I’m BAD! I’m bad. I’m really really bad!
Ah Michael Jackson. The King of Pop. One of the most talented and fascinating people the world has ever seen. Some may say “What a waste” as he tragically died due to his negligent doctor back in 2009. An artist so famous and reported in the media so heavily he was mentioned in 15% (about 5000, thanks wikipedia) tweets after his death, with his music selling 35 million albums in the twelve months post-death, and a record breaking 2.6 million of his songs were downloaded in a single week in 2009, making him the best selling artist of the year. Like Princess Diana or 9/11 it ranks has one of those defining moments in history that is so significant most will remember where they were and what they were doing (I was having a cigarette with my now husband outside of a bar in Manchester while thinking the person who told us was playing porkies). As record labels always seem to do in memory of the stars that filled their pockets, Michael Jackson suddenly became relevant again and received a string of re-releases and his very own game across nearly every platform in existence: Michael Jackon: The Experience (MJE). The console and handheld versions of MJE are quite different in that the console versions require you to dance and sometimes sing a la Dance Central or Just Dance whereas the DS version featured tapping the bottom screen in a similar fashion to Elite Beat Agents. The PSP version featured using the buttons on a timeline to the beat, whereas the Vita version however is unique from all of the other versions as instead of playing out like the DS or PSP games, the Vita has you follow a series of taps, swipes and swirls on screen (still with me?).
Originally released as a slightly cheaper launch title, MJE contains 15 of the greatest hits that Michael Jackson released. Herein lies the first problem. Coming fresh from playing DJMAX Technika TUNE (which features 67 songs), 15 just feels like nothing. The console releases had nearly double this amount and the file size isn’t an issue (it’s less than 1.5GB), so my only assumption is perhaps they ran out of time as it was a launch title and as a result few songs were included. The actual list of songs is very good however with a wide range of Michael’s hits spread across his entire career, though there are a few baffling omissions such as Man in the Mirror which is missed. I’m not a huge follower of Michael Jackon (a lot of his work was released when I was very young) and to my surprise I did find a couple of songs in there I hadn’t heard. Ghost in particular I really enjoyed, but the second issue is that there were a few songs included that I just wasn’t that into. As you can imagine, if there were more songs it would be less of an issue, but I found myself having to play songs I wasn’t too keen on over and over; hardly an enjoyable experience.
The main game mode in MJE is called “HIStory”. Each song in MJE has a set of five challenges attached to them which need to be completed in order to unlock more content and gain experience. Every song is available from the start and can be played as easy, medium or hard. As you gain points from each song your experience increases and you can level up your progression. Challenges range from getting above a certain number of points, to performing a set number of perfect shapes in a row or simply for things like playing a song seven (yes seven!) times on a certain difficulty. Initially I found I had quite a bit of fun with the way MJE plays. As I’ve said before, the game involves tapping the screen with one or two fingers, swiping the screen in a direction or drawing semi-circles or full circles as the prompts appear on screen. Each song has at least one or two CG sequences (often at the beginning or middle) that basically play out the music video, and they all have “freestyle” sections where you can draw any shape or tap you like to get extra points in the section. While I found both of these features good at first I rapidly began to hate them. The CG sequences end up feeling like unskippable cut scenes and the freestyle sections appear too often and disrupt the flow of the game. On the harder difficulties where you’re tasked with often drawing shapes in a rapid succession or with both fingers at the same time it just feels awkward to then have to (very, very slowly) draw your own shapes or watch a clip from the music video. The freestyle sections are even more annoying as if you don’t wait for Michael’s animation to finish when the game has registered your move, you then have to draw it again, having wasted valuable time.
To further add to the frustration of things, the difficulty feels completely off. Easy mode is so easy it’s genuinely boring, medium ups things enough for you to have fun but quickly also becomes too easy once you’ve adjusted to how the game works, and hard mode isn’t that hard. Even more annoying is the fact that some songs on medium are harder than other songs on hard, so how difficult the song is is often pot luck. Making things worse still, while the game actually does a very admirable job of registering your swipes and shapes on easier difficulties when the inputs are spaced further apart (you can draw any sized gesture you fancy, anywhere on screen), on hard mode I frequently found the game just couldn’t keep up with the input that is required and as a result it would say “wrong shape” when it clearly wasn’t. In a game based on high scores and combos this ends up incredibly frustrating to have the game fail you for something you haven’t done wrong. Some of the challenges are also linked to performing combos and perfect shapes on expert difficulty and these become frustrating to achieve rather than challenging. There are also some challenges that are only unlocked via multiplayer mode (which I was unable to test because it’s ad-hoc only) which means those of you looking for a platinum here better have a mate who also bought MJE thinking it would be good.
MJE does have a few different costumes you can unlock and also gloves which serve as boosters. Some challenges require you to work out the “secret freestyle sequence” which is basically impossible without a guide as they involve several swipes in a specific order, meaning the odds of you guessing it are akin to getting five numbers on the lottery; hardly enjoyable (though the lottery would be!). Perhaps it may sound like I’ve been overly harsh on MJE as there is fun to be had here, but you’ll be lucky to enjoy it for more than a couple of hours if you’re anything less than a Michael Jackson obsessed person. The fact that challenges unlock things like special effects and backing dancers to the songs does give you something to aim for and the graphics and animations are actually very well done but it really feels like much too little, much too late. The bare song list, lack of online multiplayer, stupid challenges, lack of accuracy on higher difficulties, freestyle and CG sequences and the grindquest that is levelling up to maximum (another trophy requirement) absolutely kill the experience (no pun intended) it could have been. While MJE for Vita does at least have it’s own unique spin on the rhythm game genre, the fun is absolutely quashed by the lack of variety and ridiculous design attempts to try and lengthen an already very short game. I bought it in the sale at under a fiver and to be honest I’m not even sure it was money well spent (and I love music games and was looking forward to playing this one). If you absolutely have to have a music game on Vita, do yourself a service and get DJMAX Technika TUNE or Project Diva f (import review coming soon). If you live in America you could also try the back catalogues of DJMAX for the PSP which have never seen a EU release on the Playstation Network. Or get a console music game. Just don’t get this unless you listen to Michael Jackon’s music every single day. The King of Pop would be turning in his grave.