You want to be a rock star, don’t you? Come on, admit it. Somewhere deep in the inner recesses of your subconscious, a bushy-haired spandex-clad 1980’s Mick Jagger wannabe is just waiting to burst out. You can see yourself standing tall in the middle of some stage, singing your soul out to a sold-out stadium crowd. Maybe your fans have their Zippo lighters raised to show their feverish adoration of you. Perhaps there’s even a fresh stash of alcohol, drugs, and groupies waiting for you offstage. A bit too much for you? Don’t worry about it. That whole “sex, drugs, and Rock & Roll” thing is overrated anyway. Besides, have you ever actually touched a real guitar, let alone played one? The closest experience most gamers have had probably involves Guitar Hero. But for DS owners that are craving a chance to show off their musical prowess, Jam Sessions just might be what they’re looking for.
Let’s be clear about one thing, though: this is not a handheld version of Guitar Hero. There is no audience to please (unless you want to impress your friends by gathering them around your DS), nor will you be graded on your performance. There is no fake Gibson guitar for you to fondle, either. Instead, you’ll be able to simulate your strumming by running your stylus over the Touch Screen. While there’s only a single string shown onscreen, you can play different chords by keeping your thumb firmly over the directional pad and pressing the area mapped to each chord. While this probably sounds awkward (especially for DS owners that haven’t switched to Lite), the game displays the chord denotations on the top screen and how they correspond to the controls. While inexperienced players may not understand what all the little letters and symbols mean, guitarists won’t have much trouble with the transition.
There are no expectations, no preset difficulties. The only learning curve you’ll ever face is self-imposed. It’s just you, a bunch of chords, and all the time in the world. But if you want to test your skills on some pre-made music as opposed to experimenting with the Free Play Mode, the Songs Menu provides plenty of choices. You’ll find a selection that spans across the likes of Bob Dylan, Nirvana, Coldplay, and James Taylor. These aren’t the actual songs in their entirety, but just the guitar chords that correspond with them. Though you’ll be able to play along with the lyrics as they crawl up the top screen, you don’t have to worry about achieving high scores; the song will stop until you’ve played the right chord. You’ll probably perform terribly on the first playthrough, but constant practice will go a long way in perfecting your song challenges.
While the gameplay is nowhere near as intense or stressful as other musical games, it is disappointing. There are only twenty songs available, and there are far better choices than what you’re given here. Bob Marley, Johnny Cash, Janis Joplin, and Jimi Hendrix are welcome sights on a guitar emulator, but why are Avril Lavigne and Death Cab for Cutie here? Where are Eric Clapton, Jerry Garcia, and Carlos Santana? Jimmy Page and Keith Richards would have been awesome here. Some Van Halen, Metallica, or even the Allman Brothers could have worked as well. It’s not like there are full songs crammed into the DS cart; couldn’t Ubisoft at least have included a few more titles to their arrangement? Would it be so bad (and perhaps elitist, according to some folks) to have the most highly regarded guitarists as part of the lineup? The limited song selection reeks of wasted potential.
You probably won’t spend much time in the Songs Mode, though. You’ll be too busy tinkering with the extra options and customizations. Since you can hook up your DS with an amp, feel free to give your buddies an impromptu concert. If you’re feeling confident in your abilities, you can record your playing session and (if you’ve got the right connections) transfer it to another recording device. Or if you just want to mess around or work on some tune, the game will record a set number of strokes before ending the session. But if you’re getting sick of the pre-set chords and how they’re mapped onto the controls, the customizable palettes are a huge benefit. Should you feel the need to go crazy and start experimenting, you’ll be able to modify everything from the tremolo, flanger, and all those other musical terms that you probably don’t know. If anything, you’ll probably spend more time poring over the dozens of selectable images for your screen wallpapers. While such things don’t add much to the experience, it’ll make your DS look pretty.
For those of you that are considering adding Jam Sessions to your collection, be warned: this is not a game. Instead, it’s a program that basically turns your DS into a makeshift guitar. It fulfils that job well; the sound is remarkably crisp and accurate, the controls are easy to pick up, and some guitarists might appreciate all of the little tweaks and customizations available. But when it comes to the other gameplay aspects, Jam Sessions falls flat. The list pre-set songs is mediocre at best. With so few songs and no incentive to replay, it feels rushed and tacked on. Indeed, much of this title comes off as lacking; Ubisoft focused so much on emulating a guitar that they abandoned any concept of a vivid or entertaining presentation. But hey, at least this is cheaper than the real thing.