Nintendo branched out with their latest generation, moving away from the hardcore language, presentation and control mechanics in hopes of appealing to a far larger audience. That this game exists at all is testament to their success. This isn't even a game. Instead, it's software that aims to teach the user fundamental knowledge about the process of painting and drawing through practical lessons on a game console.
It's a bit weird, I admit - about as weird as me using the first person in my reviews. This departure is relevant, I feel, as this review is less about the fundamental mechanics represented by the NZGamer.com scoring system and more about the personal journey players undergo. You'll note, for example, that the individual component scores peak at 8.5 (dipping as low as 6 for the sound, which is perfunctory at best) and yet the overall score is a massive 8.9 - yet another reminder that this is not a normal review.
So, what's it all about then?
In a nutshell, Art Academy is all about using your stylus as a surrogate brush (or pencil) as you set about learning how to draw and paint like a master. Through a series of lessons, you'll learn many aspects of the trade which (so the software claims) will assist you should you attempt the real thing. Just remember which is which - I bet it's pretty tough cleaning up oil paint on a touch screen.
Starting with basic sketches, Vince (your teacher) will introduce both the concepts of shade and form as well as the mechanics of the Art Academy interface. Through a series of lessons you'll grasp the tenets of image construction through layering techniques, as well as learn the finer points of manipulating the various tools available to realise your vision on this electronic canvas.
The lessons are very well paced, for a beginner (like me) at least, explaining core concepts and processes that will have been a mystery up until this point. For example, I thought that you'd start with light colours and then add dark to get your detail but instead that process is reversed here. The part that pencils play in defining the core shapes of what is otherwise a painting is again something that while I was aware of it, I didn't fully appreciate.
If anything, Vince is a little too hand-holding in the way he continually shows you how to select your tools but these sequences are easily fast-forwarded or skipped entirely so you may continue at your own pace.
So what about the mechanics, then? How does one actually "art things up" with Art Academy?
First you need to select the tool of your trade (typically a pencil - once you switch to paints, you can't go back to pencils on that canvas) through a remarkably straight forward interface, perform any relevant sub selections (i.e. are you drawing with the tip or the side of the pencil?) and then set to work.
Grasping the stylus like it really is a sable-hair brush or Blackwing 602 pencil, you scratch away on the bottom screen in an attempt to replicate something - in the lessons, that something will be presented on the top screen while in free-draw mode that something will be either in front of you or in your memory. Those lucky enough to be rocking a DSi will also have the ability to leverage the device's formidable (ha!) camera to create reference material to use here.
Then it's simply a matter of switching through the tools as you create layer upon layer of detail (or remove detail, using the eraser) before you decide that your image is complete and frame it for the game's gallery. Just be aware that, as in life, there's no undo. This isn't Photoshop, it's Art. In the lesson mode you can repeat an entire step if you mess it up but otherwise you're on your own - every stroke will become a part of the finished piece.
In my experience, the simulation deployed here is remarkably accurate - drawing with a 2H pencil feels exactly like what you'd expect in the real world. Sure, there's no fine selection like the type of paper you're using and there are only three types of pencil available but what is simulated is simulated very well. Fortunately what isn't simulated is your (or at least, my) propensity to smudging the drawing with your (my) ham-fist.
Other things that aren't simulated are the actual size of the canvas (you can zoom in but you can't make the DS bigger, unless you're a much better modder than me). There's also no concept of pressure levels on the DS, the type of technology leveraged by the likes of the Wacom range of professional computer tablets. Through a combination of smoke and mirrors, clever science and some Harry Potter type magic, Art Academy still manages to provide a remarkably accurate impression of knowing how hard I'm pushing down on my "pencil". Exactly how it's done is a mystery but that they've achieved something quite impressive is in no doubt. For sure, a professional (or at least, very experienced) practitioner of the real deal would see past this voodoo but they're hardly in the target audience so... who cares.
Art Academy, accomplished as it is, isn't perfect. There's a lot of stuff missing outside of the core art materials: you can only save so many masterpieces and then you can't share them with anyone - the latter being the most surprising omission of all. Sure, adding image uploading support (or in fact any internet connectivity) is hard and cuts out your non-DSi users but who wants to keep something they labored over and loved for so long to themselves? Art Academy desperately needs some sort of brag-space capability if it's to become anything more than a set of lessons and a nifty interface.
Still, being able to improve at your own pace with a tutor that doesn't dare pass judgement on your work (you can progress without doing anything, your work isn't graded or reviewed in any way) through a series of genuinely helpful lessons is a boon to the hitherto art-impaired. It doesn't matter how many times you tried to get it, you painted that apple / wave / tree and no one can take that away from you. The tool is also excellent (if limited in scope) with a very easy to use and unobtrusive interface that responds just like you imagine the real thing might.
It's the perfect start to what I can only hope is a series, with all of the fundamental components executed very well indeed. With a few additions (most importantly, some way to share your work) this could even become a tool for teachers to leverage or the basis of a new online community.