For a long time, I had thought to myself that I could never get into the plastic instrument music game genre. Cost was the main factor, as well as me going through a phase where I was listening to nothing but film scores and NES tunes. But in early 2009, I had gotten the chance of a lifetime: A copy of Guitar Hero: Aerosmith for $10, which came with a free guitar controller. That was when I started getting into the genre; now I own several Guitar Hero games, as well as games of competitor Rock Band.
Despite Activision’s idea last year that “more Guitar Hero games = more profit,” — leading to oversaturation as a result — the genre is still going strong, and developer InstantAction decided to do their own version of it: Instant Jam. The game is an online Facebook application playable from your web browser, with only an installation of Java required. The game is currently in beta as I write this review.
What’s Instant Jam’s advantage compared to Rock Band or Guitar Hero? The answer is simple: the game’s set list is your MP3 collection. Sick of begging for Muse in Rock Band? You can play songs by Muse and a myriad of other bands previously unseen in those other games in Instant Jam. You can also play songs by bands that aren’t rock-focused as well. Ever wanted to play Daft Punk or Pet Shop Boys in those games? You can in Instant Jam. I was even able to play Haddaway’s “What is Love?” in the game, which was an amusing novelty considering its cult status for being that song used in a Saturday Night Live sketch.
Once you have your set list, you choose a song and one of four difficulties: Casual (like “Easy” in Guitar Hero or Rock Band), Normal (“Medium”), Hard, or Expert. The problem here is that some charts only have Casual or Normal difficulties, others only have Expert charts. Only a few of the songs actually have all four difficulties from what I saw. I also had problems where songs didn’t want to play, dumping me with a mysterious error that ran in an infinite loop until I hit refresh on my web browser.
For those unfamiliar with the genre, it’s relatively simple: Hit buttons in time to a music track to score points. Some notes will glow a different color and give the player energy that when activated, doubles the score multiplier. After the song is complete, you’re given stars to determine how well you did. Instant Jam does the same features that those games have: Five notes in the respective green-red-yellow-blue-orange colors, their equivalent of Star Power called “Jam Power,” and lightning bolts replacing stars. You can use the keyboard to play the game, or plug in a USB-powered Guitar controller, which works perfectly fine for playing the game. I used my Gibson Xplorer guitar controller for the Xbox 360 and I could play and strum just fine, which is a big plus.
For Instant Jam to have song tracks to play in the game, the game has to scan your entire computer for MP3s. Now I have MP3s scattered all over my PC, and it will pull its playlist from whatever songs that match their charts. But even when it doesn’t have an Instant Jam chart, the MP3 will play in the game’s menu while choosing songs, messing with the shop, or fiddling with other options. I’ve had film scores, video game music, and former GFW editor Jeff Green yelling at Anthony Gallegos play in the background. It would be nice to limit it to whatever songs are in the “my songs” category, and it baffles me why they designed it that way. If you don’t have a song that Instant Jam has charts for, you can buy them off Amazon or iTunes and have them work in the game. The problem is that I had songs that have IJ charts, only to find the the game does not detect them. You can play them with the MP3s that you have, but all this does is lead to charts not syncing properly with the music most of the time. Other times I had songs disappear from my songs list, mysteriously not being detected by the program despite being detected and playable when I last played it. Overall, their song detection seriously needs work.
The biggest problem I had with Instant Jam is how the songs are charted. At times, the game made me play keyboard sections instead of guitar (Caesars’ “Jerk It Out,” Huey Lewis and the News’ “The Power of Love”), or switch awkwardly between the guitar and bass (Cake’s “The Distance”). The overall charting seems really awkward. I didn’t think InstantAction could rival Guitar Hero III-era Neversoft in really awkward charting. Of course, this may be nitpicking on my part, but unless there’s no playable guitar track, I should be playing the guitar from beginning to end, not switching between various instruments for the sake of variety.
Instant Jam limits the numbers of songs you can play to three a day, unless you level up, where your play count resets. Every time you finish songs, you unlock credits to buy new guitars, new backgrounds, and new notes on the fretboard. Some don’t unlock until you reach higher levels, others don’t unlock unless you pay money, which is something I really don’t like. I feel that this type of subscription model leads to “nickeling and diming” your audience, but due to the popularity of other online mediums doing the same thing — exchanging real cash for in-game goods — I’m not surprised InstantAction decided to adopt the same business model.
Outside of the gameplay, there are more issues in this beta. Settings not being saved, screens mysteriously shrinking before the main menu loads, even times where the game absolutely refused to load on my various web browsers. Coupled with the problems I already mentioned earlier, it makes the game look like an inconsistent buggy mess.
Now, I can forgive these guys slightly since it’s a game in a beta state. But right now as I write this review, the concept is solid, but the execution is awful. Since there are a lot of Facebook users these days, Instant Jam could be massively popular to the casual crowd if it is well designed and properly marketed. But right now, I can’t recommend that anybody should play this. This non-recommendation is not just for music game diehards, Facebook users and casual gamers in general should also stay away from this. In fact, I’d suggest that you try Frets on Fire instead, which is a free PC game that essentially does the same thing as Instant Jam does, but without all the bugs. Here is hoping that in six months time, they polish the product considerably, because this looks promising.
FINAL SCORE: 2/5.