Review: Wii Fit works out

wiifit.jpgBob was a big guy. Manly. Six foot four and full of muscles, or so the song goes. He doesn’t really “get” what Nintendo is trying to do with the whole “Blue Ocean” strategy. He owns a Wii, though, and has enjoyed it so far. When he saw the shrinking stack of WiiFit boxes at a local retailer Wednesday, he plunked down some money to buy one.

Bob and I got to talking at a pub last night before a screening of the atrociously, almost offensively awful Indiana Jones: Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and eventually the conversation drifted away from local microbrews and onto WiiFit.

“You know what? It kinda just works,” he told me. He said the line like he was shocked his mouth uttered the words so openly. He and his wife, both mid to late 20’s, had spent the previous evening going through the initial set up of Wii Fit, and ended up “playing” the title well past whatever hour they had arbitrarily deemed acceptable for a video game.

I’ve also spent the last 48 hours “playing” and dissecting WiiFit. Amazon dropped it off on Wednesday, and being the geek that I am I had it torn open and battery-packed before I got through the door. I did some yoga. I balanced myself *almost* perfectly. I noticed a little sweat starting to form on my brow.

And you know what? I was also surprised. WiiFit and the Balance Board works, it turns out, just fine indeed.

Various reviewers have taken a few different approaches to WiiFit in the run up to its launch on May 21. Some have kept diaries; others have straight up reviewed it as they would have BioShock or Grand Theft Auto IV; and others still, like IGN, are embarking on an exhaustive scientific fitness regimen to see if — and this is contrary to everything Shigeru Miyamoto has ever said about the game — it does, in fact, melt away the fat and tone your buttocks into a shape worthy of an apple bottom label.

I’ll do none of those things here. With the spirit of Miyamoto at my side, I established a few simple parameters that I think (or hope) will be enough to sway you one way or another. I just played the game and recorded what happened, and devised a silly little test, which I’ll get to in a second.

From what I’ve read thus far from WiiFit’s designer, Miyamoto, the idea came about because his own personal training had created conversation and fun within his family around a subject that was decidedly un-fun until that point in time. The test for Wii Fit was simple: Was it fun? Was it believable? Would we really want to play months on end, as was intended?

(Winded) Partner in Yoga Crime

In that vein I recruited an able-bodied partner, my girlfriend, to get as many opinions into this review as possible. It was a blind review for her. I just sat back and watched, mentally taking notes as she did yoga poses (a yoga student, she is); I did strength training; and then I capped it all off with a rather robust skiing and ski jumping adventure.

As someone who only started playing video games again with the Wii (Sports, Kart, Twilight Princess), her pallet was clean, so to speak. She also knew a thing or two about legitimate yoga poses. I figured that was a pretty good clean slate to start with. While some of the naming was different with Wii Fit, I can honestly say she was impressed with the initial poses (although some were not entirely accurate). The fact that not all are immediately available were a sore point, and I can see this being a downside for many users who approach Wii Fit with existing strength training, yoga and fitness knowledge.

Ninty, I realize what you’re trying to do with unlockable carrot and stick content, but give us experts the expert treatment. Next time, ok?

Now I’m not going to say yoga floored the gf, but it did get her noticing a tweak here, a stretch there, and a slight sweat by the end of a few poses. For the Wii Fit doubter, I say this: the game will make you sweat and get active, especially as you up the reps per exercise.

I basically sucked at yoga, and my balance was way off for my left side. After a scolding from my female trainer, I moved on. The cool thing was it wasn’t the game that was messing up, it was me, and I could see it being displayed on screen in real time.

Final ruling on yoga? Fun, but limited unless you’re willing to stick with it and accumulate the points necessary to unlock content. I would have also liked to string the exercises together into a routine right off the bat, as it’s done in yoga classes already. But that’s what fitness is all about, isn’t it?

Walking the Plank

The “games” I was most excited for with Wii Fit were the Strength Training ones. I go to the gym a few times every week for weight training, and I hoped Wii Fit would provide an additional light day for those busy weeks when I can’t make it as often as I’d like.

I started with what I figured was the most demanding beginner exercise, the push up and plank (again, you have to unlock the rest–and I was wrong about it being the hardest, by the way). You basically do just that: push ups into a side plank, hold, and then repeat on the other side. A few reps and the cycle is done.

Throughout the exercise, I could “feel the burn,” as they say. I don’t do a lot of planks, but I’ve heard it’s a great exercise, so I’m glad Wii Fit will now demand I do them–and do them with good form–from time to time.

At the end of the reps, as it was with yoga, I was sweating. The pattern would continue throughout, from sit up pikes, to lunges (bad knees from sports, definitely the hardest for me), to torso twists. If you do these exercises correctly, you will notice some perspiration, I promise you. And that’s the idea! Add to that the fact that each exercise has little timer bells to let you know duration, etc., and it’s almost–dare I say it–a fun little fitness game!

Again, as someone who goes to the gym as part of a routine already, I wish there was at least the option to do more exercises right off the bat. I understand this is in there to keep people interested and help along beginners, but at least option.

Final fitness verdict on Strength Training? Fun, believable, and for now I can’t wait to make it part of my early morning routine before work. Adding reps and difficulty is sure to keep even the fittest of Wii players straining and sweating. The balance component adds an interesting side to strength training that I never consciously considered before.

It’s Downhill From Here, In a Good Way

When you need a break from the soulless white and blue of the yoga or weight rooms, I suggest a quick run and then a trip to the top of the ski jump.

Running in place, honest to Pete, had my heart beating faster by the time I finished the “short” course. Sad? Yes, but again this is a fun, believable way of turning a mundane cardiovascular exercise into something fun. For some reason I especially liked the other Miis form my console running with me. It’s the simple things, I guess. Now, can you cheat? It only uses the Wiimote, so yes, but anyone can cheat at fitness. Half the battle is overcoming the urge to cut corners.

After my “run” I took the chair lift up the Wii Fit mountain for a few slalom runs. I sucked, but again it wasn’t the game–it was my balance. After missing the umpteenth gate for the umpteenth time, I wanted to get back to the summit for more. By the third run I was much better, although I was still at 1/4 stars and had missed a few gates. If We Ski is a more robust version of this mini-game then I recommend it on the controls alone.

Ski Jumping was the best game, fitness or otherwise, however. Like Wii Sports tennis or bowling, the physics are just right, the controls responsive, and the learning curve extremely simple. It’s all about balance and launching up at the right time (but not in the air, as the software warns you beforehand). By my second run I thought I had the hang of it, but the game told me otherwise: 2/4 stars. My Mii, ski outfit and all, was crushed.

The great thing about the Balance Games is you can earn points here too. Final thoughts on the Balance and aerobic games? Some are tacked on (don’t require the board), but they fit into the game just fine.

Cool down

After playing Wii Fit the past couple of mornings and evenings, a slightly competitive streak has sprouted up between your humble narrator and his decidedly un-humble significant other. She’s bested me in yoga and I can’t seem to catch up, and she lets me know it. If you have a big family or an apartment full of fitness freaks, I can see things getting out of hand pretty easily. That’s the game side of Wii Fit showing through. Tomorrow I assume the fitness part is going to rear its ugly head in the form of sore knees and thighs.

There’s really nothing deceptive about Wii Fit. It’s not some gimmick parading around as a fitness tool, because as far as I can tell it gives you a slight workout and a good time to boot. There’s unlockable content that will have you, Wii Sports-like, coming back for more, although at this time I can’t say how long that will be. If you’re really into fitness, I don’t see it fading anytime soon. If you’re not the type to exercise, or enjoy games that feature exercise at their core, you will still have your work cut out for you. This is no magic pill, although it’s certainly an easier start to healthy living than joining a gym cold turkey on Jan 1.\

There’s definitely a big beginner feel to the early exercises, and as an expert you’ll have to endure some repetition to unlock the extras. I don’t think that’s enough to derail Wii Fit from its mission statement: Fun with a fitness twist.

Oh, and one last gripe. This thing pics up dirt like nobody’s business (at right). Day two and mine’s filthy as sin. I guess maybe I’m just a pig pen. A pig with abs of steel!

Lastly, I hesitate to give this a “grade” because t’s really unlike anything I’ve ever “reviewed” before. Both non-gamer and gamer alike enjoyed the experience. Even BMI and weighing ourselves was fun, crazy as that sounds. As a fitness tool I’d say almost 4/4 stars. As a game, it’s pretty simple and might not last, but so far it’s been fun, so it’s a weaker 3/4. If you hate fitness, you’ll dislike this, but I recommend a demo if you can find one somewhere.

As for upgrade ability? Future fun? That’s a solid 5/4, easy.