In the past, thinly-disguised puzzle games have been some of the very best titles for handheld game devices, but they’ve also been unusually difficult for their developers to explain to potential buyers. What initially sounds like one type of game actually turns out to be something completely different, a switcheroo that may thrill some people but turn others off. That’s the reason that Electronic Arts’ new The Sims DJ ($5), an iPod Game for third-generation iPod nanos, fifth-generation iPods, and iPod classics confounds simple description, pitching itself as a game where you’re a DJ, but turning out to be a puzzler in which the appeal of spinning records is used as a hook for more strategic gameplay.
True, you play as a DJ, and yes, you spend the game’s stages picking songs to keep a club full of EA’s The Sims characters dancing. Each Sim character has a musical genre preference, and you can get the Sim to come onto the dance floor if you play a tune from his or her genre. The challenges for each level are to create conditions that get different types of people dancing, then to make them happy enough to give you “DJ cred” through various tricks. Turning on a strobe light, chasing a mirrored globe with a spotlight, pouring as many free drinks as possible, and scratching records are just some of the tricks that build up points; they’re available options in a menu that you call up while music is playing.
If you can put aside the fact that a lot of these tricks aren’t really DJ skills, and that many are just brief mini-games intended to keep you doing something other than playing songs over and over again, you’ll realize that The Sims DJ is a game of strategy: EA might present you with the challenge of getting two country music fans to dance at the same time as two rap fans and two world music fans, then keep them dancing for 60 seconds.
You’ll be able to achieve this by fast use of the DJ tricks, which are time-limited, to sway an R&B fan to fall in love with a rap fan and switch her musical preference, convert a pop music fan into a world music fan, and so on. Then the game will give you a goal that requires you to switch gears entirely, converting certain characters back to their original tastes. A “Freespin” mode, unlocked early on, gives you a place to test out the DJ tricks and your library of songs.
From an aesthetics standpoint, EA definitely deserves some credit for trying to do more than just the bare minimum in visuals and music. Though the Sim characters aren’t animated beautifully, they’re interesting to look at, and the backgrounds are at least colorful if samey from stage to stage. EA has also included a couple of songs for each of the game’s music genres, complete with vocals and real instrumentation. Oddly, though, the songs sound as if they were purchased from an Eastern European cover band, as everything’s in a foreign language, making genres such as country, rock, and R&B music sound nothing short of bizarre; the tracks were previously used in the company’s previous Sims Life Stories game.
There are some other issues that cut more significantly into The Sims DJ’s appeal.
First, as with the other Sims series iPod Games from EA, there’s a tacked-on reward system that doesn’t feel especially well-comceived, awarding you a set amount of money for each gig regardless of how quickly you achieve the goals. That money is then used for almost worthless purposes—buying jackets and hats for your character—as well as giving you the opportunity to purchase songs out of your iPod’s music library, a feature which basically keeps the game’s built-in tracks from being the only songs you play over and over again at clubs. You have little incentive to really care how your Sim is dressed, and other than pure annoyance, even less to start sifting through your music library for tracks to buy and play.
Another issue is the blandness of the mini-games. Pouring drinks isn’t bad, but not really a DJ’s job, while scratching records creates a not-so-great sound effect and doesn’t feel all that fun. Similarly, making love-slash-dance connections between the Sim characters doesn’t offer any sort of real reward for the player, as it’s hard to really see what’s going on between the Sims, even on the 2.5” screens of iPods and classics. Making anything of the tiny pixel art on the iPod nano’s screen is even more of a chore; it’s actually difficult to see what’s inside the tiny floating icons that are supposed to represent the characters’ original music tastes.
During our testing, something else really cramped our interest in continuing to play The Sims DJ.