Sunday, June 8, 2008

Wii Fits, or "Hey, you, fat, ugly American, eat some rice once in a while."

Back in the Atari 800 days--prior to the smash hit console 2600--there was a game called "Star Raiders". It was essentially a real-time version of the old "Star Trek" game invented back in the '60s, and it pitted you (in first person view) against some blocky "Zylon" warriors. What was interesting was that when people played it, they tended to lean left or lean right along with jiggling the joystick the way they wanted to move.

It was, in its own way, a uniquely immersive game.

I never owned an Atari 800; we went with Apple ][s. In fact, the last time I owned a console, it was a Channel F. I lost a lot of interest in owning gaming consoles when I found I could make my own games. Also, computer gaming, while it converges with console gaming in many respects, mostly appeals to me in the areas where the two are disparate. (Adventure and strategy games and quirky little classics like Nethack.)

Generally, when I pick up a console controller (I gifted The Boy with an N64 and PS2 over the years), I find it foreign. Lots of buttons. And for a lot of games, if you want to be good at them, you're mastering some arbitrary set of control sequences. But the Wii appealed to me instantly.

Now, I'm really what's known as a "hardcore gamer", even though I don't have much time these days to play. I've got over 300 games, easily, mostly acquired in last 15 years, but with a few from going back to the early '80s. Except for sports simulations, of which I own very few, you can find just about every major game made in the past decade on my shelves.
I've even played some of them!

Despite all this, the Wii appealed to me instantly. Even though the games are trivial, it's a million times more fun to mimic all the goofy activities than just smashing buttons. (And there are some wonderfully goofy activities in, say, Wario Smooth Moves.) Also, it drives a lot of the hardcore gamers completely nuts to have this device--this
non-gamer's device!--absolutely crush the XBox 360 and PS3. (That produces a special smile for someone who's had to listen to the "Are computer games dying?" nonsense for the past 20 years.)

So, we acquired a Wii Fit a few weeks ago and finally had the chance to put it out yesterday and give it a try.

Fun. Guaranteed to drive the poor hardcore console folk nuts. "It's a gimmick!" they cry. "People will buy it and forget about it!" "You should go outside to be active!" The last being particularly amusing coming from someone who probably hasn't seen the sun since it actually
was heating up the earth untowardly.

However, this simple device plays on the same simple premise that the wiimote exploits: Mimicking the action of what you're doing is far more entertaining than button mashing. As such, simple games like "Hula Hoop", "Ski Jump", hell, "Running" becomes entertaining.

And unlike the wiimote, some pretty demanding requirements are made. As friendly as Wii Sports and other early games were, Wii Fit does not hesitate in calling you fat, clumsy and, probably, funny looking.

It's a little shocking to have a game call you "obese" or even "overweight". It's using the highly flawed BMI standard, of course, but I imagine more than a few folks walking (or
not walking) around with a few more pounds than they'd like to admit were offended by the news. (If you're actually in shape, you're unlikely to care what the machine says.)

If you fail its balance test, it asks if you fall down a lot while walking.

It gives you a "Wii Fitness Age", probably much older than you actually are.

Now, if you're familiar with the Nintendo DS "Brain Age" product--or just think about it for a moment--you'll realize that the first time through (or first several times), you're learning how to make the board respond. This tends to give you a nice apparent improvement spike at the front.

I didn't really "get" the balance test, so I tested at 55 one day and 35 the next. I'm not even sure why I did so much better on day 2. I actually gained 3 pounds according to the scale (though some of that might have been clothes and time of day). Eventually, though, it all settles down and becomes a reasonably interesting and amusing metric.

You do have to put up with your Wii looking all fat and sweaty, though, especially if
you are fat sweaty.

I've heard some parents worry about the Wii's effect on their kids' self-esteem. My kids (all in the "normal" range) just looked at the machine like it was crazy when it said something stupid. But they had fun playing the games--even The Boy, who has a hardcore gamer's disdain for the Wii in general.

When he got on the board, he pretty much killed in every event. Apparently his balance is near perfect. Who knew? He even worked up a sweat. He did maintain that he preferred to make a jackass out of himself in private. Yeah, one does look as though one is having fits during some of the activities. Heh. It's good to lighten up.

Anyway, to my mind, the board underscores how much there is still to be done with the whole concept of getting gamers up. For example, on a tightrope game, I couldn't help but be struck by the similarity to the old Crazy Climber game which, itself, was kind of a blast because of the way the controls mimicked the hand movements of the climber.

Tell me that wouldn't be awesome to act out.

Hell, a lot of classic games would be more fun. Say, Pacman! The running game in Wii Fit has you stick the wiimote in your pocket and not even use the board. Running around a maze, eating pellets, alternately running from and chasing ghosts: That'd have to be more fun. And it'd doubtless change the PacMan championships. The tightrope game also had a kind of Mario feel. I never played Mario, but I would if I could
be Mario.

By the way, that's why I don't do many sports games or Tomb Raider. Watching a bunch of characters (even animated characters) run around makes me want to do the same. (We've always wanted to put a Lara Croft-style obstacle course in the back yard.) I'd rather play football, however badly, then watch it. (I also don't watch much TV sports for similar reasons.)

So, keep it coming, I say. Nintendo--at least partly responsible for turning the world into couch potatoes in the first place--could turn us all away from the couch potato lifestyle.

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