16 Oct, 2007

Jam Sessions Review

DS Review | Take the band on the road, baby.
When is a game not a game? When it's art, apparently. Games like Electroplankton and Line Rider have pushed the boundaries of what we understand as a 'game' by removing the ability to 'win' - instead, as with any real sandbox, creativity's the order of the day. Sounds good, right? Unlimited freedom, unrestrained creativity, and play free of boundaries? Unfortunately, the most common side effect of such unfettered freedom is ironically one of boredom - while one's free to do whatever they want, the game still operates within a (normally) highly limited set of hard and fast rules. For the vast majority of people, once the player exhausts exploring the dynamics of these rules, the game is effectively 'over' - enjoyment comes from discovery, not creation. And, in a nutshell, that's the dilemma that faces Jam Sessions.

On paper, it's a brilliant concept. Developed by Plato, published by Ubisoft, and originally known as Sing & Play DS Guitar M-06 (Hiite Utaeru DS Guitar M-06) in Japan, Jam Sessions gives players the ability to take their guitar on the road. Without the guitar or amplifier, of course. In what's arguably one of the more creative uses of the touchscreen on the Nintendo DS, players use the touchscreen to strum while selecting chords using the d-pad. And, that's pretty much the beginning and end of it - there's no competition as such, there's minimal guidance beyond some sample songs, and there's no multiplayer to speak of. Be warned - Guitar Hero or Elite Beat Agents, this isn't.

What it is is a surprisingly creative tool. The controls manage to offer surprising depth while somehow missing out on the necessary breadth. First, the good. The six strings are represented by a single horizontal string strung across the bottom screen. Strumming without selecting a chord creates a muted strum, strumming up while selecting a chord starts it from the high E, and strumming down starts from the low E. Up to eight chords can be mapped to each of the directions of d-pad, with an additional eight chords available through holding down left shoulder pad button. The strength of the strum is controlled by the speed at which the stylus is moved across the string.

Play that gee-tar, dude.

Play that gee-tar, dude.
To mix things up a little, players can also access a two-stage sound effects path to apply various acoustic transformations including distortion, a low pass filter, a high pass filter, delay, chorus, flanger, and tremolo. Each can be applied separately or together, and each offers various tuning options to further customise the sound. While six effects chains can be stored in memory, only one can be accessed while playing through the right shoulder pad button. Shortcuts can also be defined, but they only provide fast access to the menu screens. It’s also worth mentioning that players can select alternative background themes, even though it’s purely aesthetic and has no impact on sound reproduction.

While the game comes with a tutorial, for the most part it steps the player through the obvious. The core mechanics of holding down a chord, learning to strum up and down, and keeping time are covered through the use of tutorial songs with sample music. Once these are understood, the player is set free to either play through the sample songs included in the game or simply jam away in free play mode. Each of the sample songs include basic notation describing the chords and strum direction. Some, though not all, even include sample music to help learn how they should be played.

Play it again, Sam.

Play it again, Sam.
The included songs are a rather hit and miss affair. While there’s such playables as ‘Yellow’ by Coldplay and ‘No Woman, No Cry’ by Bob Marley, there’s also a smattering of Beck, The Fray, Nirvana, Avril Lavinge, Johnny Cash, Cheap Trick, and The Jackson 5. It’s a rather strange assortment, probably driven by licensing restrictions more than anything else. It’s quite a significant shame that on one hand the developers didn’t include a greater selection (especially given the small storage requirements for chord notation), as well as on the other that they didn’t go for a more ‘thematic’ selection.

Once players feel comfortable with their musical abilities, it’s time to perform. By using the microphone input and headphone output together, the idea is to play live through an amplifier, stereo, or other loudspeaker system. Taking this idea a step further, there’s even apparently plans for a bundle to be released in the US in early December that includes a small amplifier and various ‘picks’. While there’s no ability to play backing from anything other than the included songs, the intention is apparently to allow players the ability to play along with their favourite songs. The game even includes pitch controls to ensure accompaniment is calibrated to the source material. While up to five songs can be recorded onto the cartridge itself, it unfortunately only offers the ability to record the music, not the voice track. So, while it’s a nice capture system, one can’t feel that it could have been so much more.

Tune it, tweak it, crank it, record it.

Tune it, tweak it, crank it, record it.
And that, fundamentally, is the feeling after having spent a few hours playing around with Jam Sessions. It’s creative, it’s novel, and it’s ingenious. It offers composers a unique way to practice and create when away from their guitar, which, if you’re like most people, is the vast majority of the time. However, it’s missing functions which would have been really appreciated. There are no multi-track recording capabilities, so it’s impossible to create a backing track and create a one-man band. There’s no ability to play individual strings which, while understandable given the feature set the game comes with, is an unfortunate exclusion – given the game was designed to allow players to play accompaniment with existing source material, it would have been nice to be able to play both rhythm and lead. Especially in a ‘multi-player’ environment, so to speak.

Jam Sessions is likely destined to be one of those games that polarise gamers. And, unfortunately, scoring it as a traditional game really does miss the point - the true tragedy is that while games like that are unlikely ever to do well in traditional reviews, the industry as a whole is screaming for boundary shifting 'games' such as this. Those that appreciate what it offers will revel in its freedom. However, what is offers is unfortunately neither comprehensive enough to thoroughly satisfy a true composer nor entertaining enough to satisfy the casual gamer.

With no game in the game, so to speak, it's unlikely to appeal to most. If you’re a guitarist, on the other hand, Jam Sessions is truly an interesting proposition – carrying a guitar on the bus to practice rhythm can be somewhat difficult, not to mention potentially painful to the passengers sitting around you. While it’s not quite the same, it’s close enough to be a serviceable companion. And, it’s worth bearing in mind when considering the overall score – Jam Sessions is more of a tool than a game. You may not break it out by the campfire at night with your friends, but then again, you actually might.
The Score
While a score isn't really fair to a game like this (one wouldn't score a hammer for its ability to entertain), it has to be acknowledged that this isn't a 'game' as such. So, while it's an excellent package worthy of further investigation for those interested in music, it's likely to be quite a disappointment to those interested in buying a game.
Looking to buy this game right now? PALGN recommends www.Play-Asia.com.

Related Jam Sessions Content

LGC 07: Jam Sessions tracklist announced
22 Aug, 2007 Jackson 5, Coldplay, The Fray and more.
Jam Sessions Preview
28 May, 2007 We see how we can jam on the go.
Ubisoft announces Jam Sessions for DS
17 Apr, 2007 A guitar game with touch screen controls.
6 years ago
I bought this 'game' and ended up returning before the week was out. its not that it was bad, just not what I was expecting. There is no individual notes, just all chords. So I figured if you just learnt the chords on a guitar it would be pretty much the same except the real thing.

Its a great idea as a concept, but I think if you could somehow configure individual notes into the software, then we could be soloing i=on lead rather than strumming on rhythm.
6 years ago
Good for the music enthusiasts. I bought it and love it, but casual gamers and such are to steer clear.
6 years ago
Good review and I've got to agree with the final score. Like nihilcreative I bought this game but ended up returning it after a hour or so of playing around with it. If you have a guitar there is no real point in getting this except for using the chords to the songs which you could play on your real guitar (but then again you could just get the chords from online). And then on top of that the song collection is very hit and miss, I found myself loving the first couple of songs but as I went further down the song list they seemed to get worse and worse. Not bad for a first guitar app though I spose.
6 years ago
I feel sorry for anyone who buys this thinking it's suppose to be like Guitar Hero
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  Pre-order or buy:
    PALGN recommends: www.Play-Asia.com

Australian Release Date:
  27/09/2007 (Confirmed)
Standard Retail Price:
  $69.95 AU
  UBI Soft
Year Made:

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