Given the runaway success of motion-controlled dance games and the stratospheric popularity of Michael Jackson, it’s frankly quite bewildering that nobody thought to marry the two before his death in 2009. Last year’s Michael Jackson: The Experience from Ubisoft was a thoroughly decent example of the genre, flavoured with authentic dance routines and adaptations of his more famous music videos. But here’s the $64,000 question: how do you effectively translate the gameplay of Michael Jackson: The Experience to a handheld game?
Ubisoft has tried and credit where credit’s due, it's done an admirable job with Michael Jackson: The Experience 3D. This 3DS adaptation obviously ditches the physical mimicking of the King of Pop’s world-renowned ability to throw shapes in favour of tasking the player to respond to on-screen prompts — which appear on the four sides and four corners of the top screen — by making various tapping, sliding, curving and swirling motions via the touch screen.
Precise actions will generally see you net big points provided you can keep your combo going, but this is sometimes easier said than done, because The Experience 3D’s responsiveness to your inputs can sometimes leave maybe too little margin for error. For example, should you need to swipe to the left of the screen but find yourself ever so slightly swiping up toward the top or bottom left corner, you will be penalised for it and break your combo chain. During our playtime though, the game failed to recognise even simple taps on a few occasions, telling us we’d entered in the wrong shape when we clearly hadn’t. This occurs infrequently, but it’s no less irritating when you find yourself without a shadow of a doubt entering the correct command only to have the game shoot you down.
There are 15 different songs to choose from in The Experience 3D — set out from easiest to hardest — and when playing on rookie difficulty, even the later songs aren’t too challenging. Crank the difficulty up to medium and expert, however, and the on-screen prompts begin to actually appear in time to the beat of the song and, provided everything works as intended, The Experience 3D can be toe-tapping fun. Unfortunately, there’s not enough meat on the bone; considering how many chart-topping singles Michael Jackson released across nearly 30 years, 15 songs is an almost (Smooth) criminally low song-count. Furthermore, everything is unlocked right off the bat and there’s no tangible career mode tying everything together; you simply select a song, play it, then rinse and repeat.
The Experience 3D really suffers because of this and then some, as there are no multiplayer options included other than being able to exchange high scores with other players via StreetPass. Thankfully, there’s a small amount of replay value to be squeezed out of the game thanks to song-specific challenges, which could require you to do anything from reaching a score milestone to exclusively performing certain moves during a song’s freestyle sections (which are welcome reprieves from performing the onslaught of required prompts and allow you to let loose with whatever moves you see fit in return for bonus points). These challenges coupled with ranks awarded for attaining gargantuan cumulative scores will unlock various new outfits, gloves, special effects and difficulty levels, along with on-demand performances for each song; basically allowing you to listen to each song without having to play through it.
Presentation is a mixed bag. No area of the game’s visuals will wow you and it’s easier to play the game with the 3D switched off. One area in which The Experience 3D inarguably excels is in its audio quality: 15 songs may indeed be slim pickings, but every single one sounds brilliant even when played through the 3DS’ own speakers. Plug in a set of headphones and you’re in for a real treat — assuming, of course, that you’re a fan of Michael Jackson’s music.
Celebration of his career or not, in the eyes of a more cynical person the most probable reason for The Experience 3D to exist at all is to go some way to helping Michael Jackson’s family pay off his debts. Michael Jackson: The Experience 3D is certainly a valiant effort on Ubisoft’s part in regards to porting over a motion-controlled dancing game to a handheld, but unfortunately its temperamental controls, lack of structure and, most importantly, lack of songs all drag it down. It’s undeniably fun in short bursts when it works, but there’s just not enough of it to warrant a full-price purchase. If you’re a Michael Jackson fan, rent this over a weekend or wait for a substantial price drop.