The first promo images for Easy Piano were one of those "oh cool!" moments for me as a gamer. The game not only promised an intuitive piano tutorial that would teach you the basics and even the ability compose your own songs, but it came bundled with a slick little keyboard to make the experience as authentic as possible on the DS. Just seeing that keyboard plugged into a DS made me think of a classy, mature game--this wasn't some candy-colored approximation, it looked like the real thing. After suffering with the hand-cramping fret grip from the Guitar Hero DS games, I was ready for something more real. Here was a music game that got it: gamers were tired of using cheap plastic instruments to mimic musicians, they wanted to learn how to play an actual instrument.
I’ve been tapping away at Easy Piano for a couple weeks now and I can report that the keyboard peripheral met my expectations. It’s great—solidly built, comfortable, functional and attractive. It’s not the most portable add-on for the DS but it isn’t really meant to be. Rather, it’s designed with a sturdy base, so that you play it by resting both your DS and the keyboard on a flat surface. Like the Guitar Hero grip, it plugs into the GBA slot so it’s only compatible with the old DS and the DS Lite—no DSi support. That said it’s a great peripheral, and I wish more developers provided such solidly designed add-ons.
Easy Piano includes a touch screen keyboard and thus can function without the keyboard peripheral, but using the add-on is far more comfortable. However, the game’s menus and minigames use touch controls and the keyboard in tandem, which can get awkward when you have to switch back and forth.
It’s too bad the game’s quality doesn’t match that of the keyboard. With the title being Easy Piano, I went in expecting a quick and intuitive primer on basic piano mechanics. Technically you get that with this game, but you have to dig for it and once you get at the good content it’s not nearly as seamless as it should be.
Easy Piano has three main modes, the first of which is learning mode. Contrary to what you’d think, this mode is made up of minigames that teach you to read music. There’s a wide variety of simple challenges that teach you how to draw F and G clefs, read the C to C scale supported on the keyboard peripheral, add flats and sharps to notes and place notes in the correct position on the scale. These are all useful skills to be sure, but they aren’t presented in a helpful way. The minigames are bland and require a lot of trial and error to get right, mostly because the instructions are somewhat confusing.
The minigames also lack internal consistency, with rules changing significantly among multiple lessons. With so many activities geared toward reading music, I would’ve preferred basics on finger placement and hand movement techniques. These lessons do show up eventually but at the end of the minigame sequence, so you have to play through a large selection of pretty dry minigames before you’re even playing the piano. What’s more, the actual playing lessons are just as frustrating as the others. Valcon was nice enough to leave a developer file on my review cartridge so I wouldn’t have to slog through all the content in order, but I imagine retail copies will make you go in sequence. It feels like they tried to adapt a weeks-long piano lesson onto a series of minigames, and the end result is rather cumbersome.
For dedicated players who can stomach the tutorials, or just experienced musicians who know how to write music, there’s a song editor mode. This toolset is about as user-friendly as the song creators in the Guitar Hero series and takes quite a bit of practice to use effectively, but has the depth to create some complex songs if you invest the time.
Star pianist mode is the real meat of the game and the aspect that most closely resembles typical music games like Guitar Hero or Rock Band. The game includes an impressive variety of songs across four genres—classical, traditional, anthems and pop—and you play each song on a horizontal scrolling note highway. The Guitar Hero similarities make it easy to get a handle on the gameplay quickly, but the keyboard controls can get confusing. Each song naturally uses different combinations of keys, requiring you to place your hands in different positions or slide up and down the keyboard. There’s no flaw here—this is just how you play the piano—but gamers accustomed to Guitar Hero’s mostly uniform hand placement will get frustrated quickly. More in depth basic piano playing tutorials would have been a huge help here, and it’s a shame that so much gameplay was wasted on dry notation and music reading minigames.
The difficulty curve is also a problem. Easy Piano includes only two difficulty settings: beginner and virtuoso. Like Guitar Hero, Easy Piano removes a lot of notes on beginner difficulty, so the transition to virtuoso is quite jarring. This is basically the equivalent of the easy and expert modes in Guitar Hero; needless to say, a medium and hard option would have been nice.
In terms of production values, the game’s menus and graphics are all attractive and easy to navigate, presented as a lesson room. A helpful instructor guides you through all the minigames, and you play as her in star pianist mode. You can even choose the venue and outfit she wears. Multiple characters would’ve been a nice addition, but what is available works perfectly well. Unfortunately the actual audio quality of the songs is rather poor—most are very synthesized sounding, and the pop songs contain no vocals. I hate to keep comparing this game to Guitar Hero, but about the only thing the On Tour games did really well was audio quality.
Easy Piano isn’t a bad game, but it doesn’t live up to the class promised by the peripheral. There is a good deal of content in the game but it isn’t organized all that well. If you work at it you can definitely learn some music theory, but so much of the content is locked up in boring minigames and the focus is skewed toward music reading, when a more comprehensive and better sequenced tutorial would have gotten the job done. Easy Piano offers a wide range of information on playing the piano and with some hard work it can impart basic skills, but it doesn’t succeed as an intuitive crash course on learning to play quickly and comfortably.
It’s a shame because the keyboard is one of the best peripherals I’ve seen on a handheld or home console. Easy Piano feels very much like a first effort at a music game, and hopefully Valcon will produce a sequel that exploits the potential of the keyboard, and really embodies the fun of learning a musical instrument.