Sweatin’ to the Pixels.
The twenty-limbed peripheral monster is at it again. If there’s one thing this generation of consoles will be remembered for, it’s the flooding of our living rooms with piles of plastic add-ons. Early on in this generation, I mistakenly believed that the advent of wireless controllers would help keep my gaming setup cleaner and more organized. But the current state of my living room says otherwise.
Rhythm games - especially Rock Band
- have been a real space killer, but Nintendo’s also been doing its level best to keep our entertainment areas crowded with as many pieces of white molded plastic as possible: Wii remotes, nunchucks, the zapper, the wheel, and now the balance board. Wii Fit
is not just Nintendo’s way of continuing to “expand the market,” but it’s also a vehicle for moving its latest peripheral into our homes.Wii Fit
is barely a game. It’s a fitness tracker, an exercise regime, and a posture improvement program. The title includes three primary activity types: yoga, strength training, and aerobics, and each of the activity types is further divided into individual exercises. The very few actual “games” it includes aren’t what will draw people to the title, and they’re not compelling enough to keep folks around. Instead, Wii Fit
will live and die by its fitness activities, and luckily, this is where Wii Fit
shines… or maybe just glistens with sweat.
On booting up the game, you’ll be greeted by a creepily anthropomorphic balance board telling you to step on it. I can happily report that it doesn’t then scream in pain or say anything like “Ahhhh! Get off me you fat freak!” Instead, it quickly calculates your weight, and once you tell it your height, Wii Fit
will then calculate your body-mass index (“BMI”).
After it’s finished telling you that you’re severely overweight and that no one will ever love you, it then asks you to take a balance test that will tell you your Wii Fit
Age. Like Brain Age
, you can rest assured that this age calculation has absolutely nothing to do with anything, but if being confronted by your BMI threatens to send you into a spiral of deep depression, seeing your Wii Fit
Age might help keep your overweight butt from tossing that smarmy balance board out the window. We can all much more quickly improve our balance than our BMI.
Like a modern-day Ben Franklin, Wii Fit
helps you chart and graph your way to self-improvement. More than any of Nintendo’s prior “lifestyle games” like Wii Sports
or Brain Age
, the stats tracking does more than track an arbitrary score or “age”. Watching as your weight and BMI change over time is surprisingly motivating. There’s nothing quite as rousing as seeing your own fat staring you square in the face.
Nintendo’s use of BMI as its central stat in Wii Fit has earned some well-deserved flak. BMI is a weight-to-height ratio used by insurance companies to calculate financial risk. This works when you’re talking about large groups of people since most people are “overweight” because of fat rather than muscle. But for someone like me who works out very regularly, BMI is a ludicrous way to track my fitness level since fat and muscle are not distinguished in the measurement (and trust me, ladies, I’m all muscle).Wii Fit
also likes to nag you and your other household members. Between two sessions, I managed to pack on five pounds. It asked me to tell it why I had put on so much weight, so I sheepishly had to admit I’d eaten quite a bit that day. Another time, it asked me to report on my significant other’s posture. I helped her out by reporting to Wii Fit
that I thought her posture looked fine, but I’m not sure Wii Fit
believed me. Wii Fit
is a cross between a Nazi fitness trainer and an over-involved soccer mom; a little scary, a little amusing, and amazingly good at making you feel bad about yourself.
When you first begin Wii Fit
, most of the activities aren’t yet available. Only after you begin putting in your time (collected in yet another eerily anthropomorphic instrument: the “fitness bank”) do additional activities become available. You’ll also be able to unlock additional reps for the strength training exercises and higher difficulties for the balance games.
Taken individually, all of these activities are well presented and clearly explained. A trainer will demonstrate each movement the first time through, and each subsequent time through the trainer performs the movements with you. While certainly no substitute for a real life trainer, the virtual trainer does a respectable job of explaining and demonstrating how to move and where to focus your attention. The trainer will also give you minor corrections while you perform each exercise, cracking the whip as pleasantly as possible. Wii Fit
handles the basics well. The individual yoga and strength training drills range from easy-but-effective warm ups all the way up to challenging tests of balance and muscle. But don’t expect much more. While the game will suggest to you some good combinations of exercises, you still have to manually select each one individually, taking a long break between each one. I was surprised to see that you can’t pre-arrange a fitness routine by selecting your own series of activities, reps, and time limits. You also can’t adjust the speed of the drills, so regardless of your fitness level, you have to perform the exercises at the speed of the on-screen trainer.
It’s also frustrating trying to put together a lengthy and varied workout when you have to keep navigating the menu. Worse, you have to keep the Wii remote handy through all of your exercises. While very few activities require the use of the remote, you’ll need it to navigate your way through the menus and instructions before and after each activity.
The aerobic exercises are a real sore spot. Hula-hooping doesn’t ever feel very cardiovascular, and step aerobics feels more like a severely pared-down, imprecise version of DDR than a workout. Since running in place depends on having the remote in a pocket, you might have a hard time finding the appropriate running gear that includes large enough pockets. And even then, you have to deal with the awkward feeling of having a heavy remote swinging around in your pocket while you run. I suppose you could just put the remote down your pants, but remember you’ll also have to use that remote for playing real games, so shove it down your shorts at your own risk.
Then there are the balance games. These are a mixed bag of simple games that use the balance technology in different ways. The highlights are the skiing and snowboarding, but here you recognize the balance board’s greatest weakness: it can’t tell the difference between leaning and pushing. This means that even if you’re leaning to one side, you can’t be pushing with your outside foot. For anyone who’s ever skied, you easily recognize the problem. You might be surprised to discover that the body mechanics involved in “leaning” are pretty complicated; suffice it to say, more often than not, whenever you lean to one side you often push using the opposite foot. The board can’t tell the difference, however, so it will often have trouble deciding which side you mean to lean towards.
But it isn’t just the skiing and snowboarding that present a problem; the soccer heading game (in which you lean your head in the direction of a lobbed soccer ball while avoiding cleats and flying panda heads) is far too sensitive to this opposite-foot-push problem. The simplest solution is to resort to lifting your opposite foot rather than leaning, but this effectively kills the whole point of the balance board, making it just a big control pad for your feet with a left and right button. Some games—such as the balance bubble game and table tilt game—work well and are less affected by this issue, but these other games are also pretty shallow and not much fun.
As a way to get Wii owners up off the couch and give them a few simple ways to get their bodies moving on a semi-regular basis, Wii Fit is a success. If it gets us into real gyms and out into actual parks, it will have done its job marvelously. However, as a stand-alone fitness trainer it suffers greatly by the inability to assemble a full, unbroken workout without the horrible “fitness interruptus” necessitated by bothersome menu navigation and obtrusive Wii remote usage. The balance games also suffer from the technical limitations of the overambitious balance board peripheral. Leaning is more complicated than it might seem. Maybe a future game will get the technology right, but if the still-imprecise Wii remote is any sign, don’t hold your breath.
Wii Fit is the Cliffs Notes version of exercise, and as anyone who’s ever tried a fad exercise program knows, there are no shortcuts to fitness. Nintendo obviously means well, but the balance board will soon enough end up in the same place where every other piece of home fitness equipment does: the garage sale.