Michael Jackson has passed on but his music will never die. A good example of that was last year’s relatively popular Michael Jackson: The Experience , which released for major consoles and featured a dancing motion-sensing mechanic. This installment for the Vita won’t have you moon-walking on the living room floor, but for fans of the former King of Pop, it’s a solid, entertaining production that utilizes touch controls. There just isn’t quite enough content, that’s all.
The game looks quite good; the animations and dance moves on screen are slick and well-designed, and the clips of classic music videos are nicely presented. They don’t do quite enough with the backdrops, though; I kept thinking Michael should be dancing in a few more recognizable scenes from those videos. Then again, you don’t really spend much time looking at the virtual Michael, as you’re focusing on the on-screen gameplay prompts. This can detract from the visual presentation, because it kinda boils down to a bunch of colorful arrows.
As you might expect, this production is all about the music. And of course, you can expect some of Jackson’s most popular songs, including “Billie Jean,” “Beat It,” “Smooth Criminal,” “Black and White,” “Bad,” and “Thriller.” But there are a few lesser-known tracks, too, including “Rock With You,” “Leave Me Alone,” “Ghosts,” and “Blood on the Dance Floor.” Now, when I say “lesser known,” I’m speaking in comparison to the mammoth hits; obviously, hardcore Jackson fans know all these songs. There needed to be more than 15 of them, however.
Being a rhythm-based game, the touch controls are based on the beat. Various commands will appear around the screen during a song: a pink circle means you tap the screen (two pink circles on the top and bottom mean you use two fingers to tap the screen), and the arrows task you with following their shape. There are blue, straight arrows, orange curved arrows, and green arrows that require a quick 360 with your finger. These symbols come together and the idea is that you draw the symbol (or tap) and release your finger on the beat.
Doing this correctly will result in a “Perfect” execution and you are graded based on your performance. You actually have to rank up before unlocking the Perfect possibility, which is essential for the higher scores. And after the music video is over and you’ve done your best, your Perfects, Greats, OKs, and Misses will be recorded; the higher the score, the more points you’ll receive. By the way, “A” isn’t the highest rank; “K” (for King of Pop) is, but you have to make zero mistakes to achieve it. This is really only doable on the Rookie and – to some extent – Medium difficulties.
The whole mechanic works pretty well. There is some leniency to the control scheme, as you don’t have to be spot-on perfect when drawing a half-circle, for instance. It might actually prove more difficult to get all the straight arrows correct, because even the slightest alteration of your finger might result in the “Wrong Shape” error. You also have to remember to keep your fingers clear of the screen in between beats, because it’s easy to accidentally touch the screen, thereby resulting in an involuntary Miss. Lastly, you have to experiment with holding the Vita…
Thing is, you can really only get away with one finger for the Rookie difficulty. Medium and especially Expert require two fingers. These can be your thumbs or, if you place the Vita on your lap or on a flat surface, your index fingers. I actually found this last setup to work the best; you just have to remember that during Freestyle, you can tap the rear touch pad for Michael to perform a signature move. Freestyle lets you draw whatever shapes you want during a set period of time but be forewarned: repeating the same move twice in a row is a bad thing.
The design is decent. You get a break in the middle of a song to watch a clip from the music video, which gives you a chance to rest your fingers. The commands circulate around the center of the screen, so it’s not obstructing the dancing going on. Although, as I said above, you’re always so focused on the commands that you rarely see those dance moves, especially at the higher difficulty levels. But the mechanic is still responsive and fun, even if those blue straight arrows have the tendency to blend into certain backgrounds. Blue on blue doesn't really work.
There just isn’t quite enough here to warrant a full-price purchase in my eyes. You’ve got the 15 songs and a Battle Mode but that’s about it. You can strive to earn new gloves (which unlock different abilities) and grab different rewards (five per song), but beyond that… The other problem is that you really don’t know what you need to do to grab the rewards; you usually just have to keep replaying until you unlock them. So overall, it’s a solid, entertaining game, most notably for big fans of Jackson, but Ubisoft needed to toss in more features.
Michael Jackson: The Experience HD doesn’t get quite enough credit for being both functional and even addictive. The screen is a little sensitive but I never once felt short-changed, and as I said, the design is quite good. There’s nothing really wrong with the game at all, besides a few minor issues. But due to the lacking content, I’d say it’s better to wait for a price drop; once that happens, though, I would recommend at least trying it.
The Good: Looks good. Jackson’s music is timeless. Good gameplay design and accurate touch control. A definite challenge for those who want all the rewards.
The Bad: Some command symbols can blend into the background. Touchscreen is very sensitive. Just not enough content.
The Ugly: “Wow, this is fun…but that’s all there is?”