Ever since the original Guitar Hero popularized virtual shredding through “Bark at the Moon,” I’ve been clamoring for a music game that would let me truly improvise. While I still enjoy playing through the guided Skittles factory in Rock Band, strictly adhering to some rock idol’s dynamic solos feels limiting now. There have been other music games that have tried to inject creativity into the formula – DJ Hero‘s record scratching, Wii Music‘s misguided complete lack of structure – but it wasn’t until I played PixelJunk 4am that I finally felt like I was making music of my own. Somehow, the game captures much of the joy and nervous excitement of playing in front of a live crowd, with Move controllers standing in for swaying lighters. Some players might be put off by the emphasis on creation and performance, but 4am is a major step forward for both the genre and motion control.
At the same time, you should be aware that 4am is not a game in the traditional sense.Â There are no songs to pass, and you can play as long as you’d like without break. (As I write this, I’ve been listening to the same player from Connecticut for 45 minutes straight.) There are certainly objectives to be met and record-breaking audiences to woo, but you’ll ultimately get as much out of the game as you put in. Though 4am only uses the Move Controller(s), there is an extraordinary amount of depth found in your virtual 3D space. By holding down the trigger, you can “pluck” instrumental tracks from the air, and simply moving the controller through the space in front of you can manipulate and distort your music in surprising ways. Layering on tracks always feels natural, and while I miss having an on-screen reticule, there is a purity to the experience that I would never trade.
There are some cute trophies to unlock – try wearing a green shirt while you’re calibrating – but for the most part, playing is its own reward. Though the playable portion of the game remains locked from those who don’t have a Move, anyone can download the live video feed and tune in to performing player streams. If you’re a fan of electronic or house music, you’re going to love Q-Games collaborator Baiyon‘s contributions here. Some players will make more enjoyable music than others,Â but it’s hard to go wrong with the guy behind the PixelJunk Eden soundtrack laying the foundation; I’m 99% sure that even the least musically inclined can produce something beautiful here.
The game is a visual success, too, with visualizers ranging from a trippy Spirograph to a cascade of colors paying homage to “2001: A Space Odyssey.” The game is almost always a pleasure to see and hear. It’s also nice to know that I can give my own mp3s the 4am treatment using the included custom visualizer if I get bored. With only a couple musicians online at any given a time, there’s a greater risk of this happening than I’d like.
This is really my only concern with 4am, and it’s the main reason why this review took so long to write. Under ideal circumstances, players are hopping in and out of each other’s shows, tossing out kudos and taking notes for their own time in the spotlight. However, over a month since 4am debuted, I rarely see more than a couple players jamming at a given time, and the few who are there seem to be the same crowd playing night after night. Don’t get me wrong – there is a community for this game. They’re scattered on Facebook, fan pages and message boards, but they’re out there. However, I worry that the odds of hearing the next mesmerizing groove every night is growing increasingly slim.
I’m not sure if there’s a way around this issue either. The Move controller is an astounding device, but it remains a barrier to entry for most Playstation 3 owners. Compound that with the notion that you have to practice and work towards your fun, and it just seems like 4am is doomed to be a weird (yet wonderful) gaming footnote. But perhaps that doesn’t matter. Much like the house music that inspired it, maybe 4am belongs underground, developing a cult following and leaving a lasting impression on those who care to experiment with motion controls in the future.
The moments of triumph in PixelJunk 4am are fleeting. You can’t save your best songs and praise is anonymous. However, I can count few gaming moments as intoxicating as having 30+ people watching me as I was highlighted on the official 4am site. You’ll spend hours chasing these moments, and even if the current community is tiny, knowing that eyes are on you at all times makes you feel like part of something bigger.