Jam Sessions is not a game. There are no high scores, no 1-ups to be found, and you can never die. You see, Jam Sessions lets you turn your DS into an acoustic guitar. There's really not much more to it than that. Those waiting for a Guitar Hero clone will need to keep waiting, but people looking for a neat piece of software to help them with their songwriting or to scratch the guitar-playing itch when there's no guitar around will be satisfied with Jam Sessions.
Here's how it works. The bottom screen has a horizontal string going across it that represents the six strings of a guitar. You strum your "guitar" by strumming the stylus up or down. Strumming down will play the chord starting from the low E string, while strumming up starts with the high E string--just like on a real guitar. Strumming without pressing a direction results in a muted strum. Chords are mapped to the eight directions of the D pad, and all you have to do to play a chord is hold a direction while you strum. It takes a few minutes to get used to the mechanics, but once you do, they work well. It can be tough to hit the diagonal chords with 100 percent accuracy, but you can always remap the buttons to limit the number of times you'll have the chance to screw up.
An additional eight chords can be selected by holding the left shoulder button down; this brings up eight more chords for a maximum of 16 per song. When you're not in the free-play mode, you can map chords to specific directions, as well as swap out preset chords for different ones. There are 120 different chords to choose from, which is a nice amount, but there are still enough missing that you might have to get creative when trying to play some songs. You can only save two palettes, but it doesn't take long to change them up, so it's not a huge limitation. There are other options that can be changed as well. You can add effects, such as delay and distortion, change from righty to lefty mode, swap backgrounds, or tweak the strum responsiveness.
So what do you do? That's up to you. You can write your own songs and record up to five of them on the cartridge. If you have some guitar tabs (chord progressions for songs that can be found online fairly easily), you can play just about any song you like. Or you can play one of the 17 songs included in the software, such as Blind Melon's "No Rain," Coldplay's "Yellow," Bob Marley's "No Woman No Cry," and Nirvana's "Man Who Sold the World." Yes, we know "Man Who Sold the World" is originally a David Bowie song, but the game gives Nirvana the love. There are actually 20 songs listed in the manual, but "Wild Thing," Tom Petty's "Needles and Pins," and Brad Paisley's "I'm Gonna Miss Her" are supposedly only available if you buy the game from certain retailers. Input up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, from the free-play screen, and they're all yours. Thanks Konami code!
Too bad unlocking a few new songs doesn't add much to the overall experience. Essentially, all the songs are the chord progressions you can sing along to with lyrics. Unless you know the song well, it's going to be difficult to play here, even with the metronome on, as well as helpful markings showing you when and in what direction to strum. This is because the lyrics are all on the left side of the top screen and not placed with the beat on which they fall. The first 10 songs have a demo that you can listen to, but for some reason that's not available for the other songs. The manual says that it's because you should be good enough after learning the first 10 tunes, but it just feels like the developer got lazy.
The feeling that more could have been done pops up frequently during Jam Sessions. There's no technical reason you shouldn't be able to record your own voice because the DS has a built-in microphone, but the game doesn't allow it. There are only 20 songs included, half of which even have self-playing demos, so there should have been more songs included or perhaps a way to go online to download tabs. Other than a metronome, there isn't any way to play along with rhythm or drums. It also would be nice to build your own chords, but you can't do that either. Some more structure would have been nice and would have given you a reason to come back every day, like with Brain Age. Even with these oversights or omissions, Jam Sessions is a useful and unique bit of software, so it's hard to get too down on it.
The extremely basic visuals in Jam Sessions don't do its presentation any favors, but it does keep things simple and easy to use. Of course, looks don't really matter here--it's all about the audio. The good news is your guitar actually sounds like a guitar here; albeit a very quiet one. You'll really want to play with headphones or with your DS plugged into speakers or an amp. While the basic acoustic guitar sounds fine, the additional effects don't sound very good at all, so you'll probably fiddle with them once and then forget they exist.
Jam Sessions is a neat idea, but it's going to appeal to a very small group of people. Musicians and wannabe musicians looking for another creative outlet will likely get a lot out of the "game," but it's not for everyone.