It’s rare that I’ve played any sort of game and one of my initial thoughts has been, “I really need to be careful while playing this”. I’m a huge fan of some modern series which are laden with jump-scares, heart-wrenching dialogue and enough blood to make David Cronenberg wretch; yet I’ve never walked away thinking that the experience could push me to my limit.
Walk in UmJammer Lammy, which might have accelerated the onset of arthritis in my thumb joints by 10 years after just a few days of trying to speed full-pelt through the stages. It also sent my blood pressure soaring. However, this is not to denigrate the entire game; it is a fun little experience that’s more than worth picking up (for the low, low price of 5 euros on the EU PS Store, for PS3 and PSP/PS Vita), as long as you don’t strain yourself. It is simply one of those games where you must sometimes set the controller down and back away.
UmJammer Lammy is the spiritual successor to the much better-known rhythm game, PaRappa the Rapper. Unfortunately, due to my purse being bereft of everything except spare stamps and a Tesco Clubcard, starting with the series forerunner just wasn’t an option for me; PaRappa is currently unavailable on the EU PS Store, and PS1 copies, while not being cripplingly expensive (around the 15 euro mark, used and without packaging), were still beyond my budget. Besides, I felt like starting with the lovely Lammy was a stand for feminism that would make Germaine Greer proud; PaRappa is just a patriarchal gangsta dawg, while Lammy is an all-woman shred monster. Since I grew up idolising Kim Deal, Lammy seemed to speak to me on a personal level. Therefore, it was with zero hesitation that I bought UmJammer Lammy and downloaded it to my PS3.
My first thought on booting it up was how cheerful and bright, yet laughably incoherent it was. The opening cut-scene gives you a lead-in to the plot, but UmJammer consistently straddles the not-so-chasmic divide between “having no discernible story” and “having a story so surreal that there’s no point following it”. It’s very vaguely about Lammy being late to her own concert and the adventures she goes on while trying to get to the concert hall, but the amount she does manage to get up to in the in-game space of 15 minutes is quite honestly enough to make me believe Lammy owns an exact replica of Bernard’s Watch. The menu screen is chocolate-themed, and I still have no idea why this is the case. Regardless, it’s fun and sets the tone of the game perfectly: a cheerful romp in which you’re best leaving your brain at the door.
The default difficulty of UmJammer is the “normal” mode; however, I would only describe this as normal if you are a thoroughly abnormal gamer. I can only explain this from the perspective of someone relatively new to rhythm games: while it did own a copy of Dancing Stage Euromix as a wee lass, and duly jumped around on the mat like I was stamping out a particularly hardy colony of ants, I’ve never played this genre on a DualShock controller. As a result, I may be decried by readers with claims that hardcore PaRappa fans would find this game a step-down in difficulty. However, there will be plenty of players tapping into UmJammer for the first time, particularly plausible given the absence of PaRappa the Rapper on the European PS Store. Therefore, I feel that judgments based on difficulty are not wholly unfair.
There is a lot to discuss with regard to this difficulty. Normal mode requires punching allocated buttons in time with the song, copying the rhythm used by your musical partner; easy mode, which you have to manually select in the menu, still demands a honed sense of rhythm, but allows you to press whichever button you wish in time to the music. However, if you start with one difficulty, you cannot swap to another without plugging in/emulating a separate memory card or overwriting all previous save data. Furthermore, out of the 8 single player stages available, only the first 6 are accessible on easy mode. Therefore, UmJammer openly penalises you for being a baby and opting for easy mode. However, even easy mode can be very challenging, so if there’s one thing you should walk into this game expecting, it is bouts of intense frustration.
Going off the game as it runs on normal mode, the single player stages are an absolute delight to witness and are a slice of top-quality daftness. If you have the option of letting a friend or partner play through UmJammer and simply sitting back, you’ll have a blast just watching the songs unfold. Even though the game was released way back in 1999, some of the songs remind me of a mash-up between 1990s children’s TV and musical numbers from The Mighty Boosh. The melodic underpinnings of the songs are really well done; I had what I fondly describe as the “baby-selling” song (stage 3) stuck in my head for an entire day at work, which I’m not convinced is all that positive but is a sign that the game has staying power. Furthermore, the lyrics are so abstract and bizarre that they reduced me on occasion to snorting fits of laughter, or at least caused me to shake my head in disbelief at what I was hearing (take for example Stage 2, where the canine firefighter appears way too casual about hosing down a burning building with goodness knows how many people trapped inside).
However, it’s when you actually start playing the game that it can become a grating endurance test. On each of the 8 stages which comprise single-player mode, there is a scrolling line at the top of the screen which instructs the player when to press specific buttons. An icon to the side of this scrolling line, plus the colour of the line, instructs the player as to whose turn it is to “jam”: the instructor, or Lammy herself. That’s not all though: if you manage to input certain suitable patterns around the basic melody, you may earn more points. Earn enough points and the game enters “cool mode”, where you can jam to your heart’s content without having to follow specific button prompts. However, simply palm-mashing the DualShock controller à la obese Homer Simpson will lead to a bad mark, and potentially failing the level – specific rhythms have to be used in order to score well.
What I usually look like playing video games (left); what I looked like playing UmJammer Lammy (right)
From particularly the 3rd level onwards, I sometimes felt that I was inputting exactly what the game was commanding me to do, yet I was scoring badly. I didn’t quite know what I was doing wrong and found myself having to take breaks, to avoid getting too frustrated from multiple fails. When I went back and tried again on consecutive days, I got a little bit further and started to realise where I was coming unstuck: and herein lies once of my major disclaimers concerning the game.
The game is essentially a “Simon Says” type game, rather than one in which you are reading music to play as Lammy. This may seem to go without saying, but if you’re someone who has played instruments in the past which involve reading sheet music, rather than using intuition, UmJammer Lammy may be like fingernails down a chalkboard for you. I am one of these people.
When you get to a certain level with playing a classical instrument, especially if you play in orchestras, you learn to not simply follow the flow of other instrumental parts but rather to read the staves on your sheet music and focus on what you are doing. Where different instruments or sections weave between each other, creating a piece with fancy aural clashes, particularly the 2nd and 3rd chairs (who are playing the rhythm section) often have to persist without being too distracted by the soaring melodies of the 1st chair musicians. I was perenially 2nd chair in my decade or so of being a flautist, so I got used to blocking out what was going on around me and instead just reading off my part in the score.
Take this performance of Poulenc’s Sonata for Flute – ii.Cantilena; notice how the piano and flute start up out of time with each other at the beginning of the piece, and how the tempo seems to float about a lot, with the piano part pulling the flute part along but not necessarily always matching it. Part of the difficulty in this piece is the need to zone out from what the piano part is doing, while keeping half an ear open for tempo changes.
If you keep half an ear out for what’s going on around you, and mainly focus on reading the prompt bar like you would with sheet music, you’ll have a whole host of problems playing UmJammer. The whole point of the gameplay is to repeat back what you’ve heard, with the on-screen commands acting as mere reminders as to the rhythm (and telling you which buttons to press on normal mode). Whereas with sheet music, you can scan what’s going to come next and prepare yourself, with UmJammer only a couple of lines are visible at a time, and during interludes the bar disappears completely. For people who had it drilled into the brain (albeit in my case years and years ago) to follow visual commands when “playing music”, going by ear could be quite a change of pace and take some time to adjust to. However, this going purely on my own experience and how I feel I kept coming a cropper with UmJammer.
Furthermore, following the on-screen prompt to a T will lead you to a whole world of hurt, because the on-screen prompt system isn’t sophisticated enough to mark out stressed beats all of the time. This basically means that even where one note is slightly longer than the next, meaning the button prompt should be pressed slightly later, they may sometimes present on-screen as being of the same length, if the notes are short enough; it is left to your glorious earholes to realise that the notes aren’t meant to be played straight. For you musos out there, the diagram underneath shows exactly what I mean.
From my experience, in the UmJammer Lammy world of sheet music notation, these two sets of notes may present themselves in exactly the same way. It is purely for your ears, rather than your eyes, to tell you that the input differs.
The above issue can lead to all sorts of problems, since UmJammer Lammy is brutally unforgiving with regard to early/late button presses. There were times when notes were all entirely on-beat and had the same gap between each other, so I feel like I pressed them all exactly on time, yet I still dropped a level (this was a chronic problem in the 4th level). Once you do learn to simply use the screen prompts as guidance, rather than being tempted to read off the screen, you’ll fare at least somewhat better, even if there are still times you feel cheated out of a decent score.
I was stoked by the 4th level’s mock-heavy metal theme, but the experience soon deteriorated into something akin to smashing my head repeatedly against a lamppost
You’re inevitably going to get to a point in the game where you become irretrievably stuck, but never fear. Because UmJammer is a “Simon Says” type game, and the specific prompts do not vary between playthroughs, you will find yourself improving from attempt to attempt purely because you begin to memorise the prompts. This is particularly helpful because one of the ways you can trip yourself up is by thinking too much about what you have to press. It is better to detach yourself slightly and see the line in its entirety, rather than focusing in on each button which needs to be pressed. Obviously this is much easier to do if you don’t need to rely on the screen at all. On the other hand, I found that returning to the game the next day, if 5-6 attempts of one level brought me no closer to progression, helped me to improve considerably on the following attempts. So, the key with UmJammer Lammy is to rely on muscle memory through repetition of levels, but to learn when it is worth taking a breather from the controller. Remember those old “go and take a drink, kids” warnings on your PSX discs, chums!
Quite frankly, UmJammer Lammy has aged considerably in some of its nooks and crannies. The number of levels are pretty measly, and it’s undeniably lazy the game is lengthened by how difficult it is to progress from level to level. However, the “jamming” feature gives this undeniable challenge and replay value. A level creator would have been nice (you could imagine being able to construct songs from the OST, and maybe even a couple of bonus tracks thrown in as unlockables). However, this is a game from 1999, so while Tony Hawk Pro Skater and Dancing Stage were pumping out user level-creation with the best of ’em just a couple of years later (the latter in the rhythm game genre!), it is perhaps a bit excessive to consider this a huge black mark against the title.
Overall, I would say that this is worth the price-tag that’s been attached to it on the PS Store, but it is worth no more. It’s a fun little distraction that will have you hissing at the TV and headbanging away to its fabulous OST, but it does become old rather quickly; furthermore, the difficulty spike around the 3rd/4th level may make you put down the game and never really feel the need to return. If you’re a rhythm game aficionado and this has thus far eluded you, snap it up pronto. Otherwise, if you’ve money to burn and fancy something a li’l quirky to tide you over, it might be worth giving it a try – as long as you have bags of patience.