The first time I ever laid eyes on a Nintendo Wii wasn’t until well after its debut. While I had indeed heard the hype over Christmas 2006 and vaguely resolved to get one for myself at some point, I never got around to actually playing one until a fateful night when Comcast screwed up my friend’s Pay-per-view order of Ultimate Fighting Championship 67: All or Nothing and the only thing to keep a crowd of 20 guys at bay was Wii Boxing. While the experience didn’t exactly blow my mind, I do recall seeing Diego, one of my training buddies from our MMA club, throwing the same crisp jabs and hooks he had caught me with so many times before in real life, and thinking, “Hey, that actually looks like it works.”
The premise behind exercise games – “exergaming” – is fairly simple: Let people play videogames that use their whole body as an input device, and they’ll have fun and get their daily workout at the same time. Sadly, something so simple has rarely panned out. The history of videogames is littered with all kinds of bizarre exercise paraphernalia that failed somewhere down the line, perhaps because the hardware was imprecise or the games simply weren’t fun, but probably most often because, even in the comfort and safety of our own living rooms, we just felt a little bit ridiculous.
Nintendo’s Wii Fit represents the latest in exergaming. Released in December 2007 in Japan (and due for an April release in Europe and a May release in the U.S. and Australia), it uses a special peripheral, called the Balance Board, that uses sensors to determine the player’s position by measuring how much pressure he’s putting on the board. These inputs are then used for various mini-games that comprise an exercise regimen; games that have your Mii doing various yoga poses, step aerobics, jogging, tightrope walking and all sorts of other activities that test your muscle conditioning, aerobic ability, balance and so forth. It’s fair to say that, after selling more than a million copies in Japan, Wii Fit is one of the most popular exercise games out there.
But it was by no means the first game to attempt this; in fact, we could probably trace Wii Fit‘s lineage back to 1988’s Nintendo Power Pad (Bandai Family Trainer in Japan), a 12-button floor mat controller that looked like an early Dance Dance Revolution dance pad. The Power Pad was designed to work with games like Stadium Events/World Class Track Meet, which had players running track, hurdling, etc.; Dance Aerobics, which played kind of like an aerobics instructional video; and Street Cop, wherein the players jumped around Manhattan clubbing bad guys. Clearly, the Power Pad was ahead of its time in both scope and design, but it failed the “looking ridiculous” test in spades. Just look up a few gameplay videos, or, heck, the official commercial to see what I mean. Playing to beat your friends in the sprint events entailed mashing on the pad buttons in alternating succession as fast as possible in a movement only vaguely resembling actual running. Looks like hell on the joints, too.
Despite its failure to attract a mass audience, the Power Pad became the foundation upon which later generations of exercise games were built. Dance Dance Revolution certainly needs no explanation; stepping in time to fast paced electronica certainly has its place in a workout routine – or even in a grade school gym class.
Japan saw its share of exclusive exercise flops as well. The game industry boom during the PlayStation days saw titles like Happy Jogging Hawaii, a jogging simulator that came with a specialized “stepper” controller. Take a step on the stepper, and your first-person view of a highly pixelated, static rendition of Waikiki would progress ever so slightly, letting you jog multiple courses through town, along the beach or through a little park. If by some chance you didn’t have the stepper controller, the game was still playable by making circles with the Dual Shock’s analog sticks. Still a good workout, though perhaps not quite a full-body burn.
But track and field haven’t been the only inspiration for exergaming. While nothing can beat the joystick for speedy, accurate input, fighting games and combat sports have seen plenty of exotic peripherals long before Wii Boxing came along. The arcade had most of the weird stuff – Sonic Blast Man was a beat-’em-up on the Super Nintendo, but the coin-op rendition measured your progress by figuring out how hard you could punch (or kick/headbutt/body slam, at some of the rowdier arcades) the human-shaped target that represented the enemy. Fist of the North Star: Punch Mania provided a pretty good upper body workout that attempted to emulate the ORAORAORAORA blitzkriegs (imagine Whack-a-Mole, except vertically oriented and with two big boxing gloves instead of a mallet, and you’re pretty much there) that games like Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure have fondly echoed. Konami even entered the ring with Mocap Boxing, a game that played like a motion-sensitive version of Punch-Out, complete with bobbing, weaving and plenty of punches, though the moves were too scripted for it to be a big hit.
The most notable exercise-fighting game crossover controller, however, was exclusive to home consoles. I refer, of course, to the Sega Activator, a peripheral directly marketed to kids who probably liked The Karate Kid series a little bit too much. The Activator was an octagonal ring that sent infrared light beams up to the ceiling. Once properly configured and calibrated, the player was to use his arms and legs to disrupt the beams, which would then register as moves in the videogame. I pity the kid who picked this up thinking that flailing his arms and legs would give him a competitive edge over his poor game-pad-wielding opponent. I can’t imagine anyone could get precise enough to land those one-frame-reversal Dragon Punches needed to hang in Street Fighter II: Championship Edition.
The closest precursor to Nintendo’s exergaming entries on the Wii appeared a good seven years ago, and originated not on a Nintendo console, but on their ancient rival’s, the Sega Dreamcast. The Dreamcast had its fair share of wacky peripherals – the maracas for Samba de Amigo come to mind, as does the Japan-only Dreamcast Karaoke add-on. But the best clue to the future of exercise games came from a rather sedentary source: the Sega Fishing Controller.
The Sega Fishing Controller was, naturally, meant for use with the various fishing games available on the ‘Cast, most notably Sega Bass Fishing, Sega Bass Fishing 2 and Sega Marine Fishing. In order to enhance the fishing experience, the controller was equipped with a basic motion sensor that could detect vertical and horizontal movements. Presumably these movements were mapped to somewhat standard controller inputs, because non-fishing games can use Fishing Controller, too, to hilarious – and surprisingly accurate – results. In fact, upon watching this particular Dreamcast dork play Virtua Tennis with the controller, I’m inclined to think that this version is actually significantly more physically taxing than tennis in Wii Sports, if only because the fishing rod looks pretty heavy – perfect for building grip and forearm strength. And for those of you who have been hankering for a sword-fighting game that properly used the Wii’s motion controls, look no further than Soul Calibur with the Fishing Controller, complete with controls that would make a kendo practitioner proud.
That was seven years ago, with a fishing rod.
Maybe Wii Fit will singlehandedly revolutionize the exergaming genre. Maybe it’ll sell to each person who bought a Wii just because he thought Wii Sports looked kind of neat. Maybe the world is ready to get in shape with a videogame, 20 years after it first became possible. All of that could be true – and Wii Fit could outsell the Power Pad and the Activator combined, if it hasn’t already – but if our gaming history is any indication, we’ll still be looking at the Balance Board 10 years from now and wondering what on Earth we were thinking.
Pat Miller has been doing this for way too long. Stop by his blog, Token Minorities, for more on race and videogames.