Have you ever tried to teach someone how to play video games? I’m not talking about how to “git gud” at video games, I mean, absolute zero point, barely ever held a controller before, this is how you make Mario jump “play video games”. Basically, have you ever had to explain a goomba?
I have. I’ve never taught an adult how to play video games (because adults past a certain age are never going to try, and adults my age or younger at least have some button mashing experience), but I’ve trained the young to participate in the children’s crusade against the Koopa menace. I don’t have kids of my own, mind you, but I am the kind of person that, at any given office, is assumed to have a way of entertaining youngsters immediately available. I’d say it’s an unfortunate stereotype related to the guy that has a cabbit and Slimer on his desk, but given how quickly I can pull a USB controller from my desk drawer, it’s a pretty accurate assessment.
Now, I’m going to try to avoid wandering into old man vs. cloud territory, but these kids these days are trained not on the controllers or joysticks of my youth, but touch screens and sticky iphones of today. This, I want to be clear, isn’t a bad thing, as I’m someone that thinks video games of nigh any platform are ideal for development. I’m not going to remotely claim I have any sort of childhood psychology credentials or even ever once took a class on development of the young‘uns, but, as I’ve mentioned before and likely will again, I firmly believe that video games can impart lessons and morals in a manner unlike any other entertainment medium, even if that “lesson” is simply that daddy is not going to give you his credit card information just so you can ninja more fruit right now.
But the disadvantage of idevice gaming is an unfortunate lack of buttons. Yes, I can play every Mega Man on my phone… but I don’t think I want to. Swiping, shifting, tapping: that’s all fine on the phone, but actual precise “Mario style” platforming is not meant for the same system as flapping birds. Again, not saying this is a reason to cast your pad to the wind, simply that this leads to children without the most essential skill that most console gamers take completely for granted.
“Jump! No… jump… different? Better? Higher? Press it harder… no… a little lighter… Oh God, you’re never going to clear that piranha plant…”
When you’re used to something (say, because you’ve been doing it literally longer than you can remember), your vocabulary for teaching the skill quickly diminishes. I remember learning to drive, and my father (who had been driving every day for I want to say thirty years at that point) recommending I “tap the breaks”. My interpretation of “tap the breaks” was in no way what he actually intended me to do, and, if we weren’t already going at 3 MPH because I was terrified of driving, I’m pretty sure one of us would have been at least a little upset at whatever lasting damage was incurred to the poor automobile. Similarly “just put your foot down” for the other pedal involved nearly flying into the bay. Come to think of it, the comparison between controllers and driving is more apt that I initially considered, because the “analogue” is what gets you: when flying along with Mario, you “press” the buttons in a very particular way, with a precise pressure and duration. You’re not simply pressing A, you’re using a skill you’ve honed over years (to clear a damn goomba), just like automatically knowing how to depress an accelerator.
So, I consider it no small achievement that, through a collection of cheat codes (mostly just infinite lives) and save states (mainly for airships), I was able to get a five year old to clear all the worlds of Super Mario Bros. 3. It wasn’t easy, and it took literally months, but I still consider the hardest part of the whole exercise to be “jump” training. Short jumps, long jumps, running jumps, and (the most insane) flying/swimming are all skills that you or I take completely for granted, but learning the difference between making Mario hop or leap is absolutely essential. Press that A button just long and strong enough, and you get great results. Do it wrong? Sorry, but you didn’t need that raccoon tail, anyway, right?
Mad Maestro doesn’t include any jumps or goombas, but it does offer the fairly unique opportunity to direct an orchestra. The story is mundane as far as plot-based rhythm games go (sorry, no repelling alien invaders through mariachi music here), you’re Takt, a young composer and conductor who is approached by a magical fairy (okay, maybe the plot is a little weird) with the mission of saving the local Concert Hall with a grand orchestra performance. On the way to the ostentatious performance, Takt recruits a number of townspeople (and a bear) (and some aliens) through playing classical music at random points throughout the city. Help a guy romance his girlfriend, and he joins you with a cello. It’s a pretty standard way to form a band. After ten stages of recruitment drives, it’s time for the really big show, and, assuming you’ve learned, like, something over the course of the entire game, you probably won’t be booed off stage.
The kink to this game that separates it from every other rhythm game I can recall is that you are not playing an instrument, real or imaginary, this time. You are the conductor, so it’s your job to do that wavy hand thing that apparently serves some musical purpose. I would imagine this to be pretty difficult in reality (closest I’ve ever been to being a conductor was some heavy flirting with a drum major… actually, two different drum majors on two different occasions. Maybe I have a type?), but during this game, you’re effectively just a rhythm section, forced to tap buttons along to the beat. It’s not that difficult, as I have enough rhythm to win the game, and I’m whiter than some wampas. I can’t imagine how well someone with a greater understanding of 3/4s time would do with this setup.
That said, in a grand tradition that would continue straight into the Vocaloids’ greatest hits, there has to be some kind of catch. It’s not enough to just tap along to the beat, no, Mad Maestro is one of the few games that actual fully utilizes the Playstation 2’s analog buttons. You’re the conductor, so you’re not only keeping the beat fresh, but you’re also responsible for the phat volume highs, and the skinny lil’ lows. As far as rhythm game gimmicks go, it’s one that actually makes sense, and even, theoretically, makes sense for the player. You’re going to naturally hit that button harder when the song is loud and pumping, and you might even be the type to gently tap along to a more quiet section. Should be as natural as singing along to the radio, right?
In reality, though, you’ll experience the flaws in this system before you’re out of the tutorial. To Mad Maestro’s credit, the game is very transparent about what you’re doing wrong. “Too fast” or “Too late” for the beat is great if you have no internal metronome, and the “weight” of your hit has three different color intensities: green, blue, and red. If you see a green note, and you hit it red, then you know you’re hitting too hard, so it couldn’t be more straightforward. That’s the theory anyway. In practice, you have, literally, less than a beat to recognize what went wrong, and adjust accordingly. I assume that the majority of my readers are Zen Masters, but for the rest of us, when you miss a note or two you’re going to grow naturally frustrated, and start hammering that button as hard as you… which will only cause further problems. Couple this with later songs that revel in switching between hard and light notes, and what could be an excellent, relaxing way to “participate” in classical music becomes about as frustrating as shoveling snow with a hairbrush. It’s particularly maddening because, as stated, the game is so forthcoming about what you’re doing wrong, so the minute you drop into a failure loop, you know exactly what you’re supposed to be doing, but why. Isn’t. IT. WORKING. POUND POUND POUND.
So welcome to being five years old again. Welcome to knowing exactly what you want to do, but not yet having the skill to do it. Welcome to learning a skill. Welcome to not only getting better, but starting from scratch to do it.
And, you know what? Remember that feeling, remember what playing Mad Maestro feels like. Remember that, even when you’re being given perfect advice, it means nothing if you’re too upset to listen. Remember, you can be a better student and teacher through understanding and calm.
You might never have to teach someone how to play video games, but if you do, remember that starting from zero isn’t thrilling for anybody, let everybody take their time, learn, and, one day, you’ll be conducting a symphony.
FGC #85 Mad Maestro!
- System: Playstation 2. Interestingly, thanks to the requirements of a rhythm game versus wireless controllers, I actually played this game on the original Playstation 2, as opposed to the usual BC Playstation 3 that is used for Gogglebob.com. Okay, I lied, that wasn’t interesting at all.
- Number of Players: Too many conductors could be an issue, so just one player. Surprised they didn’t try to shoehorn in some weird co-op mode, but I suppose this isn’t a PSP game.
- Difficulty: Despite the fact that the article might portray me playing this game as a tantrumming toddler, the game isn’t really that difficult to complete. It’s one of those games where your “lifebar” is large enough that you can basically bumble through any given level and still see the goal through sheer force of forward momentum. That said, since the game logs your every missed note, it’s easy to get the impression you’re failing a lot worse than you are, thus the frustration. Sure, I score a “C” on every level, but at least I finished.
- If I ruled the world: The final level is that grand Concert Hall performance, and it’s the most difficult level, not only because it’s the longest, but you also don’t have as much of a cushion against failure, so a “C” student might not actually complete the challenge. But it’s a very gentle game, so if you fail, you’re just asked to try again, don’t worry, we’ll save that Music Hall on the next try. If I made this game, though, every failed performance would end with bulldozers plowing right into the stands and shoving the band aside. The future refused to change…
- Bitter Band Nerd: You want to claim you’re playing classical music around town to collect musicians? Bullshit, Takt knows how musical performances work: you’re gathering together an eclectic band of weirdoes because they’ll be able to sell tickets to their friends and family. The performing arts are basically a pyramid scheme, sheeple!
- Speaking of Band Nerds: I want to note that I played trumpet throughout my school days, so this always shocks and confuses me:
And I’m still not first chair!
- Did you know? During the stage where you recruit Martians, Baba Yaga’s Hut from Pictures at an Exhibition by Modest Mussorgsky is performed. I like that song quite a bit, and it might be my favorite in the game, but, come on, guys, Mars, The Bringer of War from the Planets suite by Holst is right there! It’s got “Mars” in the title! And Catherine has the same problem! It’s good enough for Darth Vader!
- Would I play again: Probably not. Gitaroo Man is my rhythmic poison of choice on the Playstation 2, so it’s unlikely I’d forsake the Gitaroo way for a game that leaves me fuming every time I pick it up. It’s not a bad game, and I laud any game that attempts to hoist classical music on an unwitting populace, but it’s just not enough fun to play.
What’s Next? Random ROB has chosen… Archer Maclean’s Mercury for the PSP! Are we… is this, like, a planet theme, now? Is there a game containing “Venus” next on the list? I don’t know how this robot works… Anyway, please look forward to it!