In the last few years, an increasing amount of my time has been dominated by three completely independent activities:
1: Entirely sedentary work (in which I am lucky to include gaming)
2: Time with my family (often outdoors)
3: Extremely aggressive exercise
This trifecta has, with the emergence of the Platinum Age of Gaming (which started with the launch of the Wii and continues to this day), become skewed, as more and more time has gone into the first two buckets. My kids have grown – they stay up later, they want to do more, including play games. And my writing schedule has gotten more intense, and is all the more extended by writing about games.
This subtle shift has meant I spend less and less time exercising. I’m not really worried – I’m still at the gym three times a week, still out running or riding every few days. But it was with this long winded mindset that I looked forward to Wii Fit. Here, I thought, was a place where I could kill two birds with one stone.
Not so much.
My Left Brain
I should point out that my relationship with my body is complicated.
This morning while sitting in the Father's Day church service, my palms started to sweat, my knees went weak, and for a brief moment I had a sharp, visual sense of remembering and forgetting. A hollow, aching déjà vu mixed with a psilocybin mushroom vision. Most of the time this aura will pass. This morning I wasn't quite so lucky. I quickly made my way to the back of the church and walked outside. I woke up some indeterminate time later and rubbed my head.
I’m not just an amateur epileptic. I’m really good at it. I’m a pro. If there was a Master’s tournament for the brain damaged, I’d be kicking Tiger’s ass.
My epileptic prowess is based on a one two-punch of medication and exercise. My medication, first Dilantin and later Lamictal, is a cheap three Martini drunk. In the beginning, I was more than just groggy, I couldn’t read – my eyes would twitch too much. While not strictly required, reading is often considered a good bullet point on your writer’s resume, somewhere below “masochist” and above “hates passive voice.”
The solution is exercise - beating my body back into submission every morning. I became an insufferable fitness nut. A proselytizer of High Intensity Training programs and endurance cycling. But as I've crossed into my 40s, my exercise has become panic stricken. With each passing year, I have to work harder in the gym just to stay even, and it takes a few more days each spring to get my running and cycling legs back.
Which brings me to Wii Fit. My hope for Wii Fit was that it would provide context, motivation and variety to this constant and ultimately doomed battle against age and disease. But the course of true love never did run smooth.
The Razor and the Blade
The launch of Wii Fit, like the Wii itself, marries two things: a hardware platform, and an initial implementation.
As a hardware platform, it’s nearly perfect. I could quibble about whether the deck of the board could be a little bit wider (for us broad shouldered he-men). Perhaps it could be a bit stickier and not get slick with sweat. But what it's supposed to be is a whizbang scale: one which feeds information to the console about how your weight is distributed across a plastic rectangle quickly, accurately and consistently. It does those things perfectly.
The software implementation is a mixed bag. Like Wii Sports, there are hits and misses. The near perfection of Wii Bowling is mimicked by the Wii Fit yoga program. The virtual coach is excellent (if a bit repetitive), and I find the feedback from the board more helpful than any instructor I've ever had. The strength training program is nearly as good, drawing me in to legitimately difficult exercises.
Less impressive, perhaps in the Wii Sports baseball category, is the laughable attempt at aerobics. While watching someone hula hoop or run in place might be entertaining, doing it feels ridiculous, and in practice none of the aerobic exercises come close to simply walking outside your front door and running up and down the driveway a few times, or even better just getting out the jump rope.
I'm even more disappointed in the actual games. In classic Nintendo mini-game fashion, they merely whet my appetite for what-might-be. The skiing mini games make me long for a non-mini ski or snowboard game, done by the people behind SSX or Skate. The simplistic marble rolling game is a thin and whimpering imitation of Super Monkey Ball. None of the games I've seen so far can be played multiplayer, nor can I honestly see how they could be without yet another piece of hardware.
And thus the biggest problem: Wii Fit is not a party game.
It's not a group activity. It's not family fun. While I wasn't expecting Mario Party, or even Wii Sports, it didn't occur to me how vigorously single player it is. Wii Fit is an extremely narrow experience. And worse, it suffers from the Puritan work ethic problem. It forces you to earn the best bits. It's not that it does this just to ramp up the difficulty. Some of the more appropriate introductory stuff seem to be buried several unlocks in. So while the first yoga exercise is simply standing and breathing, the third is the tree pose - an iconic form featured heavily in the Wii Fit branding. The tree pose - standing on 1 foot, heel in crotch, arms straight up - is nearly impossible for a 40-year-old non-yogi. Even one not under the effects of sedation. I’m used to this kind of asshatery in games, and it still pisses me off. I can only imagine how the folks at the senior center must be feeling.
There's no question that Wii Fit will survive in my living room. While it won't entertain my kids, I will turn it on every morning as I fight off the ravages of middle age and the dull pillow of sodium channel block anticonvulsants.
It is if nothing else, it's an excellent scale.
I'm more excited for the future. New peripherals have a way of sneaking up on me. I can't imagine playing Flight Simulator without a yoke or pedals. I can't imagine playing a first person shooter without my trusty Nostromo. And it's already difficult to remember what life was like before voice recognition software. This time next year - sooner I hope - I have little doubt I'll be gushing over some balance board game that's just coming off a designer's white board this summer.
In the mean time, as much as I love hopping on the balance board for 15 minutes in the morning, I'm not about to get off my bike. Wii Fit isn't going to magically lift the cruel thumbs of middle age and medication off the scale. I'm going to have to do that on my own.