March 13, 2008 - Many attendees, including myself, left last year's Nintendo E3 press conference wondering what crazy stunt Mario's mama was up to this time. They'd already shut up the skeptics and nay sayers with the unstoppable success of the DS and the Wii, both of which received some harsh pre-release ridicule--remember all those "Wii" jokes? But could they really pull it off again with this wacky Wii spinoff--a fitness "game" you play with your feet? Seriously?
Well, after some feet-on time at E3 I was intrigued, but still unsure of the balance board's potential as a gaming peripheral or serious fitness device. Sure, dodging soccer cleats and swaying my hips to a hula mini-game offered some distracting fun, but not something I'd drop my stylus or Wii-mote for. And while these games got my body moving, they didn't exactly have me working up a Wii Sports-like sweat.
If I've learned anything from that E3 experience and my more recent balance board encounter at last month's Game Developer's Conference, it's that a little time can make a mind-changing difference; in just over six months, I've gone from skeptical to totally sold on Nintendo's latest mad scientist offering. Not only did Wii Fit's GDC appearance get me primed for the potential impact this device could have on future games, it also had me planning my Wii Fit-focused exercise regiment. After a few minutes atop the board I was breaking a sweat, smiling and growing worried I'd miss my next meeting because I couldn't tear myself away from the foot-centric fun.
The first thing fostering my newfound Wii Fit support was the skiing mini-game. At first glance it appeared to offer little more than the similar diversion provided by the soccer game, merely showing off what the balance board could do. However, this time on the board I felt something different, something more tangible than pretending to bean soccer balls off my head. I can only guess the device had been fine-tuned and debugged since its last public appearance as playing this simple skiing sim felt fantastic...addictive even. The responsiveness of the board and the on-screen results really cemented a connection to me and this bathroom scale-looking device below my feet. For the first time--similar to when the Wii-mote initially struck me as being a weirdly intuitive extension of my own arm--the board proved its massive potential.
But here's the real surprise: After just a few minutes of ski jumping I noticed something weird; my thighs were beginning to burn. What? I was having fun and, possibly, making my scrawny chicken sticks stronger. No, I wasn't grunting like a leg-pressing gym rat or anything, but I could definitely feel my muscles being tested a bit. So, during this seemingly innocent, extremely simple game, where you crouch down as you're heading down the slope and then stand to execute a jump, I was unknowingly performing dreaded leg squats--damn, those Nintendo designers are sneaky.
Beyond making me feel like a ski-jumping, thigh-burning superhero, Wii Fit further impressed with the depth in which it can track a player's fitness progress. It starts simple enough, asking for info like date of birth and height, by which it'll then calculate body mass index and center of gravity. The latter was especially interesting because it actually concluded that I was carrying most of my weight on my heels; my feet had been killin' me all day, but I thought it was from too much walking. Thanks to Wii Fit, I'm guessing I should invest in some arch supports. Enough about my aching dogs, though; Wii Fit continued with the balance-related tests before embarrassing me--as Brain Age did--by displaying my Wii Fit Age (we'll just say it was a few years past my actual age). Despite the discouraging news, I soldiered on as the game now opened up a variety of options to set and track my goals. I could shoot for a specific BMI or weight, and my progress would be tracked daily. Upon entering my info and targets--some of which the game actually warned may be unrealistic--the various aerobic, yoga and muscle-building activities, including the aformentioed ski jumping, became available.
What struck me most about Wii Fit and, more specifically the balance board, was the enormous amount of potential it had. If I was this entertained while doing some moderate exercising during a skiing mini-game, then what else was possible? How about a dedicated snowboarding or skateboarding title? Or a first-person shooter where you run on the board while you gun with the Wii-mote? The potential for exercise-infused gaming or even non-fitness-focused games that just offered a really inventive control scheme is off the charts. Regardless of what the balance board will have us doing in a few years, I know I'll be doing something I never expected this summer: exercising in my living room with Wii Fit.