Wii Music E3 Hands-on Preview

Wii Music is probably not what you expect it to be.

It's definitely not a rhythm game—at least, not in the way that Rock Band and Guitar Hero are rhythm games. It's a consequence-free environment in which you and up to three other friends participate in jam sessions where the only goal is to... well, jam.

No scrolling note indicators, no notes. Just you, your Wii Remote and Nunchuk, and as much flailing about as you can handle.

"There are no mistakes," says Nintendo in its Wii Music press release. "Just playing for the pure joy of playing."

As the latest in Nintendo's Wii- line (Wii Sports, Wii Fit, Wii Play), Wii Music is designed to appeal to a broad demographic, and part of that is reducing the experience down to its simplest, most basic elements. With over 60 instruments in tow, it's likely to be one of the system's biggest successes, but it's not a game, nor is it a tool. It's a toy, euphemistic though that may sound.

In my time with Wii Music, I was able to sample the game's jam and drum modes, both of which were demonstrated on stage at Nintendo's E3 press conference. The first was simple enough: select a song, select an instrument, and simply pretend to play. The song in question was the Super Mario Bros. theme, and while Koji Kondo's immortal anthem was one that I knew as well as I know my own name, somehow I managed to suck at Wii Music's jam mode.

Here's the rub: while the melody is permanently etched into my brain, the backing instrumentals of the music were not. And though the game touts play for the pure joy of playing, there's something to be said about knowing what to play, and playing successfully—hitting a particularly difficult string of notes in Rock Band or hammering out a solo on Guitar Hero is satisfying because those tasks are, in the end, an accomplishment.

Without any risk of failure, Wii Music does away with note tracks or any other sort of guided experience, telling you what must be done lest you get slapped with a game over screen. I can see how a lot of folks would find such an experience supremely liberating, but somehow—I blame this wooden, cynical heart of mine—I couldn't enjoy it.

I flailed about, playing notes that I knew weren't appropriately timed, and Wii Music wouldn't even let me fail. My awful music-making was complemented by fills that stuck out like sore thumbs. In a social element with a few beers in me, I could see myself having a great time, but alone? It was like being coddled by an overprotective, overbearing parent that refused to lose its child to the icy tendrils of failure. Or something.

My introduction to the drum kit mode was similarly disappointing—despite a flashy debut at the conference, Wii Music's drum kit is no replacement for a real set of skins, or even one of the new electronic kits aimed for release in Harmonix's Rock Band 2 or Neversoft's Guitar Hero World Tour.

Taking a page from the drum minigames in Nintendo's Japan-only Rhythm Tengoku (GBA), what drum you hit is designated by the press of a button. Holding the Z button on the Nunchuk while swinging it, for example, hits the snare drum with the left hand, while holding the C button aims for the left cymbal. Similar controls are mapped to the Wii Remote itself.

There are plenty of more activities and modes not demonstrated at this year's conference, and we'll likely see many of them trickle out in the months leading up to the game's holiday release. For the moment, Wii Music appears to be on track to make a huge splash, but rhythm fans will likely need not apply—for all its flash, Wii Music is a toy just like Nintendo's Electroplankton (NDS), but one whose hardware advantages don't seem as well implemented as they could have been.

Wii Music arrives this holiday season.