The late King of Pop makes it to the 3DS at last.
Typically, things don’t bode well for a game ported to another system a year after its original launch, and this is doubly true when it comes to handhelds. While Michael Jackson: The Experience saw widespread release across all available platforms a year ago, it is just now making its way over to the Nintendo 3DS. Surprisingly, this isn’t a straight port of the DS/PSP version with a little 3D sparkle thrown on for good measure, but rather an entirely new version that sheds the cartoony presentation and Elite Beat Agents-inspired gameplay of those previous handheld offerings for something a bit more serious and challenging. And the game is better for it.
Michael Jackson: The Experience 3D features fifteen of the late King of Pop’s songs, made up mostly of notable hits like Beat It, Billie Jean, Thriller, and Smooth Criminal. The selection of songs, solid as it is, can’t help but feel anemic due to the constraints of the petite 3DS cartridge, and the issue is only exasperated when you consider that fan-favorites such as PYT and Man in the Mirror fail to make an appearance, while lesser-known tracks like Blood on the Dance Floor and Ghosts show up. Still, any fan of Jackson is sure to enjoy a majority of the soundtrack, and the music actually sounds quite good emanating from the 3DS speakers, though the ideal way to play is still with headphones.
The Experience 3D doesn’t make a particularly strong first impression, as it dumps you right away into a bland and mostly uninformative tutorial. After stumbling through a verse of Billie Jean, you are set free to explore all the game has to offer, via a drab and colorless menu screen that has a fully rendered Michael Jackson standing center screen with options on each side of him, as well as above. You swipe the touch screen and Michael reaches out and touches the option, taking you to the next screen while letting out an emphatic “oh!” in the process. It’s functional if nothing else.
There are two places to go from the main screen, either History or Backstage. History gives you access to the list of songs to play, which are all unlocked right from the start and can be enjoyed in any order. Backstage, meanwhile, houses the different bonuses you’ve unlocked (more on those later). While it’s great that every song is available without needing to be earned or discovered, it is unfortunate that there is no real story or campaign mode to play through which might highlight each era of Jackson’s career. Instead, there are three pages of songs to choose from, organized, it appears, at random (though it could be by difficulty).
While the game wouldn’t have wowed you at this point, once you actually pick a song and start playing, things start to improve drastically. Each song begins with a 3D full motion video that recreates notable moments from its music video, whether it’s Jackson walking through a graveyard in Thriller or dancing in a hallway while two rival gangs confront each other in Beat It. The scenes are instantly recognizable to anyone who grew up in the era of the music video, and the man with some of the greatest music videos of all time is well-represented here.
Once the cutscene ends, it’s time to take the reins. As Jackson dances in the top screen, different commands will appear around him, telling the player to swipe the stylus in a certain direction, tap the screen, or draw a half or full circle. Grades are handed out for each completed command based on how close the timing was to the beat of the song, not unlike any other rhythm game. While drawing straight lines with the stylus and tapping the screen are intuitive enough, there is a bit of a learning curve with the variety of circles, and, unfortunately, there is no way to slow songs down to get the timing just right. Still, with practice, the perfection of each gesture will come.
There are also freestyle sections, where the player is able to draw any line or shape as Jackson dances freely around the screen for about 10 seconds or so. On the lower difficulties, these moments will seem like boring interjections that don’t match the tactile joy of, say, playing the drums freely during similar moments in Rock Band. However, they are a godsend in Expert mode, where they serve as a brief reprieve from the near-constant swiping and tapping required at that level.
While the lowest difficulty won’t offer much challenge or reward, playing on medium or expert gets that feeling of being in sync with the music just right, similar to something like Donkey Konga or Guitar Hero, where your movements feel in tune to what’s going on in the song. I found myself bobbing my head and tapping my foot as I began to effortlessly dance my hand around the touch screen, acutely aware of the beat and upcoming changes in time signature. These moments are not isolated or rare; they are a direct result of really getting the controls of the game and the timelessness of the songs.
Unfortunately, while The Experience 3D exudes presentation and can be effortlessly fun, there just isn’t a lot to do in the game outside of playing through the same songs over and over. As mentioned earlier, there is no story or campaign mode, and the only incentives to keep playing are unlocking hidden items and competing with friends’ scores via street pass (there are no online leaderboards). Hidden items can be earned by either reaching a certain cumulative score or completing one of the five challenges for each song, which can range from acceptable requirements like earning a number of points or maintaining a max combo for a certain amount of time to completely asinine demands, like playing the same song 7 times on medium difficulty. This is worsened by the fact that outside of unlocking some interesting alternate outfits or gloves that can be equipped to provide special bonuses while playing, the rest of the hidden items are either useless trophies or music from the soundtrack that you can listen to without playing.
Despite a lack of real longevity, it’s hard not to be impressed with Michael Jackson: The Experience 3D. This game could have been a quick and dirty port of the DS/PSP version, but instead Triumph International really put some effort and care into the game, and it shows. It’s a shame there isn’t more to do, particularly in terms of discovering the history behind Michael Jackson’s rise to fame a la something like The Beatles: Rock Band, but the game is still undeniably fun and rests comfortably as one of the best “casual” experiences available for the surprisingly lacking 3DS.