Disney Jonas (DS)
The last Jonas Brothers song I heard -- well, the first Jonas Brothers song I heard -- was when I loaded Disney Jonas on my DS. While three creepy cartoon teens stared at me from the screen, an able up-tempo pop ditty asked me if I was "ready to rock and roll." Apparently I was supposed to "bust my move" because everyone was "in the groove."
I am sure this is supposed to make me feel hopelessly old and out of touch with the new generation. But frankly, it just made me more curious.
Yes. I am going to review the new Nintendo DS title, Disney Jonas. But before we get into it -- the review part -- I think it's worth pointing out how reviews are assigned. Think of this as a short tour of the sausage factory that is game journalism:
Notice this box is turned for dramatic effect. The Jonas Brothers are dramatic.
(The following is a recreation of an instant-message conversation that really happened):
Elise [my editor and story assigner]: Scott Jones said you should review the new Jonas Brothers game. And he meant that in a good way.
I know, you think there is some big computer at the Crispy HQ that decides what gets reviewed and by whom. But let me tell you, it is almost completely arbitrary. Almost. Except for the fact that I trust Scott Jones' satirical radar and my estimable editor's good sense to assign me stories I can handle. They have good instincts. And when a hound dog barks "Dig!" you get the shovel.
Which is to say: I did not agree to review Jonas because I thought it would be funny to use all of my biting humor and old-man cynicism to rip this Disney fantasy act and the developers who so desperately need a paycheck that their next product is probably Little Hitler Puppy Adventures. Nope. I just know so little about the Jonas Brothers -- how you could make a game about them, why you would make a game about them, or what it would be like to play a game about them -- that I wanted to give it a try.
After all, someone was the first person to look at an oyster and say, "OK, I'll try that even though it looks like a really nasty booger," shortly followed by the incredulous statement, "Hey guys! This is actually good!"
And with that, I click on the New Game button to see what happens. Wish me luck.
The girls go wild
Have you ever accidentally walked into the girls' bathroom? I mean, if you are not a girl? That's what Jonas feels like. Except it's like walking into a junior-high girls' bathroom. And that's so terribly uncomfortable that your fundamental urge to drop the stylus and flee comes on like a hot flash. But you stay because you knew it was going to be like this and, besides, there's this up-tempo synth groove playing that reminds you of Styx, or ELO. And either way, that's cool. This game, I hope, is a spider web of sticky delights.
Except that -- no. That's not it. Instead, this game turns out to be one more piece of crap turned out in the endless assembly line of crap that makes me think even Disney doesn't think the Jonas Brothers deserve a decent game. You could be 12, you could be a girl, you could be so poor that this is the only game you own and you play it out of boredom or spite. But no one, for any reason, would actually enjoy the game.
The idea that you get to play the Jonas Brothers as they wash dishes (in a clumsy mini-game), explore a warehouse-sized thrift store (in a dull platform game), or rock a Jonas Brothers concert (in an iffy and hard-to-play music-matching game) begs the question: Did the Jonas Brothers themselves program this game?
To call Jonas derivative drivel would be to use more syllables necessary than a single expletive. But it's a nicer way of summing up the same idea.
Frankly, I'd be ready to chalk the whole project up to corporate arrogance and greed if it weren't for Rock Band. Rather than blame the callous game design and craven marketing on some suit at a big company, I'd rather blame the whole Jonas disaster on a beloved game franchise.
If you have played LEGO Rock Band, you'll understand what I mean. Jonas is just one more roadside attraction on that descent into artistic hell.
The logic of LEGO rock
I love LEGO. My kids love LEGO. Everyone loves LEGO. From a pile of parts emerge pirates, trains, knights, Power Miners and Bionicles. It's this wonderful plastic substratum for imagination.
Rock 'n' roll, on the other hand, should be about nothing but passion -- anger, love, hate, sex, horror, hollering, whooping and going nuts.
Believe it or not, there is a music game buried in this title. If you play it long enough you will get to hear a song. Amazing.
LEGO Rock Band mixes up silly toys with Iggy Pop. Have you ever seen Iggy Pop in person? That man is the living avatar of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. You want to be him or be with him. And a LEGO version of Iggy Pop blurs the lines as badly as mixing baby formula with good bourbon.
But this isn't LEGO's fault. It's Rock Band's fault, because the whole Rock Band/Guitar Hero thing has been corrosive to anything we might consider "authentic rock." And I'm not here to argue that is a bad thing, just that it is a noticeable thing. Once videogames appropriated all of rock's sexy freak-out, they consumed it and turned all that raw power into something that didn't matter as music.
In that context, rock probably deserves the Jonas Brothers -- and at this point, it deserves a crappy Jonas Brothers game based on a Jonas Brothers Disney Channel sitcom. A rock band isn't something people form to do something special; it's something you buy to play with your friends.
And I like The Beatles: Rock Band, even as I watched it sugarcoat the greatest rock band of all time.
Turned into cartoons and contests measured in points, the music was transformed into a game achievement. Good for games, sure. But bad for music.
If you've played Guitar Hero or Rock Band, you'll understand the elusive 100-percent score. Sure, there are plenty of idiot savants with a YouTube account ready to show you how easy it is to nail "Freebird" on Expert. Most of us -- through lack of talent, patience or the presence of a nervous condition -- can't manage to get all the notes right, even in a song we can play from memory.
But the other night, with a bunch of kids in my house wallowing in all the joys that The Beatles: Rock Band with the "Abbey Road" expansion pack has to offer, I say to the assembled 11-year-olds: "Let's play 'Her Majesty!' It's awesome and it's only like 30 seconds long!"
Middle-school students, it turns out, are willing to go along with an idea strung on such a thin premise and we play the song. Me on guitar. Otto on bass.
The song ends and Otto whoops -- I GOT 100 PERCENT! ON HARD!
What? How is this possible? He's a decent player. But not 100-percent-on-Hard good.
Then he spills the beans:
Bass, on The Beatles: Rock Band, playing "Her Majesty," is only one note. The song starts, one note floats down, and you hit it or you miss it. 100 percent or 0 percent. Otto hits it.
So, moments later, he sets up on Expert, same song, on bass, and nails it. One note, 100 percent. On Expert!
The rest of the kids in the room gape for a moment, then take turns performing that same move. 100 percent. 100 percent. 100 percent.
For those about to rock, winning has become much more interesting than contemplating the sublimated sexual energy and political anarchy in the delicate songwriting and passionate genius embodied on the recording. In other words, 100 percent beats Lennon and McCartney.
Winning, it turns out, can be more important than music. And the Jonas Brothers crank it another ironic turn further, as the idea of the Jonas Brothers becomes more important than either music or gameplay.
And I really want to hate the Jonas Brothers because of this. Except I am lost in the house of mirrors, disoriented and feeling a little bit as if I really like these Jonas kids.
I finally find my move busted
What I learn from playing Disney Jonas is this: The Jonas Brothers are triplets or, I guess, clones. They live with their mom and dad, but have fire poles in their house and eat from slushy machines. That is because they are so rich they can take their private jet to get pizza (pizza!). They dress inside a giant computer and girls chase them in an effort to tear off their clothes.
Because they are clones, you can switch between each of the brothers by clicking on them. Because they are dressed by a computer, you get to select their outfits; and because they are rich, their mom wants them to walk to school to take it down a notch and "get real." Girls chase them down the block, so you have to run to school.
The few moments that you actually get to pretend to play the Jonas Brothers' music are interrupted by a series of unrelated interactive chores that all feel like junior-game-programmer exercises. Here -- you can jump on this box! Hey -- you can match three notes to unlock a power-up! Ho -- you can run mindlessly through the simple street grid of the neighborhood! Oh -- go wandering around some more looking for some switch or key character.
The vast majority of Disney Jonas amounts to see-this-click-this. Except for the parts that are so hard, they make you want to swear real swearwords, even though this is a Jonas Brothers game.
But here's the crazy part. Even though Jonas is broken on a pretty fundamental design level; and is fairly boring as a game, when it's not just inexplicably difficult; the whole Jonas Brothers thing is kind of catchy. Cheesy, sure. But you can see Disney's wholesome tween machine in full force here. For real kids looking for some foothold in popular culture, something like a Jonas Brothers game reinforces all the good things that your parents desperately hope you'll pick up in life, combined with something a little less wholesome, something sexy like rock 'n' roll. But something safe, like the toy rock embodied in music games.
The reason we have the Jonas Brothers is the same reason that we have Rock Band: the banality of aging rock 'n' roll. The Jonas game slips in on this theme -- the idea that rock is a family-friendly affair and would be great topic for a kids' game.
The trouble is, sucking on the wholesome fumes of the American Dream and apple pie, no one bothers to think twice about the game itself.
The folks behind Rock Band may love rock 'n' roll. But they obviously love games more. The people behind the Jonas Brothers must care about something, but it sure isn't games, and it might not even be music.
Still, it's too bad it has to go down in a half-baked package like this. What the world needs is something a little more obvious. LEGO Jonas Rock Band, anyone?
This review is based on a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher. The writer wonders if they will ever send him another game after this review.
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