I’ve not been bitten by the dancing-game craze for Kinect, Wii or PlayStation Move, so it still boggles my mind to see that genre selling as well as it has. I’m not averse to the content or premise, I simply hadn’t found anything that struck a chord or inspired me to act a fool. Until Michael Jackson The Experience hit Xbox 360 Kinect, that is. I was a fan of the King of Pop’s work decades before his untimely demise, so my favorable opinion of Michael Jackson: The Experience has nary a hint of posthumous sympathy or bandwagon-hopping. If this game managed to get me to get off my amateur-dancing duff, then props to Ubisoft for pulling it off. The fact that it also has some of MJ’s biggest hits is mere gravy.
Unlike many of the dancing games currently available, the objective of Michael Jackson: The Experience isn’t to give you some unparalleled cardio workout or share videos with your online Friends list. The concept behind the game is much more straightforward than that: pretend you’re the King (or Queen) of Pop yourself by singing and dancing your way through some of Michael Jackson’s most memorable songs and music videos. That’s it. No gimmicks, no calorie counters, no Facebook or YouTube integration. Just step in front of your sofa, crank up the volume and moonwalk to your heart’s content.
Before each performance, you’re given the option to practice the moves for specific sections of the song until you feel comfortable that you know what you’re doing. Even if you choose not to practice, though, the game includes little icons in the bottom-right corner of the screen showing you which move is next and a countdown timer of when you should start to do it. In addition, there are two video-captured dancers at either side of the screen at all times, so if you forget to look down at the icon you’ll be given an immediate indication of what to do just by looking at your “partners” on stage.
I say “partners” because Michael Jackson The Experience uses the Kinect to put the player’s likeness in the middle of the screen for every song, flanked by the two aforementioned dancers. The game pulls this off with surprising clarity, especially compared to other games that show the video-captured player on screen, and it also does a remarkable job picking up each dance move. I’ve played far too many Kinect games that struggle to pickup subtle movements, thus marring the gameplay experience, but Michael Jackson: The Experience suffers little to no delay in detecting and translating even the smallest hip thrust and crotch grab. Considering the source material, though, are you really surprised?
Ubisoft also utilizes the Kinect hardware’s ability to pick-up audio, as players have three gameplay options with each song. The first is to simply perform the dance moves while listening to the original Michael Jackson vocals, while the second is to dance and perform the song karaoke-style with visual prompts. The third, and arguably the most fun if you’ve got some other King of Pop fans in the house, is a multiplayer mode that supports up to four players. In Co-Op Mode, each player is assigned a number (1-4), and the game randomly calls one of those numbers mid-song, at which point the player must step in front of the Kinect sensor and perform the specified task (singing or dancing) until the next player is called. The goal, naturally, is to score as many points as possible. This is also the case with the game’s Battle mode, although the premise is slightly different: two teams (up to two players each) perform the same song to see who gets the most points. Whoever has the best performance wins that battle.
The inclusion of multiplayer options makes Michael Jackson The Experience fun, but a lot of that fun is because the game’s internal dance critics are generous when translating movements from Kinect to TV screen. Few people are able to dance like the King of Pop, so if the game had been completely rigid about whether you really did drill the moonwalk or the Thriller zombie jab, nobody would have ever scored more than four points. Michael Jackson: The Experience doesn’t roll that way. Consider it more like Dancing with the Stars than an actual dance competition, and you get the picture. Players won’t stumble their way to a 100% rating, but if you make a decent stab at every move, you’ll feel like you accomplished something. It’s false confidence, sure — I’m not hitting a dance floor anytime soon) — but it’s an important aspect that keeps the game fun rather than frustrating.
If you want to get really technical, you can poke around a video-only mode called MJ School, which breaks down some of Michael Jackson’s most memorable (and difficult) dance steps into a series of digestible movements. Players are invited to mimic the moves alongside the professionals as they walk through the steps, but by the end of the tutorial all but the top 0.05% of all players will feel humbled by the skill of the dancers Ubisoft hired to instruct viewers through these sequences.
All told, Michael Jackson The Experience has more than two dozen songs, each set to its own inspired backdrop. It’s neat to see your video likeness in each CG setting, from the illuminated sidewalks of Billie Jean to the Thriller theatrical marquee, and although some people may complain that you can’t determine the stage for any given song, it wouldn’t have made any sense to mix and match Beat It with Smooth Criminal, for instance, so I can’t fault Ubisoft for removing that customization option.
To be honest, though, I can’t fault Ubisoft for much of anything with Michael Jackson: The Experience, other than perhaps keeping the game more focused on fun than hardcore dancing. But really, is that a bad thing? People play games to have fun, and fans of any given artist want to feel as if they’ve stepped into that artist’s shoes for a few hours. Michael Jackson: The Experience delivers on both of those goals. It may not deliver the workout some dance-game aficionados have come to expect, but it’s a great ride for a casual evening among friends who want to get their groove on while listening to the King of Pop’s greatest hits blasting in 5.1 surround sound.
Click any of these links to buy the game from Amazon.com, which has some nice discounts right now:
- Michael Jackson The Experience for Xbox Kinect (the version reviewed here)
- Michael Jackson The Experience for PS3
- Michael Jackson The Experience for Nintendo Wii
Score: 8 — With its focus on fun over competition-like accuracy, this is the first dancing game to grab and hold my attention beyond just a couple of songs. Plus, the soundtrack is just plain hard to top.
Platform reviewed: Xbox 360