This Could Be Good

Fantasia: Music Evolved

Use Your Illusions

Harmonix, the creator of Rock Band, teams up with Disney to create the Fantasia game you never knew you wanted.

By Drew Toal • June 4, 2013

Preview events offer only brief glimpses at very big games. Who knows how any given game will pan out in its final form? The most we can say is This Could Be Good.

Walking past the Google building and the Apple Store in the Meatpacking District on a warm Tuesday morning last week, I considered our collective dependence on each company’s signature tech marvel. Like the rest of the touchscreen-addicted zombies shambling up and down 14th Street, I’m hopelessly reliant on access to all of the information, instantly, and at all times.

Without both Google and Apple’s labors, in fact, I probably wouldn’t have been able to find my way to Soho House, an exclusive club nearby. I’m not often invited to these kinds of places, but it was at Soho House that Harmonix, the maker of Rock Band and Dance Central, was showing off its forthcoming project. My fingers were crossed for Lemmy Kilmister’s Super Guitar Kill Storm. What I got was the opposite.

Harmonix, I was soon to discover, had allied itself with Disney to produce a Microsoft-exclusive, Fantasia-based game to be played with Xbox’s Kinect motion-sensor camera. Yes, Fantasia, Walt Disney’s hugely experimental curiosity from the 1940s. It’s the same Fantasia that, for its initial theatrical run, developed the hugely expensive Fantasound—a pioneering and expensive theater-specific sound system meant to simulate a true symphony experience for moviegoers. When it was released, the animated film had all the trappings of a true high-grade boondoggle. Who was going to pay hard American currency to sit through two plus hours of Mickey Mouse set to orchestral arrangements? Still, against the odds, Fantasia gradually came to be profitable and accepted as a classic, if an unconventional one. For its part, the Kinect is still more boondoggle than classic, but with Xbox One doubling down on the technology, the worm may turn.

The upcoming game, officially called Fantasia: Music Evolved, focuses on “The Sorceror’s Apprentice”—Fantasia’s signature animated short, which features Mickey Mouse trying to shortcut his chores by harnessing powers he cannot control. The analogy between Mickey’s reliance on magic and our own dependence on “smart” technologies is self-evident, but less so when it comes to a piece of somewhat less intelligent, dust-attracting hardware like the Kinect.

Fantasia: Music Evolved

It’s fair to say there is a degree of skepticism when it comes to Disney and video games. It recently shuttered the much-beloved LucasArts studio after purchasing the rights to Star Wars. And, on the surface at least, mothballing lightsabers (at least temporarily, as the licensed rights were bestowed upon Electronic Arts) and focusing on a Kinect-based Fantasia music game is hardly a sure bet. Then again, LucasArts’ last project was Kinect Star Wars, a game so bad that Disney-assisted suicide might have been a mercy.

Fantasia: Music Evolved is far from complete (it’s slated for release some time in 2014), but I saw two relatively finished levels. The first is a realm called “The Shoals,” an aquatic symphony space filled with coral and other marine life. After only a couple of minutes watching a Harmonix team member run through the basics, it became apparent that the game was far better suited to motion controls than most I’ve seen. Where the Kinect controls in, say, Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor rendered that game all but unplayable, Harmonix’s Fantasia was by all appearances well-suited to Microsoft’s all-seeing eye.

Songs are embedded into the 3D environment, to be unlocked as you explore your surroundings. Once discovered, you “play” these songs by moving your hands around in concert, not unlike a would-be sorcerer. It’s clear that this isn’t just Rock Band with a Disney skin—there is no “right” way to play each song, and the game expects players to improvise. You and your friends might all play Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” but chances are that no version will sound exactly the same. At various points throughout the song, the player can choose one of three general paths—classical, rock ’n’ roll, or heavy metal—and the audio output will conform accordingly.

Fantasia: Music Evolved

Rather than rote emulation, the emphasis here is more on creation and discovery. This is a novel, potentially revolutionary approach to music games, but it’s difficult to see Fantasia: Music Evolved having the kind of longevity enjoyed by Harmonix’s other projects. Fantasia, while revered within Disney and a shining example of how big risks can pay off handsomely, doesn’t really have a ready-made gaming audience. It’s far from a given that anyone under the age of 30 has even been exposed to the film, and most Xbox owners born before 1980 have at best a casual familiarity with Fantasia.

That’s not to say that you need to know the movie to enjoy the game, but I’m curious to see just who is going to be playing this one, outside of energetic 5-year-olds, hardcore Disney fans, and maybe Derrick Sanskrit, Gameological’s resident tunesmith. Rock Band is a game that any college kid might buy and bring back to their dorm to play with friends. You can’t say the same thing about Fantasia: Music Evolved. Still, both Disney and Harmonix have a solid track record in their respective fields, and Walt’s animated classical music gambit has found an audience before. In any case, if the magic does prove to be exhausted, Harmonix can always fall back on my Lemmy Kilmister idea. Consider that a gift.

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  • ItsTheShadsy

    It’s way too early to make any kind of definitive statement about the quality of this, but this looks like:

    a. The right way to do a Wii Music style thing that’s more than just a sandbox.

    b. The right way to do a game adaptation, because you know if they did it 15 years ago, it would be a platformer.

    This probably isn’t for me, and I wrote it off immediately after hearing it announced. But maybe not so much now; I’m really intrigued after this write-up about the new kind of experience it might create.

    • duwease

       It was 22 years ago, but it *was* a platformer!

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fantasia_%28video_game%29

      • Flying_Turtle

        If you want to go even further back, there was a Sorcerer’s Apprentice game for the Atari 2600. It was reasonably fun, especially as the speed ramped up. There were 3 screens: one where brooms are filling up the basement with water, an outdoor area where you could shoot falling stars to prevent new brooms from forming and create buckets that bailed out the basement, and a staircase connecting the two.

        Anyway, that’s the end of “Old Guy Babbles About a 30-Year-Old Game.” Thanks, everyone!

        • duwease

          I like that it sounds like there is a completely pointless staircase screen connecting the two.. when there are only 3 screens total.  That is so Atari-era.

        • Flying_Turtle

          @duwease:disqus To the extent it has any purpose, it exists to slow you down. You can accomplish something in the basement and outside, but the staircase screen is just a screen to walk through.

          It also serves as a penalty if you fall off the staircase in the basement. If that happens, Mickey involuntarily drags his sorry carcass up the staircase screen as if he broke both his legs. Once the game speed starts really ramping up, that’s the next best thing to game over.

  • RidleyFGJ

    There is a really good idea in this game.

    Unfortunately, it’s going to be buried in 10 feet of shit with the way the soundtrack is going.

    • Roswulf

      I generally think the drive of semi-elitist internet communities to bash pop music is silly. But I have enough love for the original Fantasia (because NIGHT ON BALD MOUNTAIN) and enough admiration for its ambitious goal as a delivery system for accomplished classical music that linking the name with a game advertised as featuring the music of Bruno Mars and fun. irritates me.

      Now I like the idea of expanding beyond European masters- give me jazz, give me tin pan alley, give me classic rock, give me Motown but give me something the audience isn’t already consuming. That’s kind of the point of Fantasia.

      Now that may be what the game is-the launch trailer would emphasize the big names and 80% of the game could be a whirlwing tour through our shared cultural heritage. But MAN that trailer stings.

      • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

        Yeah, popular music can be genuinely great, and even when it’s not, dumb pop music has its place in culture and can be fun or engaging. But Fantasia’s aesthetic has never been about popular music, and certainly not anything with lyrics (Fantasia 2000 toyed with Jazz in ‘Rhapsody in Blue,’ but, again, not pop, no lyrics). Even a bona fide masterpiece pop song like Bohemian Rhapsody seems kind of jarring and out of place in this context.

        We already have some swell Harmonix-crafted ways to interact with great pop songs. It might have been interesting to see a game exploring other kinds of music.

        I mean, I have no special love for Fantasia, for Disney, or, honestly, for Classical music. But this just seems like kind of a failure to understand one of the fundamental elements of the source material.

        That said, a music game about creativity and exploration rather than rote repetition sounds kind of cool.

        • Roswulf

           This is a POINTLESS NITPICK, but Ave Maria from the original Fantasia did have lyrics. Not easily decipherable ones of course, and the presence of lyrics certainly does not make Franz Schubert pop, but…lyrics.

          Of course, five year old me would like to add, the Ave Maria sequence is BORING with its STUPID LIGHTS and so should not be treated as something to be emulated.

        • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

          Wow. I totally don’t remember that sequence. Probably because I was a little kid the last time I’d seen it, and was probably bored out of my mind.

          Okay, so if you want to do lyrics, they need to be in a dead language.

        • Roswulf

          I only remember it myself because it taught me how to fast-forward (child of VHS era).

      • mizerock

        Harmonix is making it clear that there will be several classical songs in the game, there just aren’t any among the first 5 tracks announced.

  • mizerock

    The biggest reason why my “games to be played” pile is so tall? Because Rock Band 3 is so damn fun, it was pretty much the only game I played from 11/2010 until XCOM came out. And, from everything I read about them, the people running Harmonix really know what they are doing, and clearly they have a deep love for their games and for their fans. I hope they make a billion dollars on this.

    This game does indeed look like its perfect for the Kinect. I bet I would be thrilled to play it for 5 or 6 hours … but then I would go back to playing Rock Band. Reading about it does make me want to play DJ Hero for a few songs. And maybe some “Dance Dance Revolution Disney Mix”.

  • duwease

    This is good news to me, since the irrational part of me refuses to accept that the Kinect was a bad purchase.  I’ve not only bought, but fully completed Kinect Sports, Dance Central 1, and Dance Central 2.. and I’m working on Dance Central 3 and The Gunstringer whenever I get the off chance to game when it’s not late at night.

    There’s also something like 5,000 calories of achievements left for me to finish in Fitness Evolved, which got put by the wayside when I realized Dance Central was exhausting AND also actually fun.  Yes, Fitness Evolved.. I told you I was committed.

    • mizerock

      Addictive gameplay + actual workout = my favorite games ever. Playing drums on Rock Band totally counts. I even played EA SPORTS Active 2 for quite a while – all it takes is the promise of a new trophy and I’m going crunches and running in place.

      I’m beginning to think that, by the time this game comes out next year, I’ll have come up with some excuse to buy an Xbox 360. They might even be crazy cheap once the Xbone is released, right? And then I’ll be catching up with all of those other Kinect-exclusive games you’ve listed above.

      • duwease

        Yeah, I think non-gaming companies (like Nike) are starting to realize the achievement structure really helps convince you to keep going at it.  I had a good streak going until the time constraints of family made me put exercising aside for awhile.

        • mizerock

          My Nike Fuel Band is SO DUMB (a $150 pedometer with a nice design but rather flawed mechanics), and yet … it does actually inspire me to walk those extra few blocks over lunch, and to walk home instead of taking the bus. Just as intended.

          Also, once I discovered that playing drums on Rock Band gives you a crazy amount of Fuel, I got pretty good at playing the drums.

  • dmikester

    Well, I’ve never owned anything Microsoft beyond the original Xbox, and therefore have never experienced the joys of Kinect.  And in theory, this would be the product that would make me purchase an Xbox 360/One; I love music/rhythm games, I love Disney, and I absolutely love Harmonix (word up to Amplitude).  But dear lord, that trailer annoyed me to no end.  Generic young people doing the same thing over and over again, with silly looking effects, and no gameplay footage of any kind?  I can see how it could be a bit hard to advertise Kinect gameplay, but c’mon.

  • Effigy_Power

    I think the main picture up there gave me diabeetus.

  • Swadian Knight

    This actually sounds relatively interesting, though the title had me expecting to control an army of broomsticks with gestures and music (which sounds like it could be a really cool RTS!) instead of waggling around to Bruno Mars (which sounds like a really shitty weekend evening).

  • Enkidum

    The RTS aspects of Brutal Legend as a kinect-based game with pointing to targets and voice commands to select units. (And magically, it picks up what you’re doing). Discuss.

  • DrFlimFlam

    You will not look like this while playing this game. You will look like an out of shape derp waving his arms in some sort of inhuman ritual.

    But for a second there I thought my dreams of conducting private orchestras would be true. Because man, I would WORK OUT to some Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

  • Naked Man Holding A Fudgesicle

    It wouldn’t be a Fantasia comment thread if someone didn’t post this.

  • Shuckleberry Hound

    I love Harmonix. And I love Fantasia. But this doesn’t look like a very inspired direction for Harmonix and this doesn’t actually resemble Fantasia in the slightest.

    I would be somewhat interested to play this as a curiosity, but Dance Central: Underwater Magic Remix Featuring “fun.” sounds like a Disney Channel nightmare. It’s a disappointment to see Harmonix reviving one of the more interesting Disney projects as merely a colorful name to slap onto the same lazy radio-pop playlist in every other dancing game.