JAM Live Music Arcade
Developer: Zivix LLS
Publisher: 505 Studios
Release Date: 05/16/12
Rhythm games, while not part of the most popular genre on the market, generally manage to be some of the most accessible and enjoyable games available, when handled correctly. The Guitar Hero and Rock Band franchises, and Dance Dance Revolution and Karaoke Revolution games before those, offered gamers a chance to play around and pretend to be a singer/dancer/musician in the arcade or the comfort of their own living room, and they were fun for a wide range of people. Even if you were incredibly musically untalented it didn’t matter, you could have a blast with friends who were, thanks to variable difficulties, and the truly skilled players always had options to challenge themselves at the same time. Sadly, at this point, most of the notable rhythm franchises are on their downswing; DDR and Karaoke Revolution are basically out of favor, Guitar Hero has been shelved and Harmonix seems content to release new songs for Rock Band 3 over any new games at this point. That doesn’t mean there’s not room for the right developer to come along and innovate a bit, of course, and games like Rocksmith and Dance Central have shown that there’s still some life left in the market, even if the staple franchises have slowed down a bit. If the right game comes along, there’s always the possibility of parting someone from their money by giving them the chance to pretend they can sing, dance, or make music. JAM Live Music Arcade attempts to give players this chance by allowing them to remix songs, using various different track elements to assemble their own versions of existing tracks and assembling beats as they wish. It’s a novel idea in theory, and with the right elements in place it could be a lot of fun… but it’s not in this case, unfortunately.
JAM Live Music Arcade is entirely absent of plot, so it falls to the game modes to hold up the experience. There are two major game modes to the product: Jam mode, which starts off available for play, and Arcade mode, which you unlock after completing the challenges in Jam mode. Both modes offer you the same basic selection of songs, but how they handle the actual mechanics of play are a bit different. In Jam mode, you’re assembling your own mixes of songs, using the different instrument banks available to put together your own ideal mix of a chosen song while trying to score points. In Arcade mode, rather, blocks of tracks rise out of their banks and you have to switch between banks and turn on the appropriate tracks when they reach a horizontal bar on the screen. The game lacks any sort of multiplayer, or online component to speak of outside of general leaderboards, leaving these two modes as the only things you can do with the game at all. While there’s the option of DLC at some point down the line as well, none is available yet, and while there’s a decent variety to the track list, at only thirty plus songs you’ll go through it fairly quickly, so there’s not a lot here, options-wise, to start with.
JAM Live Music Arcade looks solid enough and does some things that are visually pleasant. The gameplay environment looks similar to how one would expect a simplified sequencer to look, and the different backgrounds are well animated and look very nice and quite different from one another. The menus are also clean and fit the theme of the experience well enough that you can work with them. There’s nothing especially exciting to the visuals, mind you, and the game lacks the sort of personality of other games in the genre, but what it does works acceptably enough all told. Aurally, the sound effects outside of song composition and playback fit the experience well enough, but the star of the show is the song list, and it’s… okay. Part of the problem is the sheer lack of notable tracks in the game; in the thirty two tracks provided, the “identifiable” artists can be counted on one hand. You’ve got Fatboy Slim, Fall Out Boy, Filter, Owl City, Modest Mouse and Lipps, Inc, marking less than one-fifth of the artist list as “identifiable”, and of those artists, the tracks are either virtually unknown or overplayed. Now, that wouldn’t be a big issue, in theory, if the remainder of the tracks worked within the confines of the “remixing songs” concept, but while a lot of the dance/electronic tracks work well enough, everything else sounds weird in this context a lot of the time, and as so many of the tracks have a sound that doesn’t work well for remixing, the experience doesn’t work as well as it could.
Both the Jam and Arcade modes play essentially the same, though there are some mild mechanical changes that modify the goals a bit. The gameplay is designed with a guitar controller in mind, but works well enough with a regular controller as well. Each of the banks on the sequencer panel is color-coded to one of the frets on the standard guitar controller, as well as to the controller buttons (with the Right Bumper standing in for the Orange fret). Further, each bank also has five options within it that are also color-coded to the frets/buttons. How this works is simple: holding down the appropriate colored fret and strumming Up, or pressing Up on the D-Pad, turns on the appropriate colored bank, while strumming Down, or pressing Down on the D-Pad, turns on the track within the presently highlighted banks. You can turn on one or more banks or tracks by holding down multiple frets/buttons at one time as you strum/press a direction, if you want to kick in multiple tracks at once. Some of the more involved songs also have multiple banks of tracks available to them, which can be kicked on by holding the colored fret tied to the particular bank and hitting the whammy bar/pulling the Right Trigger to switch between banks. This might all sound a little complex at first, but the Jam Mode helpfully supplies tutorials to explain how all of this works, as well as how Jam and Arcade modes differ from one another, so you can pick up the basics well enough.
Jam Mode is about remixing tunes at your own pace, and allows you to create and record your own mixes as you see fit. Each time you turn on one or more tracks, you’re scored based on how in tune your activations are with a metronome that goes back and forth in the center of the mixer display. Changing tracks when it’s in the center is considered to be in tune with the song, and as such, merits the most points. There are two types of tracks you can use across the banks and bank sets: persistent tracks are marked with a circular border, and will constantly play when turned on, while freeform tracks are marked with a diamond border, and only play one time before turning off, but can be turned on multiple times in a row for points. Mixing these up and flipping between tracks and bank sets will earn you more points, which allows you to score higher on Jam tracks, earning you Bronze, Silver and Gold rankings for your scores. You can also save your remixes to play in Arcade Mode. Arcade Mode works in a fashion similar to a normal rhythm game: bars rise out of banks and drift toward a bar that starts at the top of the screen, and you have to switch on the banks identified, then turn on the tracks as the track bar passes the scoring bar. Doing so earns points and moves the scoring bar up; failing to do so drops the scoring bar, and failing enough fails you out of the song. In this case it doesn’t matter much what tracks are what, as the game will simply make you turn on whatever it wants at any given moment.
You can basically play through the five challenges in Jam Mode inside of an hour, though getting Gold rankings on the various songs will take a few hours to accomplish beyond that. Arcade Mode requires you to play through all of the songs in the song list to complete it, which will take a good few hours on top of that, so it’s not unreasonable to suggest you could take six to ten hours to clear out the game of its initial content alone. You can also go back to Jam Mode any time you wish to record new remixes that can be saved and played back in Arcade Mode, and there is the promise of DLC for the game (though none has been announced as of yet) that would expand the song list. The game also features a fair amount of Achievements to earn that aren’t unreasonable, in theory, so if nothing else, the game offers this thing as a way to bring you back for a while.
Having said that, to be completely blunt, there’s not a lot of point to the experience. Forgetting the oddity of the song list and focusing on the mechanics alone for a moment, the game offers no multiplayer support, features no online functionality to speak of, and offers nothing to the player but what was described above. You can’t share remixes with others, you can’t download remixes from friends or strangers. What’s the point in even making these things to play them in Arcade Mode when all you can do is play the ones you make? Further, Jam Mode isn’t even a small bit difficult; you can literally sit in one bank and flip between two tracks for about three minutes and get a Gold ranking on every single song, so scoring this section of the game literally seems to have no point at all. Since you can’t share remixes, and there are no bonuses for doing anything beyond changing tracks when the metronome is in the center, there’s absolutely no point to this at all. Arcade Mode is no better; the songs you assemble with the game supplied remixes don’t sound especially good, and the mode is quite difficult whether you’re playing with the controller or the guitar. The developers have apparently chosen not to grasp that holding the Green and Orange frets isn’t something that Activision or Harmonix asked of players too often because it hurts like hell stretching your fingers out that way, and JAM Live Music Arcade asks this sort of thing of you more than is comfortable. The Arcade Mode plays at a fairly high difficulty relative to what it asks of you, so much so that even experienced Rock Band or Guitar Hero players will have difficulties playing this unless they play at Expert Level… and even then, the mechanics are awkward and annoying. Combine this with the limited and often unexciting track list, and, well… it’s just a mess.
JAM Live Music Arcade could have been a cute music remixing tool, perhaps even a cute music making tool, with the right functions and features thrown in, but with a complete dearth of online functionality, a lacking song list and a frustrating Arcade Mode, it’s hard to know who this game is even for. There are only two modes of play in the game, and while the game looks fine enough, the songs included are either not notable or don’t fit the experience well at all. You can understand the basic mechanics well enough by playing through the challenges, and they work tolerably in context, but once you start making use of them the game falls apart. Jam Mode offers no reason to play it, as earning high scores is exceptionally easy and you can’t share remixes made here with other players. Arcade Mode is punishing, frustrating and unfriendly, and there’s no fun to be had with the mode because it tries to use the sorts of mechanics a Guitar Hero or Rock Band would use, in a way that doesn’t work in this game because the concepts are so different. With a simplified Arcade Mode and online functionality, or some stronger music creation tools, JAM Live Music Arcade might have been a functional and interesting product, but the actual game is limited, frustrating, and doesn’t seem to do anything interesting with any of its interesting ideas, making it hard to recommend to anyone.
Game Modes: MEDIOCRE
Graphics: ABOVE AVERAGE
Originality: ABOVE AVERAGE
FINAL SCORE: POOR GAME.
Short Attention Span Summary:
JAM Live Music Arcade has some interesting ideas, but executes them so poorly that it ends up being boring at best and unfriendly at worst. There are two modes to the game that are largely similar and equally uninteresting, and while the game looks fine enough, the song list is equal parts unmemorable and unexciting for the sort of game this is. The gameplay mechanics can basically be learned in a few minutes and adjusted to not too long afterward, but the game chooses to do some very awkward things with said mechanics, making them unpleasant in a hurry. The Jam Mode seems novel, but you can score the same by alternating two tracks forever as you can for putting effort into a track, and since you can’t share remixes there’s no point in investing effort into doing so. The Arcade Mode is frustrating mechanically and not at all fun to play, as well, and being that one gameplay mode is frustrating and the other boring, this leaves the entire experience a disappointment. Better online functionality or more creation tools might have made JAM Live Music Arcade a fun enough experiment, but as it is, the experiment is ultimately a failed one.