Review: Sony BMG Musika - Interactive Visualizer
Musika's ($5) very appearance on the iTunes Store was enough for us to do a double-take: an iPod game from Sony BMG? With an iPod music visualizer built in? And attributed to famed PlayStation game designer Masaya Matsuura? Each part seemed unbelievable, but wonderful. As much as we've enjoyed seeing Apple, Electronic Arts, and others develop iPod games, Japanese developers have a lot to offer on any gaming platform, and the presence of heavy hitters such as these can only be a good thing for the iPod.
Unfortunately, though we would have loved to offer deep praise for Musika, we can’t: Sony’s first iPod game is pretty but shallow, a classic example of eye candy gaming with just enough content to amuse and not enough to amaze. Billed as an “interactive visualizer” that “taps into your song library to create original game play,” Musika turns out to be almost as simple as games get, and its passive viewing, non-gaming mode isn’t what comes to mind when the word “visualizer” is evoked, either.
For the first time ever, Musika lets you tap into the iPod’s music library and playlists directly from its own interface, requesting that you pick a song or collection to use as background music for your game. That’s a great start, and makes you wonder just how the song will be used. You quickly find out: Musika plays the song, taking most or all of its title and scrolling it in individual letter boxes at the bottom of the screen. As the music plays, letters, numbers, and occasional icons appear in the center of the screen, and you have to press the iPod’s central Action button if the big letter matches any of the letters in the song’s title. If it doesn’t, you have to hit a track skip button instead. You do well if you keep properly identifying letters, and poorly if you repeatedly mis-identify letters or fail to respond quickly enough.
If the concept sounds boring, give credit to Sony and Matsuura for making sure that the execution is not. The center of the screen is filled with moving 3-D visual effects that disguise the appearing letters, and depending which of three difficulty levels you select, or how far you’ve gotten in the game, you’ll find that your responses need to be faster and faster to move along. One of the difficulty settings will be challenging enough for any type of player. And the game provides point incentives—multipliers (2x, 3x, 16x) for consecutive right answers, and icons to double your points—plus a tracking system for your past high scores, to keep things sort of interesting.
The point tallies didn’t do much to motivate us. But the 14 or so 3-D letter effects, which are unlocked one-by-one as you continue to successfully play through multiple songs in a row, provide really interesting examples of what the iPod’s visual hardware can do when pushed by good developers. With the exception of a single effect—one that places six copies of the current song’s album art on screen, often with disasterous effects when the album cover is white—Sony BMG’s use of the iPod’s graphics hardware is surprisingly compelling. While there’s nothing inherently exciting about seeing the letter Q on screen, seeing it assembled from oversized individual pixels, colored lights, flames, wind-blown leaves or flowers is both interesting and challenging; the game’s requirement that you identify letters is confounded for the brief time each letter takes to assemble, so in classic video game fashion, you’re forced to think, and not given adequate chance to passively appreciate what’s going on visually.
Matsuura remedies that. Once they’ve been seen for the first time, the effects become available to use in Musika’s “visualizer” mode, which just lets you sit back and watch letters appear and fade away while music of your choice plays in the background. You can pick your favorite effect, turn them all on, and/or choose the “message” you want to appear on screen while music is playing. We’d hesitate to call this a true visualizer not because it fails to add visuals to music, but rather because there’s no coordination between the music and the visuals a la most of the visualizers that are out there for PCs or Macs; their only link is the text of the song’s title. And while the visual effects were interesting during gameplay, they’re not as exciting to watch passively, and drain your iPod’s battery at a robust rate.
Some might argue that the problem with Musika is more in the iPod as a gaming platform than with the title itself: unlike Matsuura’s successful PlayStation titles, such as the early Vib Ribbon, which generated vector (line art) background scenery and obstacles based on the CD you inserted into the PlayStation, and PaRappa the Rapper, which skillfully melded rhythm-matching button presses with joyfully designed cartoony graphics and music, Musika’s visuals and gameplay connect only modestly to your music library—as much as the iPod, perhaps, can allow—and not in a way that seems as fresh or compelling as one might expect from the man’s pedigree. Similarly, the prospect of true iPod music visualization is held out, then slapped down. One gets the impression that Matsuura started with a grander vision, only to scale it down dramatically when he realized the button and sampling limitations of his target device.
Overall, Musika is a novel and visually interesting iPod game, and worthy enough of its $5 asking price to qualify for our general level recommendation. Despite the simplicity of its concept, and the shallowness of its gameplay and visualizer features, the fact that it does several new and visually worthwhile things with the fifth-generation iPod’s video chip makes it worth seeing, and keeping around for times when you’re bored. More than anything else, we’re thrilled to see both Sony and Masaya Matsuura bringing their publishing and development talents to an Apple platform; now, our hope is that their efforts will lead to future, better music-based titles for the iPod.