system that will let you add cool effects such as distortion, reverb, tremolo, and chorus to your stock acoustic sound. The effects work just like the standard "stomp box" effects units that guitarists use, and each one will have a couple of different knobs you can mess around with to get just the right amount of effect.

Zakk Wylde would play this game so hard, he would drill a hole into the touch screen.
Zakk Wylde would play this game so hard, he would drill a hole into the touch screen.

Though no official announcement has been made on the licensed songs included in Jam Sessions, the Japanese version of the game has a number of songs to play along with using an in-game sheet music system that shows the chords you should play and the song lyrics. As you play through the song, the chords automatically scrolls upward to bring you the next chords. Playing the song accurately will earn you new unlockables such as backgrounds but, as producers are quick to point out, the real point in Jam Sessions is to play the song as you see fit. You aren't penalized for playing a measure too long or skipping to the wrong chord (beyond missing the chance at an unlockable); instead, it seems as though the game is more a tool for self-expression. Expect to see more on Jam Sessions' song list in the future.

If you've always wanted to be able to sit fireside and strum a guitar to your favorite tunes but don't want to put up with the calluses and the long hours whiling away in the musical woodshed, Jam Sessions might be the game for you and your DS. The game is due for release this June, and we'll be keeping an eye on it in the coming months.

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