JAM Live Music Arcade: For Music Lovers Only

JAM Live Music Arcade is a music creation game from Reverb Publishing/505 Games available for $9.99 on XBOX Live Arcade and Playstation Network. 32 tracks cover the spectrum of musical genres ranging from up and coming indie artists to chart toppers like Modest Mouse, Atmosphere and Owl City. JAM Music Arcade lets the player deconstruct and recreate songs through an interactive and intuitive graphic interface and also features a standard see-and-then-do mode. In JAM mode, the player is rewarded for their creative use of musical elements and off-book stylings. In Arcade mode, the player follows a Guitar Hero style guide to produce songs element by element.

The first time you play JMLA, only the JAM mode is unlocked. In order to play with your first track, you have to successfully navigate the tutorial, which lays out the mixing board style interface for the new player. 5 different bays belong to a different musical element: drums, bass, guitar, synth, vocals, and sometimes FX, and each instrument has 5 elements, one for each of the 5 keys of the guitar. The game can be played on a gamepad, but the tutorials are geared towards the guitar controller, and I really think it would be a lot more difficult to navigate from a gamepad.

In JAM Mode, the game will synthesize a colorful background

Players used to Guitar Hero, will notice that JAM turns the guitar into a much more dynamic controller. Using a combination of up-strum for on, down-strum for off, the different keys for different bays and elements, and even the whammy bar later on in the game to switch from board to board, JAM is easy to learn so players don’t spend a lot of time trying to remember the rules.

As for gameplay itself, we’re really looking at two different games. JAM mode, where the player uses the mixing board to add and subtract each element of a known track to create and record a completely musical remix, and Arcade Mode where the song is already playing and the player has to work to keep up and imitate the elements in the track before time runs out.

JAM mode was my personal favorite mode. I lost time playing in Jam Mode. There was actually a point where the sun had set and I didn’t even notice it. One moment it was light outside, the next I was sitting in a dark living room, with a plastic guitar in my lap, and my legs had fallen asleep from being crossed on the couch for unknown hours.

Another example of the colorful backgrounds generated in JAM Mode

I’ve always loved music, and making music. I was a band in high school for about 6 weeks. I think we had ‘practice’ about 2 times and I never met the drummer. We were Metallica inspired, but that’s probably because the only songs we played were Metallica songs. I want to say our name was Mystic Spiral, but I’m pretty sure that’s actually the name of Jane’s brother Trent’s band in Daria. The problem with Mystic Spiral, or was it Warrior? Anyway, the problem with the band is that we sucked. Also, none of us had cars so we had to take the bus with all our instruments or get our moms to drive us. But the reason we really sucked is that music is hard. Even if a person has an aptitude, which 5 years of violin practice have taught me I don’t have, it takes years to master even a single instrument. With music simulators like JAM, you’re on a highway to awesome in the time it takes to pass the tutorial. Finally, I can rise to the heights that my crappy Metallica cover band once could only dream about.

I was entranced by this game, however, the idea of scoring was pretty much a joke. I had no idea how to score points, except that switching tracks on a beat got me something, all other points were basically a surprise for everyone involved. The tutorial didn’t seem altogether helpful either. It mentioned switching tracks on a beat, and how the number of times you switch tracks on a beat will grant you higher and higher scores, and it mentioned something about ‘good use’ of elements, but who in the world knows what that means in this day in age. Some of the synth pop songs I thought I was messing up on all over the place, but when I went back to the track select menu, they sounded like a seizure anyway.

Which leads me to music. Aforementioned synth-pop aside, I love just about every track on this game. And my favorite part about it is that most of them are from artists I’d probably never have heard of if it wasn’t for this game. Some of these guys are so indy they’re post-indy. Nick Africano doesn’t even have a website. I mean, nickafricano.net is a thing that exists, but all that’s there is a placeholder trying to pass itself off as a maintenance page. His only album was released May 1 of this year, just 15 days before JAM’s release. Incidentally, Nick’s album is $9.99 on itunes (where it only has 2 ratings, this is how underground this guy is), the same price you would pay for this game. Yeah, there’s only 1 track from him on there, but there’s 31 other tracks by new and familiar artists, some of which are sure to find themselves into your musical repertoire. I especially like the selection of hip hop they’ve collected. It’s definitely different from anything you’ll hear on the radio today. Long story short: this game has hipster cred.

Now that I’ve gushed about JAM Mode, I have to come down on the Arcade Mode. In the way that the board layout and element choice make Jam mode so free-flowing and creative, it makes Arcade Mode into a nightmare. The developers didn’t simplify any of the controls, or even the boards when they made Arcade Mode, which makes it really difficult, but on top of that, they added a tetris-style moving horizon for when you mess up and miss a key combo. For every combo the player misses, the drop point for the key combo slides one notch closer to the spawn point. When you get a combo right, the span point moves one notch back to it’s original place until it stays there, but if you get another wrong, it drops back down. There are about 10 notches in which the player can make mistakes and then it’s game over. In a three minute song, I never made it past the 40 second mark. The only person I can think of who would enjoy this horrible torture is the Guitar Hero player who plays the Dragonforce song on expert and yawns the whole way through.

In Arcade Mode, the player mimics the combo on the screen in order to play the song.

Overall, I had so much fun with JAM Mode, that the unplayable nature of Arcade Mode is almost a non-issue, especially for $9.99.

When I was writing this, I did some research on the game and saw that a lot of reviewers were giving it horrible reviews. One even pronounced the entire music game genre “dead,” and used this game as an example of its corpse. Dramatic much? I think the gamers pronouncing this a stinker are not the audience for this game anyway. They’re expecting Guitar Hero style points racking with clearly defined skill levels based on obvious goals, and this isn’t that. It’s a musical playground for people who find themselves fascinated with sound and creating something beautiful out of sound. This is a game for people who never get Guitar Hero because they’re too used to their real guitar, people who make up drum solos for the songs on the radio, people who get asked “where’s that song from?” and say “I don’t know” when the truth is it’s from them.

I’m giving this game a 7 out of 10 because it’s not really a game, it’s a synth toy. But it’s a really good synth toy for $9.99. Points added for music selection, points off for Arcade Mode.

The Xbox 360 version of this title was provided for review by Reverb Publishing.