When it was announced that Mad Maestro! was going to see release outside of Japan, there was a fair amount of head-scratching in industry circles. While its true that Mad Maestro! is a music game, and music games are experiencing a steady rise in population, what really strikes a chord of wonder is that Mad Maestro! centers around classical music. Classical music generally doesnt have the same familiarity that dance music (a la Dance Dance Revolution) or rap (a la PaRappa The Rapper) has with the general gaming community. In fact, while perusing random message boards after the announcement was made, I remember reading a post that simply said: "Opera sucks."

On the flip side of the coin, I was ecstatic about the release of Mad Maestro!. Back in the day, I had a fair amount of experience in classical music performance and I even had some conducting experience. Granted, Im no Keith Lockhart or John Williams, but I knew the basicsand conducting was certainly a lot of work. Mad Maestro! presented the opportunity to conduct again, albeit in a much more simplified role. I was disappointed that Fresh Games decided not to pick up the conducting wand peripheral for release, but I figured that the controller would work just fine. I had high hopes for Mad Maestro! and waited rather impatiently for its release.

Make no mistake about it: Mad Maestro! is as close to a conducting simulator as there will probably ever be. Sure, theres a storyline about recruiting players for the local orchestra, the Bravoes, in order to play one last concert and save the local concert hall from demolition. Sure, players will be recruiting unlikely players, such as fashion models, circus lions, and space aliens. Still, the epicenter of Mad Maestro! is the gameplay. Players cannot recruit orchestra members or save the local concert hall without successfully conducting classical pieces by various composers, and conducting is as easy as using the Dual Shock 2 controller.

In order to be a successful conductor, players must control three things: tempo, volume, and timely orchestral cues. Instead of conducting from a bulky score with a bunch of notations and different parts, players need to only look at the screen to see what to do. On the screen, players will see either three of four "cue points", which are basically little circles. A moving "cue ball" travels through each of these cue points. In order to follow the directed tempo, players must press one of the four face buttons on their Dual Shock 2 each time the cue ball passes into a cue point. That may sound simple enough, but players will have to watch for tempo changes; the spacing between the cue points can change periodically, and if players dont adapt to these changes, the orchestra will either rush or lag behind. Orchestral cues are indicated by arrows inside any of the cue points. In order to successfully give a cue, players must press the D-Pad in the direction indicated inside of the cue point while they press a face button on the controller as the cue ball passes through that cue point for tempo.

Volume control is the toughest part of Mad Maestro!–and its perhaps the games biggest flaw. Each cue point has a color: blue, green, or red. These are volume indicators. Blue indicates low volume, green indicates medium volume, and red indicates loud volume. While that seems easy enough, the method of input isnt. Volume is gauged by how hard (or soft) that the controller buttons are pressed. This seems like a novel idea in order to make great use of the analog sensitivity of the face buttons; however, the sensitivity is too touchy, even if players adjust the sensitivity in the Options screen. Its simply too easy to hit a button too hard or too soft, and therefore make a conducting mistake which can have adverse effects. I believe that it would have been better to assign face buttons for each volume, such as the X button for soft, the square button for medium, and the triangle button for loud. Most players will eventually become comfortable with the volume controls, but the learning curve and the amount of mistakes that most players will make during that time can easily lead to unnecessary frustration. Once players get the hang of these controls, though, there are bonus games and more classical pieces just waiting to be unlocked.

Mad Maestro! has ten main stages to challenge players, and each has its own piece of classical music to conduct. In order to advance from level to level, players must fill the tension bar (located on the left side of the screen) and be in "angel mode" when the piece ends. Angel Mode is similar to a "cool" rating in PaRappa The Rapper. Players fill the tension meter by conducting without mistakes in any of the three areas (tempo, volume, or cues) each time that the cue ball makes a complete revolution around each of the cue points (musicians will know this as a full bar of music). For each bar, an evaluation is displayed, which shows the players proficiency in that bar. "Bravo" means that there were no mistakes and the tempo was perfect. "Good" means that there were no mistakes, although the tempo may have been slightly rushed or lagging in one of two of the cue points. Bravo and Good ratings increase the tension bar and, once the bar is full, Angel Mode is enabled. If players see "Bad" or "Baaaaad", there were mistakes in one or more areas. This causes the tension bar to drop, and, if a player is in Angel Mode at the time, can trigger "Devil Mode". Devil Mode drops a players tension meter for each bar that isnt conducted with a "Bravo" rating. Once a player achieves a "Bravo" rating, the objective is to try and refill the tension meter and reach Angel Mode again before the end of the piece. If a player is not in Angel Mode when a piece ends, its considered failure and the player must retry the level. Once players complete all ten stages, the ultimate conducting challenge awaitsas does the fate of the beloved concert hall.

The music in Mad Maestro! contains an assortment of familiar and not-so-familiar classical pieces. Many gamers will recognize certain selections, such as the William Tell Overture (from the Lone Ranger), Hall Of The Mountain King, and a few selections from Tchaikovskys Nutcracker Suite. There are also a few lesser-known pieces that still sound strong and which may grow on some players. For me, Strauss Thunder And Lightning march, Saint-Saens Finale from Carnival Of The Animals, and Brahms Hungarian Dance No. 5 In G Minor still stick with me as I find myself humming them occasionally. I will admit that it was somewhat disappointing to hear that the pieces werent professionally recorded, but the MIDI arrangements sound quite good on their own. There will likely be times when players may question whether certain pieces are actual recordings, and thats an achievement.

Why havent I talked about the graphics? Well, to be honest, its hard to notice them while keeping a close watch on the cue points and the cue ball. There are some CG cutscenes between each level that help to illustrate the rather odd storyline. The in-game graphics are a bit blocky at times, but they are pretty colorful. The backgrounds will change according to how well a player conducts. If a player isnt doing well, bad things can happen. In one stage, alien invaders will become hostile and start killing people if players conduct poorly. Conversely, if a player is conducting very well, flowers may bloom, clouds and fog may lift, and other nice details can become evident. Theres no slowdown or anything like that as everything animates smoothly. Mad Maestro! wont win any awards for its visuals, but theyre not that bad.

Ive had a complete blast with Mad Maestro!, despite my gripes with the volume controls and the maddening difficulty of a few of the bonus games. I generally like quirky games anyway, but Mad Maestro! hooked me for a different reason. Its a rush being able to conduct these pieces of music and its a boost for my music appreciation, too. Ive played Mad Maestro! all the way through, and yet I still find myself coming back to it every now and again to conduct concerts or to listen to certain pieces which Ive taken a liking to. Mad Maestro! is not a typical music game, and thats what I hope would attract players who have breezed through other music titles. There are enough intricacies to the gameplay that it does take some practice to get the hang of it, and then theres a lot of hidden stuff to unlock as players improve. Dont let classical music be the reason to pass this game up its a diamond in the rough, and comes very close to unseating Frequency as the best music game available for the PlayStation 2. Rating: 8.5 out of 10

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