Q&A: Miyamoto plays up Wii Music

Legendary designer tells press round table about the theory behind and the practice of the last of the "big four" nontraditional games for Nintendo's console.

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The conductor is in.
The conductor is in.

When Wii Music was first shown to the public at Nintendo's press conference at the 2006 Electronic Entertainment Expo, the reception was exultant. Hundreds of adoring fans and semi-sycophantic reporters cheered as Shigeru Miyamoto took the stage in a white bow tie and tails, conducting an orchestra of Mii avatars. The game he was playing was Wii Music, a then-mystery-shrouded game that let gamers play music with their Wii Remotes.

Just more than three years later, Nintendo again assembled selected fans and journalists to see Wii Music at its 2008 E3 press conference. The result could not have been more different. After a lengthy presentation emphasizing earnings over game announcements--with the big exceptions of Wii Sports Resort, Guitar Hero Decades, and Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars--Nintendo executives joined Miyamoto onstage for a Wii Music jam session. The resulting rendition of the theme to the NES classic Super Mario Bros. was diplomatically described as discordant by some outlets, and was a big factor in Game Informer magazine giving the event a grade of D.

Concerns that Wii Music wouldn't be a hit were somewhat alleviated when it debuted on top of the Media-Create sales charts in Japan, selling nearly 92,000 copies the week after its debut. However, the reception hasn't been so warm on the other side of the Pacific, where the game has received an average 63 (out of 100) rating on Metacritic. GameSpot's own write-up summarized the game as being "fun and charming, but it's also simple and shallow." Variety described it thusly: "While it is a good way for individuals to learn different musical styles, Wii Music lacks the simplicity and vicarious thrills of Guitar Hero and Rock Band."

Unsurprisingly, Miyamoto feels differently. After being honored at the Entertainment Software Association's 11th annual Nite to Unite event, the mind behind many Nintendo initiatives from Donkey Kong to the Wii itself sat down with a small group of reporters to play up Wii Music.

Miyamoto began by offering faint praise to other rhythm games such as Guitar Hero and Beatmania. (Apparently Rock Band did not warrant a mention.) After saying that he liked playing both, he said he "often found that the enjoyment I got out of them was very different than the enjoyment I got out of playing music itself." He went on to compare the two to being in a tribute band, which is judged merely on the skill of replicating music crafted by others.

"A lot of people start off in cover bands, but people can only go so far in a cover band," Miyamoto said via a translator. "It's only when people start creating their own music and sharing it with others that they really grow. The same can be said for classical music training, since you're trying to play sheet music as accurately as possibly. However, when they start playing that music and sharing it with other people, they really start to grow."

Miyamoto continued: "So, as a game designer, I looked at Beatmania and Guitar Hero. Those games let people be the best cover band they could possibly be. As a musician, I wanted to create a game that let people express themselves in music, and with Wii Music I think we achieved that."

Indeed, rather than reward those with the fleetest fingers, Miyamoto designed Wii Music is as an introduction to the art of music itself. He has been actively promoting it as a learning tool in elementary schools in Japan, saying that it would be a much more appealing way to turn children onto music than traditional analog instruments.

"I think if we're able to introduce kids to the joy of music from the outset, maybe they'll be more interested in studying it throughout their life. … When you try and express yourself through music, there are several challenges," he explained. "The first is physical, since if you can't play a music instrument, you can't play the music itself. The second is being able to actually play the music as it should sound. A lot of people don't have those skills, and as such are missing out on the joy of musical activity."

Though Wii Music lacks the flashy cover songs of Guitar Hero--the most recognizable pop track in Miyamoto's demo was an instrumental version of "Every Breath You Take" by The Police-- Miyamoto believes that the game will help potential musicians leapfrog the frustrating early stages of learning an instrument. "Another way to phrase it is that I can't dance, but if someone could create some kind of technology which would help me dance better, I would buy it," he said. "Unfortunately that technology doesn't exist yet, but that's what I think we did with Wii Music. I've been playing music since college, but that doesn't mean I'm a good musician. However, I was able to get up in front of 1,000 people and play this instrument," said Miyamoto, pointing to Wii Music as the "instrument."

Indeed, Miyamoto openly acknowledges that Wii Music might not be a game at all. "A lot of time people ask me, 'Is this really a game?' I don't know how to answer that," mused the game designer. "Maybe a better way to describe it is as a new musical instrument. For example, if a family gets a piano, everyone is going to try it out. They're going to hit the keys, but what they're making isn't actually music. With Wii Music, everyone in the house can pick it up and, within a few minutes, start playing music. … Wii Music lets people experience that higher level of musical creation without having to spend years training."

Miyamoto went on to show off the variety of rhythmic weapons in Wii Music's arsenal. The game has 60 "instruments" including piano, vibraphone, bass, and several types of guitar. It also includes less conventional instruments such as turntables and clapping. It also features several Wii Music avatars-called "toots"--as instruments, either rapping phrases like "Yo! Yo! Check it!", playing castanets and shouting "Ole!", or barking in a dog suit.

The game lets players arrange the instruments in up to six-person-strong bands, and then pick and arrange one of 60 songs. Miyamoto said the tracklist, which is the same in all territories, was selected on the basis of familiarity. He wanted every track to be recognizable as soon as people heard it, so as to allow them to arrange it more easily.

"We weren't able to go with more popular music because of the chord progression, which eventually combines the melody and the harmony," he said. "This time around, we wanted to make it easy for people." He also said that the reason the game includes only three Nintendo game theme songs was because he wanted it to appeal to nongamers.

Ultimately, Miyamoto sees Wii Music as more of "musical arrangement engine" than a game. It lets players tweak familiar tunes by preselecting one of a dozen musical styles, ranging from rock to Latin to Hawaiian. To demonstrate, he selected the French song "Frere Jacques" and proceeded to play it in a reggae version, with steel drums and a space-y "galactic guitar." He then switched to a Japanese arrangement, replete with a flute, taiko drums, and two shamisens.

However, Miyamoto's ambition reaches beyond mere living-room composers. He hopes that, as the last of the "Big Four" Wii games intended to appeal to nongamers, Wii Music will help designers of traditional games expand their horizons much like Wii Sports, Wii Play, and Wii Fit have done.

"We didn't look at the question of whether or not it would appeal to core gamers or casual gamers," elaborated the designer. "It really depends on one's interest in music, not their interest in games. If you're the type of person who taps your feet to a song, I think this will interest you."

That said, Miyamoto believes that Wii Music will prove as time-intensive as any other offering. "I think you'll find people who are as hardcore playing Wii Music as any other game," he said. "I have found that, as a single player, you can spend over three hours arranging a single song. Since there's 50 songs, simple math tells you that you can spend 150 hours playing it--and that's just by yourself. I am actually getting concerned about how much I'm playing it!"

When asked what his next project was, Miyamoto grew pensive. "We've learned that what a game console can do has been broadened," he said in closing. "I'm always looking at what a game console can bring to entertainment as a whole, in a wide variety of different audiences." He then threw a bone to Nintendo loyalists, adding, "We're not forgetting we need to keep making Zelda games, though!"

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