JAM: Live Music Arcade was released to such little fanfare that you’ll struggle to find someone who’s heard of it. It’s a game which had such confusing pre-release trailers that even if you find someone who has heard of it, they still won’t have much of an idea about what it is. It wasn’t released outside the United States and has the leaderboard figures to prove it; fewer than thirty people had set scores on the game in the first day on sale. In a week when Microsoft have been swooning over downloadable games that sold over half-a-million copies…
While the ill-thought out leaderboards may not accurately reflect JAM’s sales, they’re undoubtedly low. There’s just no getting away from how baffling that pre-release press was. Nobody knows what JAM is.
Think of JAM as being like Rock Band, but not; it’s Rock Band with the player put in charge. The game can be played with a traditional controller but this proves to be so baffling that it’s near impossible to do so. The true fun comes by playing with a guitar controller, which is fine because surely everyone’s got six or seven of those gathering dust by now.
There are two modes, Jam mode and Arcade mode; and the former is where the fun lies. Rather than tasking you with simply playing along to songs, it lets you take an existing song and remix it however you like, in real-time. The soundtrack is varied, featuring dance, indie, hip-hop and everything in-between, with established artists like Panic at the Disco, Fatboy Slim and Modest Mouse alongside those you’ll have never heard of. Regardless, each song is perfect for the platform.
Once you’ve chosen your track, you’re shown a screen with five “banks” (one for each fret button on the guitar controller) with each bank containing five samples. By pressing fret buttons and strumming up, you can turn a bank, or multiple banks, on. By pressing a fret button and strumming down, you can start or stop samples playing in whatever banks are currently turned on. That’s about it, but it is massively satisfying. A metronome ticks across all the time to keep you in rhythm and, if you manage to stay in time, no matter what you turn on and off the songs have a habit of sounding excellent. Isolating the vocals in your favourite song and then layering in a soft drum beat and some dreamy sounding guitars and just seeing how it goes, it’s something you can happily sit and do for hours – there’s no time limit on Jam mode, so really can do that too. The session only ends when you make it fade out, or you can start recording at any time and it ends when you tell it to stop.
You’re scored for changing banks and samples, and there’s a multiplier if you change on time, but this is entirely arbitrary during this mode. There are no leaderboards and with a song not ending until you decide to, you could set an infinite score if you so desired. It seems like an afterthought, something to gamify an experience that had no need for it.
Never is that more apparent than in Arcade mode, JAM’s other half. If Jam mode is music game heaven, then Arcade mode is music game hell.
Here you can choose to play a song or one of your own remixes which you recorded in Jam mode. It utilises all the same controls, but now instead of playing around with the song, you have to actually play the song. Prompts appear on screen and you have to switch banks at the right time and then, with the right banks activated, play the corect notes. In practice that sounds fine, which is funny, because practice is something you’re going to need to do a hell of a lot.
Part of the problem is that the controls are not particularly intuitive. The reason they work in Jam mode is because of the pressure-free environment. It doesn’t matter if you press the wrong button because the worst that can happen is that you discover a new combination of sounds. In Arcade mode you have to press the right button at the right time and not only is that hard, but the interface is unclear and it’s difficult to know what you’ve got selected, what buttons you’re holding down, and what the game wants you to be pressing.
Add to this a bizarre quirk whereby the worse you play, the harder the game becomes, and you have a mode which becomes very frustrating very quickly. Prompts travel vertically up the screen and must be played when they cross a bar towards the top. As you miss notes, the bar moves down the screen and when it reaches the bottom, you fail. This means that the more notes you miss, the less time there is between a note appearing and you having to play it. Eventually notes appear and must be hit within a fraction of a second. It’s simply not possible and means recovery is completely out of the question. Practicing the same song over and over again is key, and it’s just not as immediate or as fun a game as something like Rock Band.
Perhaps Arcade mode isn’t important though. Indeed, the mode isn’t even available until all the tutorials in Jam mode are completed and even then the leaderboards don’t track scores for individual songs, just the total score across all songs, so there’s very little to compel the player to complete or improve their performances on songs in this mode.
JAM: Live Music Arcade certainly works very well in Jam mode. If you’ve ever wanted to break a song down into tiny bits and remix it at your leisure, that’s exactly what’s on offer here and the choice of tracks is perfectly suited to that activity. That’s not a game however, it’s more just a toy to play with, and all attempts to gamify the experience fail entirely. The next Rock Band it isn’t, but it is a console music experience like no other.