Developers for every platform should recognize that Dance Dance Revolution (DDR) has set the standard for dance games, just as Guitar Hero and Rock Band define the genre of music simulation games. So when I slipped the Just Dance disc into my Wii, when I saw there was no integration with my dance pad, that it used only a Wiimote (not even a nunchuk?), I was skeptical.
My worries were hardly quieted by the bare bones packaging, for while we've all been told not to judge a game by its cover, it's pretty much globally accepted that we all do anyway. I am wary of any game that hasn't invested a minimum of effort into appearances. For me, this was at the very least another hurdle for the game to overcome, and without the aid of Wii-accessories, it's hard to believe it could make such a giant leap.
I won't say it cleared the hurdle, but it didn't quite fall flat on its face either.
Just Dance is not a competitor for DDR or similar games. This is a dance simulation in title only. A far better classification puts Just Dance in the same playing field as workout videos. While there is some attempt at skill requirements, of racing to match the moves of the on-screen character, the greater use of the game seems to be to get players moving, sweating, and in my case, wheezing for my inhaler.
My measure of a good workout is how quickly it gives me an asthma attack, and this title clocks in at an admirable two-and-a-half minutes. The measure of a good game on the other hand, is, at least for the Wii, enjoyment, and Just Dance shattered my expectations by being far more enjoyable than DDR.
The music is an unapologetic mash-up of fast-paced hits as incongruous as “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” and “Who Let the Dogs Out.” They are the type of songs that you don't have to admit you like to enjoy dancing along to. Consequently, it beats out the first DDR Hottest Party release, which is made up of remixes in an R&B dance club style, a style that I happen to detest. There may be 50 songs on the DDR disk (still not enough to my mind), but there are only a handful I can stomach, which limited my desire to play, particularly since half of them seem to be inexplicably slow. Just Dance songs are easily recognizable, and even if I don't especially like each one (or any), none are so excruciatingly painful that they detract from the gameplay. In fact, all of them are lively and fun to spaz to. Adding to the fun factor, the game gives lyrics along the top of the screen, so if I ever manage to catch my breath (unlikely) I could sing along, assuming I'm completely alone in the house. This is exactly the kind of fun you hope no one ever puts on YouTube. From an athletic point of view, the player is given an option of long or short versions before each song, which is a nice shortcut for the desperately out of shape, though it would be better if this choice could be pre-set in the options rather than interrupting gameplay. The biggest problem with music in Just Dance is simply the small number of tracks. The “more than” 30 songs featured will quickly get old, which could well cut off pleasure more quickly than any of the game's other shortcomings.
The other main difference between Just Dance and DDR, and the reason I define it as a gamed-up workout video, is play style. DDR closely resembles the interface of Guitar Hero, with symbols telling you where to step (or which key to press). DDR requires quite a lot of practice before you can really get into it, with the hand motions suggested seeming to be half-assed add-ons of no real value, at least on “easy” which is all I've ever managed to play. It is clearly a skill based game, and I simply don't have any.
Just Dance, with no peripherals, cannot and does not use any such intricacies. Instead it uses the Wiimote to judge how well you mirror the movements of the on-screen figure. Since I have the dance skills of an injured walrus, I can't say how accurate the read the game gets is, but honestly it seems pretty random. If you want to show your moves, go get DDR. I was able to enjoy myself playing Just Dance in spite of my 30% success rate. I have no doubt that DDR veterans would find Just Dance either painfully easy, or horribly calibrated, but ignore them. They can take their fancy freestyling expert moves to DDR3, and good riddance.
Menu items are fairly straightforward, and in spite of their starkness, not visually problematic. I was also a bit tickled by the feedback sounds, which give off a changing musical tone when menu items were touched and a satisfying snapping sound when selected. The visuals during actual gameplay were dull, I think I'd like it better if they used my cartoon Mii, but that is a minor point.
I thought the lack of a dance pad would make Just Dance a bit pathetic, but it actually frees me up to flail around and exhaust myself much more effectively. It also presents one less obstacle for starting a game: sad as it might be, I often found it more effort than it was worth to unfold and plug in my dance pad, especially knowing I'd have to go and put it away again when finished. Talk about way too much work. With Just Dance, all I have to do is grab the Wiimote and turn on the TV, possibly tricking myself by pretending that I'm going to flop down and watch Family Guy right up until the music starts. It's the ideal low investment solution for someone whose horrific doctor told her to lose 10 lbs, but who really hates working out. Whatever. Why don't you lose 10 lbs, Dr. Tubby?
Just Dance also has a couple advantages over a traditional workout video. For one thing, you don't have to listen to some skinny wannabe cheerleader chirping instructions and “encouragement” at you while you huff miserably until you pull something in your back. Here, there is a simple (if somewhat boring) warm-up, and for the main gameplay, instructions come in Tetris-style preview shots, not distracting from the wildly uncoordinated booty shaking, far preferable to “and lift and lift and lift… okay!” It also actually manages to be fun and not just in that no-really-I-love-puking-up-my-lungs sense, until that is, you catch a glimpse of your lumpy sweatpanted reflection in the sliding glass door and beyond notice your horrified neighbor frozen in the act of raking his lawn.
In terms of interface, the greatest barrier to enjoyment in Just Dance is the sometimes ambiguous preview images. Though the preview on the bottom uses simple iconography to prepare you for the next dance move, arm motions are frustratingly unclear, at least until you've failed a few times. However, this annoyance is easily ignored for me since I've long since given up hope of getting a decent score, and see no incentive to try anyway.
This is hardly a platform changing game, but since it doesn't have “revolution” in the title, I guess it doesn't have to be. There's no payoff if you do well, there are no extras, and no goals. Judge it as a dance game and it frankly stinks, but as an easy workout alternative, it's not too bad. If I could change one thing, I'd add about 100 more simple, catchy, possibly obnoxious songs to keep the game from getting too monotonous. Just Dance doesn't measure up to what we've come to expect from dance games, nor what we should expect, but it's fun and easy to pickup without much preparation. I would not buy it at full price, but if you can find it used for $15 it's probably got a better chance of getting you off the couch than that $50 per month donation to the local fitness club.
Just Dance is rated E10+ (Everyone 10 and older) by the ESRB for Lyrics and Mild Suggestive Themes.