Disney’s “Ultimate Band” (rated E10+, $50 on Wii) feels like a video game made by parents who have no intention of playing the thing. Its main selling point seems to be that it’s a music game, like “Guitar Hero” or “Rock Band,” but without all those clunky fake instruments that clutter up your house and trip you every time you walk across the living room. Not surprisingly, it’s a fairly mediocre affair. While there’s a certain amount of fun to be squeezed out of “Ultimate Band,” it’s best suited for younger players who’ve had little or no exposure to its more challenging, feature-rich peers.
If you’ve got four Wii remotes and four nunchucks, you can have a four-player game of “Ultimate Band,” with roles of drummer, guitarist, bassist and frontman up for grab. That last one is crucial. The lack of microphone in the game means that the poor sap stuck with “frontman” duty basically gets to do his best Milli Vanilli impression. There’s no actual singing. Instead, you get to clap, wave your arms around and strike poses, sort of in time to the music but not really. It’s about as much fun as it sounds, and you have to wonder who came up with this goofy idea. Disney already makes a halfway decent karaoke-style game, so you know they’ve got the software to handle vocal input. Why not add $10 to the price of the game, bundle it with a mic and have a true singer?
Thankfully, the drum, guitar and bass roles are much more fun. For guitar and bass, the nunchuck serves as the neck of the instrument, while the Wii remote is strummed up and down. You’ll use this game mechanic to hit the bulk of songs’ notes, but you’ll also be responsible for responding to several on-screen, gesture-based cues, such as whipping the Wii remote around in a circle as fast as possible to simulate a windmill. (In practice, the game’s decision to award more points for more rotations means your windmilling feels more like spastic whisking.) These gestures largely feel forced. Evaluating guitarists on the quality of their windmill strumming or belt-buckle spins seems so un-rock ‘n’ roll. The gesture that sent me over the edge was clapping. Now, it’s fine for a singer to put her hands together to get the crowd into the groove, but the drummer? The bassist? No, thanks.
Musically, “Ultimate Band” is a tricky beast. Look over the song list and you’ll see stuff like The White Stripes’ “Fell in Love with a Girl,” Devo’s “Whip It” and Blur’s “Song 2″ ” stuff that I wish was playable in “Rock Band 2.” But they’re all covers, and not very good ones at that. While playing along to cover versions was commonplace even in the days of “Guitar Hero II,” it seems like ancient history now that we’ve been spoiled with music games chock full of original masters. Doesn’t Disney already own rights to some fairly decent music?
The overall tone of the game seems tailor-made for kids. Don’t let the game’s E10+ rating for “Mild Lyrics” fool you. The ideal age for “Ultimate Band” is probably about 7 or 8. The story mode centers on a foursome of customizable cartoon characters who want to win a contest to become the house band at a huge, multi-arena domed stadium. From there, you head out to play arenas of increasing size before taking your place atop the rock pantheon. It’s all very kid friendly. No one gets addicted to pain-killers, knocks up a groupie or cheats the band out of its fair share.
Another key element in making “Ultimate Band” kid-friendly is that it’s incredibly easy to master. After playing five songs on medium difficulty, I was ready to kick it up to hard, where I hit 90 percent of the notes on the first go-round. It got even easier once I realized that the game doesn’t consider it a mistake if you hit notes during sections when there are no notes for you to play. This essentially means that if you’ve got a note coming up, you can just start strumming furiously in advance to guarantee you’ll hit the note when it finally arrives. Such behavior will get you booed off the stage in other music games.
Despite all the cynical “Rock Band” baggage I brought to my “Ultimate Band” playthrough, there were a few moments where I started to enjoy myself. It wasn’t until I started playing the guitar part on “hard” difficulty that the cues scrolling across the screen seemed to be related to the music coming out of my TV’s speakers. And I can’t deny that as un-rock ‘n’ roll I felt flailing my arms about in a windmill, it at least got my blood pumping.
If you’ve got a full slate of Wii remotes and nunchucks, the $50 “Ultimate Band” looks like a steal compared with “Rock Band” and “Guitar Hero” bundles that can top $100. But when you consider the limits of the gameplay, the quality of the cover versions and the fact that the game only ships with 35 songs, it feels more like a budget title. I have no problem recommending “Ultimate Band” as a sort of “My First Music Game” for the Wii, but you’ll feel more like you got your money’s worth if you find it for less than full price.