Playing Classical Piano with Smule on the iPad

Some games that claim to be perfect for the iPad aren’t actually very different from the versions on the iPhone or iPod Touch.

But one of our favorites that takes advantage of the iPad is music game Magic Piano from Smule. A game, that without the iPads large size, would certainly not be too much fun.

Most likely, many are already aware of this title by means of a viral video of a cat playing the app (watch the video, it has been nearly 5 million times already). But they’re likely not aware of just how fun it really is. Stemming from the concepts behind Smule’s older iPhone titles Leaf Trombone and Ocarina, Magic Piano effectively turns the iPad into, well, a piano.

In this quasi-rhythm game, players are given a handful of different play modes, but by default are pushed into solo, freestyle play. It’s nothing particularly special, unless you are an actual pianist, as all you can do is tap or drag along the empty screen to play different notes. It’s a little tricky when it’s just a black screen, so you can change the layout to actually display the keys in a spiral, traditional, and circular shape. Furthermore, it’s all very accurate note-wise, so you can actually play some beautiful music if you know what you’re doing.

The real “game,” as it were is the mode called the “Songbook.” Within it are over a dozen classical scores (with more being added) such as Fur Elise, Moonlight Sonata, and even Pachelbel Cannon in D. In order to play, green pulsing orbs float down and a faint light representing a key stroke highlights them. This highlight indicates which key is next and you merely have to touch the screen on the same vertical plane.

It’s actually extremely difficult as some of the songs have a ton of notes – many of which are chords requiring multiple keys to be pressed simultaneously – and the game will play bad notes whenever you miss a key. Of course, this is to be expected considering most of the tracks are from composers like Beethoven. Luckily, for those of us without such talent, the game lets you adjust the settings so you can’t fail.

Turning on no-fail mode doesn’t actually prevent you from “losing,” as you cannot lose anyway, but turns off the bad notes mechanic. Basically, this means that the game will play the right key no matter where you press. However, this doesn’t make playing the song too much easier because you still have to press chords together and get the timing right to make it sound good. Unfortunately, the only way to know the timing without knowing the song itself before hand is to guesstimate based on how close the green orbs are together and how quickly they descend (which is hardly accurate). Nonetheless, with a little practice, it makes for an easy way to impress your friends.

Socially, the game is also very cool. There are two modes for this: Duet and World. The former first asks for you to input a piano name and tag line identifying yourself (though you can be anonymous)then makes direct use of your GPS location to find another random player from anywhere in the world and play the freestyle mode with them for X amount of time. But, for the record, it is a bit humbling to run into someone who knows what they are doing — it would be nice to be able to use the songbook as a crutch for this mode.

The real magic, however, comes in with World mode. This is phenomenal. Represented by 3D globe, you can literally listen any random person or persons (doing duets) who have recently played the game, and see their key strokes in a beautiful explosion of white lines and circles. Thus far, we’ve listened to players in China, Korea, South Africa, Europe, and across the United States. From here, you can cycle through more random individuals are mark them as a favorite. It truly is addictive to listen too, especially when you find someone who is very good.

As far as complaints go, we don’t have many. Perhaps the biggest is that the duet mode is a bit pointless since you get random people, so finding someone else who knows what they are doing (assuming you do too) seems virtual impossible. Also, it is a bit unclear as to what the favorite button actually does in World mode. We assume it will take you to that player more often in the future should they be playing. Beyond these, everything is more along the lines of a wish list, such as a means to hear the songs played correctly so you can practice right.

Some might not consider Magic Piano technically a “game” as it has no real objectives other than what you make for yourself. There is no way to win, no scores to keep, and its more like a sandbox than anything else. Nonetheless, its as addictive and fun as any real “game” out there, and that alone makes it worth having. Frankly, for $0.99, if you have an iPad, it would be foolish not to own it.