With dancing games being the new trend in rhythm-based gaming, it seems only right that we get a dancing game revolving around Michael Jackson. After all, he is one of the few artists who has wowed audiences with both his music and his on-stage performances, constantly selling out stadiums and tours worldwide years after his last album was made. Regardless of how you feel about him personally, few would argue that he is one of the few musicians who deserve a game with his music and his alone. Taking up the challenge of making that game is Ubisoft, publisher and developer of Just Dance, the wildly successful dancing game series on the Wii. Based on what they've learned from that series, is it enough to make Michael Jackson: The Experience a masterpiece, or is it something that's only good enough for fans?
The concept of the game is quite simple. Select one of the Michael Jackson songs from the available catalog and dance away as if you were dancing in front of a mirror. Like any rhythm game, the closer you can mimic the moves with the right timing, the better your score will be. Once the song finishes, your score will be tallied, and you can select another song to play.
The game is very light when it comes to mode variety, as there are only two gameplay modes. Dance mode lets you select any one of the 27 available songs, and the selection is fairly deep. While it isn't every song in his catalog, the game makes an effort to include songs from the first post-Jackson 5 album Off The Wall to HIStory, his second-to-last album before passing. While every song gives you the ability to dance as Michael himself, some songs let you have the choice of dancing as either his partner or background dance crew instead. At the end of each song, your score gives you a certain amount of stars which, in turn, are used to unlock videos in Dance School, the game's other mode. Dance School won't let you practice any moves, though. Instead, you get instructional videos that teach you how to perform some of Michael's more complicated moves from his videos.
Since the engine is more or less the same as Just Dance, this game carries with it both the strengths and weaknesses of that title. On the plus side, the dances take a good chunk of iconic sequences from the videos for those selected songs. Anyone who's ever seen the videos for songs like "Bad," "Smooth Criminal," or "Thriller" will instantly recognize the moves when they see them, and the fact that these moves are in the game indicates that the developers refused to dumb down things to ensure a more accessible title. Everything is also unlocked as far as songs are concerned, so if you play this game at a party, you can immediately pop it in without worrying about having a few tunes missing.
On the negative side, the dance cues are still limited. They show up once a new move is introduced, but if one move is repeated, there is no indicator to inform you of that. It's better to try and mimic the dancer regardless of the cues, at which point the cues become useless. The game only uses one remote to detect movement, and since neither the game nor the system support a camera peripheral, the only moves that really count are the ones belonging to your right hand. While the developers have smartly given each on-screen dancer one sparkling glove to indicate which movements are really important, it makes you realize that the system just isn't capable of fully supporting full-on dance, and you can really cheat the system with any type of movements on the right hand. Judging by the success of the music games Ubisoft has had so far, though, it seems that few will ever be bothered by this.
For a game like this, the music must be perfect, and this is where the game runs into some hiccups. For the most part, the library of available songs not only represents some of the more iconic tunes from Michael's library but also the most danceable ones. Tracks like "In The Closet" and "Wanna Be Startin' Something" are just two examples of very danceable songs in the game, while finding someone who doesn't at least nod his head to "Rock With You" is a Herculean task. However, there are some questionable song choices here. Songs like "Dirty Diana" and "Speed Demon" may not exactly be good party songs, but there is the chance that someone might have heard of it before and want to dance to it. Other songs like "Will You Be There" and "Heal The World," though, are meant more as ballads, so dancing to them isn't a logical thing to do. Even if the developers decided to be bold and make those routines into interpretive dance, there are a few songs here that aren't danceable, no matter how good they are.
Those who have played any entry in the Just Dance series will instantly be familiar with the graphical style in this game. It still uses video of a person dancing, and saturated colors mask them, though it seems more defined now because of the use of more color and a higher resolution. Backgrounds are also much livelier, and while you aren't seeing the actual music video in the background, the renditions of those backdrops add some life to the scene, especially when they feature minimal animations like scene changes, color changes, or some light smoke. What will amaze, though, is the dancing itself. The performers nail each iconic performance rather well, and even though you know that Michael didn't participate in the game development, seeing the quality of the pieces for "Beat It," "Billie Jean" and "Remember the Time" will make you realize the talent of these stand-ins.
Michael Jackson: The Experience falls short of being a great dancing title because of its own faults and that of the system on which it's running. With dances as complicated as the ones presented here, the system of limited cues won't cut it, and once the player discovers that the only moves that count are the ones involving the right hand, the appeal is watered down. While the some of the musical selections are excellent, there are some good songs that don't lend themselves to any sort of dancing. It is still an entertaining experience, though, and while Jackson fans will no doubt like what they see, Just Dance fans who are familiar with the overall system will likely appreciate it a little more.
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