When Disney first announced their latest music game, Fantasia: Music Evolved, an Xbox One and Xbox 360 Kinect powered game (though not, as yet, an exclusive), the reaction from the internet was... not quite as positive as Disney could have hoped for. Developed by music maestros Harmonix, the creators of the original Guitar Hero, and the Rock Band series, people did their best to give the game the benefit of the doubt, but the initial trailer left a lot to be desired, making the game appear to be nothing more than a generic Just Dance clone, a game to let trendy people dance around to the sound of Bruno Mars and Lady Gaga, as they could in a bevy of other games. There was no sign of Mickey Mouse, no sign of anything even remotely Disney, and perhaps most sacrilegiously of all, no classical music. And so, the internet exploded.
But how wrong they were.
We got to go eyes-on with Fantasia: Music Evolved at an event, where the ever energetic John Drake was more than keen to clear up any misconceptions. "I think that trailer was, not a bad trailer, but it came at the wrong time in the campaign. We hadn't established what the game was yet. [It was trying to say] "You're gonna be making music with crazy movements to cool songs", but people were wondering "Why is this Fantasia?", and they came to that trailer, and they didn't get that answer. So we've announced all this classical music, and kind of tried to back our way out of what happened!"
And back their way out of it they have. What we saw of Fantasia was a world away from the generic looking dancing game in the trailer - instead, it's a game that takes the Fantasia concept, of mixing great music with gorgeous imagery, and ties it all up in a music game that lets you conduct it all for yourself.
If you've ever seen Fantasia, one of the most famous moments from the film is when the young Sorcerer Mickey, in an ill fitting red robe, starts to use his magic to help clean the room. Standing on top of a plinth, waving his arms in time with the music, things in the room slowly began to come to life - brooms danced, buckets filled, and things got cleaned as Mickey conducted, with everything tying in perfectly with the music - and that's what Fantasia aims to recreate, in game form.
Standing in front of your Kinect camera, you're presented with a dark screen that has a sort of star scape on it. As the music starts, little beams of light will appear on the screen, and it's up to you to swipe your hand in the direction they show, in time with the music, with a little triangle that shoots across the screen giving you your cue - when it crosses the beam, you wave your arm like there's no tomorrow, kind of like a motion controlled version of Xbox Live Arcade music game, Boom Boom Rocket. It may not be the easiest of concepts to explain with words, but like every great game, it's one that's instantly clear when you see it in motion. If only they'd released a trailer like this first:
While it may be a simple concept, there's something about Fantasia that makes it intrinsically "cool". Although all you're doing is sitting (or standing) waving your arms around in front of your TV and looking a little bit daft in the process, you genuinely feel like you're "conducting" an orchestra - and combined with the hands-free gameplay Kinect offers, there really is something that's more than a little bit magic about it.
But while waving your arms in time with the music is cool (and to be honest, we'd probably be happy with that on its own), Fantasia isn't a game to settle for halves, and takes the concept of letting you essentially "conduct" the music yourself that much further, by letting you "mix" the track on the fly, and create your own unique take on the tune.
Again, this is a lot simpler than it sounds - but it's no less impressive when you see it in action. At several points in the song, you'll come across a decision screen, where you have to swipe towards one of the corners to choose what the song does next. One of the options will let the song stay as it is, in its original form - but the other will seamlessly transition to a completely different mix. The demo we saw was of Winter, from Vivaldi's Four Seasons, which was all progressing nicely until we came to the decision screen. Swipe in the one direction, and the strings of the orchestra would stay the same; swipe in another, and they'd fade out to be replaced by drums and an electric guitar, as you turn the classic into a blistering rock track, while swiping in the pink direction would make it - you guessed it - dubstep. Dubstep Vivaldi. Name another game that would have the guts to do something like that?
Yet oddly enough, it works. Whether you're adding an orchestra to Bohemian Rhapsody, turning the White Stripes into Reggae, or the aforementioned dubstep Vivaldi, the transitions are flawless - although each branch does change the difficulty of the song, with some sections being substantially easier than others.
As if dropping the bass in the middle of a classical tune didn't let you leave enough of a mark on the tune, however, there are several other sections in amongst the arm waving that let you really make a difference. At one point, the prompts disappear to be replaced with diamonds on the screen, which, when you wave your arms over them, become an impromptu drum machine. Play a cool drum roll, and the game would keep it going in the background, as you go back to conducting to the arrows on screen. A little bit later, there was a harpsichord section, where twisting and turning a pink dumbbell type object between your two hands would play notes. Create a tune you like, and the game again kept the loop playing in the background as the main melody came back in, letting you build your own, unique, layered take on the song. Even with no musical experience whatsoever, even without having a clue what note should go where, Fantasia lets you create your own music on the fly, and put your stamp on a range of classics.
Of course, as the original trailer suggested, it isn't just classical music you'll find in here. While the game promises plenty of the tunes you'd expect from a game like this, from Mussorgsky's Night on Bald Mountain to Mozart's Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, there's a wide range of music to cater to all tastes, from David Bowie (Ziggy Stardust), Elton John (Rocketman) and the White Stripes (Seven Nation Army) to the Gorillaz (Feel Good Inc), and even Cee Lo Green (Forget You), which we're hoping will be the radio edit, seeing as this is a game that's aimed at families. Isn't it?
"I think there are three target audiences. There's Disney fans, who're every age. There's music gamers who've been waiting for another music game. And then there's kids and families who want to play a game with their kids. Nothing in this game is violent or scary, it's huge music, and it's fun for kids. Ten and over, I think they could master the game, under ten, they can have fun playing, but they may have some trouble with some of the more difficult levels that we have.", Drake explained.
Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, there's more than just some music tracks to perform in Fantasia, too. Tying in with the film, the game is divided up into areas, each of which has a certain theme and plays out kind of like an interactive storybook. The world we saw demoed, The Hollow, started out by plonking you in a completely dark, icy forest, in the middle of the night. The only thing on screen was a small, glowing orb, which you could move around with your hands. By brushing it into, and otherwise interacting with objects in the environment, you could release chunks of energy from the environment - and once you'd collected enough, you got to pick a song. Complete the song, and dive back into the land, and things look different. The sun's began to rise, there's a sea monster asleep in a frozen pond, and bushes that play notes when you wave your hand over them. Play another song, and the world changes again, until eventually, you come across a red Yeti who's awoken from his slumber in a cave. Like most Yetis, he's not angry, just misunderstood - and he wants you to teach him how to sing (which he somehow gets across without actually saying anything). With birds fluttering around him, all you have to do is wave your hands over the birds to get them to tweet a tune - which the yeti will then sing back to you. His vocal chords now fully flexed, it's on to the next song, and on with the game, in a demo that kept surprising.
Having come into the presentation not really knowing what to expect, Fantasia was one of the games that really blew us away. Mixing a genuinely fun music game with the sort of crazy, on the fly music mixing that only Harmonix could really pull off, Fantasia looks set to carry the Fantasia name forward into the next generation, much as Disney and Harmonix had hoped. With the initial bad taste now fully vanished, Harmonix are focusing their efforts on making something truly special - something they've managed to pull off before.
"I mean, look at what happened with the Beatles. [They said] 'You're gonna take on the Beatles?! You're crazy, Beatles shouldn't be in a video game, you're gonna ruin it' - and it's one of the highest rated metacritic games ever. [So] why don't you trust us! We know what we're doing! We want Fantasia to be good too, we're not trying to ruin it with Bruno Mars dubstep!"
And he's right. What they've done is create about only game in the world that actually seems better with Bruno Mars dubstep. Set for a release later this year, budding music maestros, child prodigies, and those who just love waving their arms at Kinect should keep a close eye on this one.