We all had high hopes for My First Songs, with fifteen of the most legendary nursery rhymes of all time finally together in one package. Bangkok-based developer RingZero Game Studio brings us this hotly-anticipated karaoke title just in time for your tax refund shopping spree — alas, My First Songs is not quite a Yankee Doodle dandy. The track list is hampered by a bare-bones feature set and a surprisingly harsh level of difficulty for a title aimed at small children.
If there's one thing My First Songs excels at, it's the audiovisual department. The game boasts a pleasing, colourful art style with cute characters and farm animals. Menus are simple, uncluttered, and easy to navigate with either the button controls or the touch screen; instead of a boring list of songs to choose from, the track listing menu is a lovely farm with unique, recognisable icons for each tune. Rather than a fairly generic music video of people singing like we get in Guitar Hero or Rock Band, each tune in My First Songs features unique animation sequences directly representing its lyrics.
The songs themselves are a blast for the target audience, too — it's an unfortunately short collection, but here's the full track listing:
- Baa, Baa, Black Sheep
- The Farmer in the Dell
- Old MacDonald
- Three Blind Mice
- Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star
- This Old Man
- Alphabet Song
- Hickory Dickory Dock
- Mulberry Bush
- Itsy Bitsy Spider
- Yankee Doodle
- Michael Finnegan
- She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain
- Mary Had a Little Lamb
If this list isn't chockablock with nursery rhymes from your youth, you must have had an unfulfilling childhood. One thing you'll notice when you take a gander at the list is how many children's songs revolve around farms; singing some of the tunes for the first time in years, adult players will gape in horror at many of these songs' morbid lyrics. An excerpt from "This Old Man":
This old man, he played seven
He played knick-knack up in heaven
This old man, he played eight
He played knick-knack on my gate
This old man, he played nine
He played knick-knack on my spine
Is this old man meant to be the Grim Reaper? The Angel of Death? What exactly does playing "knick-knack" on one's spinal cord entail? Let's take a look at a verse from "Michael Finnegan":
There was an old man named Michael Finnegan
He grew fat and then grew thin again
Then he died and had to begin again
The concepts of mortality and the afterlife are constant themes throughout My First Songs, in direct contrast to the cutesy presentation. Then of course, there's always "Three Blind Mice":
Three blind mice, three blind mice
See how they run, see how they run
They all ran after the farmer's wife
Who cut off their tails with a carving knife
Cutting off the tails of adorable mice is gruesome enough, but the extra detail that it's a carving knife in particular makes the line especially grisly. Many of these songs are much longer than we remember them from our childhoods, with extra verses thrown in everywhere; some of them even have melodies when many of us thought they were only ever nursery rhymes without song. It's like the first time you learn that the full version of "The Star-Spangled Banner" has four verses; they've always been there, but no one ever sings them. RingZero Games clearly put time and effort into the recordings, as each one features high production values with kids singing in unison.
Once we get past the friendly presentation, My First Songs starts to get messy. Load times are excruciating, especially for a game as simple as this one. Many of the songs are presented at a much higher tempo than most people are used to, which is fine on its own, but while most karaoke games present the lyrics a few lines in advance with at least two lines on screen at once, My First Songs only shows the line currently being sung; it doesn't give any advance notice. The line won't pop up onto the screen until the moment it starts. If you don't have the song memorised, you'll have a tough time keeping up with it. Between the lyrics' lack of advance notice, the tempo's unrelentingly quick pace, and the often unfamiliar, drawn-out iterations of the songs, My First Songs is a treacherous mountain to come 'round.
Considering its difficulty for an adult reviewer, My First Songs would be downright murderous for the toddler audience the game is aimed at. During songs, there's a musical note onscreen whose facial expression will let you know how well you're doing. When the note is grimacing over half the time, young children are bound to get upset. My First Songs uses the GamePad's built-in microphone to register your voice, and the intended pitch of each word is indicated by rising and falling lines on screen, like the vocal tracks in most other karaoke games. Yet there's no indicator telling you what pitch you're currently singing at — your only point of reference is the angry musical note telling you you're doing it wrong. Some of the pitch suggestions seem counter-intuitive, at odds even with the game's own vocal track. When you're meant to hit a particularly low note, often the game will tell you to hit a high one instead.
To succeed, you need to enunciate each individual syllable clearly. Unless your mouth is right up against the microphone, you'll barely be able to hear your voice over the voices of the pre-recorded children in the audio mix. This isn't necessarily a bad thing; many people are embarrassed to hear recordings of their own voice, and the low volume lets them sing without inhibition. Once you get the hang of it, you can rack up points, but if you're singing the song like you normally would with your playdate friends, you'll miss everything. Not that the points matter. There's no way to fail a song, and the points are completely arbitrary; at the end of each performance you're presented with your score, but none of them are ever saved. Once you move on to another tune, you'll never see that score again. All the songs are unlocked from the beginning, which is great for families who just want to head straight to their favourite nursery rhyme, but it means there's absolutely zero progression in the game.
My First Songs can be played either on the TV or the GamePad alone. The GamePad controls are fine, but you'll get flustered when you reach the "(clap)-(clap)-N-G-O!" part of "B-I-N-G-O" and you suddenly have to drop the controller so you can clap. A second player can play with a Wii U microphone, sold separately. The GamePad's camera also takes a handful of pictures during each song and presents them to you along with your score at the end; like everything else in My First Songs, these photos aren't saved, so they're only there to look through at the end of each tune. For some reason, colours in the photos are incredibly washed out and the pictures are in a strange stretched-out aspect ratio that makes everyone look chubby. As you're browsing your photos at the end of a song, you can go back to the track select screen, or another tune will automatically load after a countdown. If you've ever streamed a television show on Netflix, it's the same idea: while you're contemplating whether you want to play another or not, the game makes the decision for you. It's a deviously clever way of getting you to play more.
You select a nursery rhyme, you sing it, and then you choose another. There are no extra modes, no progression, none of your data is saved, and the points don't matter. The animation is pretty and the choice of children's songs is excellent, but the number of tracks is like a spider: itsy bitsy. The compositions are much faster than what many of us grew up singing, and all the extra lyrics we skipped as kids are hard to keep up with. This smouldering difficulty could be off-putting to the game's target toddler demographic, but at least there's no way to fail a level. No beating around the mulberry bush with this one: My First Songs is nothing more than a glorified karaoke machine.