Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Samba de Amigo

To start with, the controls are great. Early reviewers were either: a) bad at the game, b) confused or c) lazy. Don't worry about the controls. (More on this later.)

Do you remember the final scene in Beetlejuice where Winona Ryder sings Jump in the Line while floating in front of a stairwell? If that seemed at all fun, go out and a get a copy of Samba de Amigo because it is fun. Actually, it's completely addicting.

Samba de Amigo Screenshot

The Wii version is a remake of the Sega Dreamcast game, which is in turn an adaptation of an arcade game. The basic gameplay remains the same: shake electric maracas in rhythm to the music. Each side of your HUD (for lack of a better term) has three targets: high, medium and low. Timing balls emerge from the center of the HUD and head towards the targets. If you shake your controller, which may or may not resemble a maraca, at the right position and the right time, you earn points. There are a few extra moves: rolls, poses, dance moves, crossover, and wide hits. The more hits you string together and the more accurately timed your hits, the faster your score goes up and the faster an energy bar fills. If you stay in the groove long enough, your energy bar fills all the way and you achieve a higher rank (from a low of E to a high of A). Missing hits reverses the process. You don't really need to understand the scoring to play: just stay in the groove.

Initially, you will probably want to spend some time with Career mode, which starts easy and ramps up fairly smoothly. It also unlocks a few songs, which isn't completely necessary since most of the 44 songs are unlocked from the beginning. But when a friend comes over and wants to play "Mambo Number 5" waiting can be a drag. There are also some maraca and dance sounds to unlock, but they don't add all that much to the game.

When you do have friends over, there are six different modes to try out. Each of the modes also work with one player, but aren't as much fun. Most of your time will probably be in Quick Play, which allows you to play one song after another for as long as you can shake the controller. While waiting for a turn, players can finally look at the crazy dancing stuff you quickly learn to tune out while playing. In addition to the cast of wacky characters (Elvis, calaca guitarists, luchadors, bongo playing teddy bears, and so on), you'll see Mii representations of the players shaking away. And of course the actual players shaking away provide entertainment too.

One especially positive aspect of the game is that unequally skilled players can play head to head. When I play Hard and my six-year-old son plays Easy, we get scores in the same ballpark. The lyrics have been softened where appropriate. So instead of "Tequila!", the lyric is "Amigo!". (I don't want children picking up potentially unwanted vocabulary, but nothing prevents an older group from shouting the original lyric.) My arms can attest to Samba de Amigo's exercise potential and it probably doesn't hurt player's rhythm and dance skills.

At launch the game cost about a dollar a song. Now you will find it for half or a quarter that much. Master tracks featuring the original artist comprise just under half of the songs and the other half are reasonable covers. In addition, there are three downloadable song packs (3 for 500 Wii points). I haven't bought any, but they look to be high quality. Even more value can be squeezed out of the package by browsing the online leaderboards. These have not been completely hacked yet (unlike Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games) so the top scores are probably real. You can also compare to friends if you have their friend code or find your rank on the overall leaderboard. I can't really think of anything that should be added to the package.

Now let's talk controls. I have a theory about what went wrong with so many reviewers, so let's start with some observations:

  1. Most reviewers had played the Dreamcast version and preferred it over the Wii version.
  2. Most had few complaints about the Easy and Normal difficulties, but found they couldn't keep up with Hard and Super Hard.
  3. And most had problems shifting from the high to low positions and vice versa.

Now the Dreamcast version had two different control schemes: hitting buttons on the normal controller and expensive maraca controllers that measured the height above a sensor bar on the floor. There's only one control scheme on Wii: tilt control (with either two Wiimotes or a Wiimote and a Nunchuck). Sega used the Wiimote's tilt control well in Super Monkey Ball and used it again in Samba de Amigo. Tilt the nose of the controller up for high note, down for low notes and level for medium notes.

Having watched videos of people playing the Dreamcast version, reviews of the Wii version and experimenting on my own, I believe most reviewers expected the controls to work identically to the Dreamcast or arcade game. And amazingly for easier difficulty levels, they do. Lifting the controller above your waist naturally tilts its nose up and dropping it below your waist registers a downward tilt. It's a touch unresponsive, but the beats are slow enough so that it's possible to keep up this way. Once you start playing songs on Hard the beats get faster and more complicated. At that point, you need to remove inefficient motions, practice and become more precise.

Understand that I'm not great at rhythms or difficult games. I played tuba in band and I'm stuck half way through Super Monkey Ball and Super Mario Galaxy. So it was with some trepidation that I started up Hard levels in Career Mode. Sure I missed some beats and maybe some of them were not my fault, but I cleared all of the Hard songs in the first or second try with the exception of "Mexican Flyer". And I've passed some of the Super Hard songs too. If you play the right way, the game is not punishingly difficult. It might even be too easy.

If you are having problems, here are a few tips:

  1. Find the "Game" setting on your digital TV. It might not make a difference, but an extra millisecond or two to react to a beat can't hurt.
  2. Use two Wiimotes rather than the Nunchuck setup. The Nunchuck reduces accuracy because of the tether and because it's difficult to find its level position.
  3. Experiment with calibration. I've found that tilting too much in calibration makes hitting high and low beats slow, but tilting too little narrows the range for medium beats so that I don't hit them all the time.
  4. Go back through the Normal levels in career mode trying to use your wrists more than your arms. Imagine playing Super Monkey Ball.
  5. When you miss, don't assume the hardware is to blame. For instance, I notice that when I move too quickly I sometimes over-rotate on high beats so that the controller is starting to be upside down. That's my fault, not the controller's. Relax and try to get back in the groove.
  6. If all else fails, consider using an alternate shaking motion. Instead of shaking vertically, a motion that can be confused with changing locations, shake to the side or make a stabbing motion. It doesn't look as much like a maraca shake, but it works.
  7. A suggestion I can't vouch for is to buy the maraca shaped attachments. Supposedly they help find the high and low positions. Perhaps because they make the angles more obvious.

I've seen videos of people getting perfect scores on Super Hard using the button mashing scheme on the Dreamcast. And I've seen dedicated players struggle through the Easy difficulty with the expensive Dreamcast maracas. And I've seen people breeze through Hard levels with Wiimotes. My best explanation for the harsh reviews of Samba de Amigo for Wii is that reviewers were muddled in their memories of the previous game. If Sega is interested in re-releasing the game with Wiimotion Plus support, it probably won't make a difference. Adding a button pushing option, probably would.

Overall, there's almost nothing to lose by trying the game out. Probably the game is more fun on Easy and Normal and easier on Hard and Super Hard than you imagine. And compared to other games in the genre, Samba de Amigo would be a bargain at twice the price.