Wii Will Rock You

August 14, 2009

While visiting my sister-in-law Gale and her husband Donnie in Appleton, Wisconsin, a few months ago, we were introduced to several new things. Brats, for one, made deliciously by Curly’s Pub at Lambeau Field, home of the Packers. And curds, the “poor man’s shrimp,” yummy and chewy in cocktail sauce. But one new thing in particular really changed things around here. Gale and Donnie showed us their Nintendo Wii Fit setup.

I lost interest in video games about the time Pac-Man and Missile Command were still sucking quarters out of people’s pockets in bars. I had no desire, none, to play those ladder games like Super Mario Brothers and Donkey Kong, and when they graduated to endless horizontal scrolls in the home versions, I could only watch my nephew play for a couple minutes tops, then goodbye, with a slight twinge of annoyance. So I never cared about the differences between, say, an Xbox or a PlayStation. But this Nintendo Wii is a mutha.

To begin with, the wireless controller is loose in space with you. It can track any movement you make with your arms, which comes in handy when it’s time to curve a bowling ball or put topspin on a tennis forehand. The Wii Sports disc, which is the platform’s most popular software, also lets you play baseball or golf, and – by far the most popular sport on the disc – box against a computer fighter.

But the sports disc isn’t what sold me a Wii. It was the fitness software that made my jaw drop.

Now we’re using the wireless controller with an expertly selected combination of yoga, strength, aerobic and balance exercises. For most of them, we’re standing on a sensitive plastic board which can judge our footwork and balance in minute detail. This is how the system can rate the user numerically and assign points to every iteration of nearly every exercise. So you’re competing against yourself for better form and posture, and with anyone else also using the system.

You have a computer-generated “personal trainer” who encourages you (“Way to go!”) or chides you (“You’re swaying a little.”), whatever you deserve. The “personal” interchanges can be comical: I use Wii Fit every morning, while Linda stays in shape with long, leisurely runs. (She’ll probably be a more frequent customer when it gets cold.) So every few days, the machine says, “You know, I haven’t seen Linda lately.” Once it asked, “How do you think Linda’s posture looks today?” and gave me a multiple choice. I said it looked great. The response: “Well, why don’t you tell her so?”

The yoga poses and strength exercises look pretty much like what you’d see in a class or a gym. But the balance and aerobic sections are full of the wild flights of fancy of the Nintendo gang – who, let’s face it, are really video game designers. Your pals kick soccer balls which you bounce off your head for points, but occasionally an old shoe comes your way, or the head of a panda, which looks just like a soccer ball until the last second. You box in rhythm, stepping forward and back on the Wii’s commands. You run around a lovely CG island, or even through your own house, as long as it’s wireless distance. You can walk a tightrope, negotiate a ski jump or slalom course, float downstream inside a giant bubble and try not to hit the many sharp points on the shore, or sit so perfectly still that you don’t disturb a candle flame. Everything regarding aerobics or balance, they have made into a game.

You are represented by a little computer figure called a “Mii,” which you can deck out however you like. Since our Wii is connected to our wireless router, we can also download Miis created by others, which then populate our cartoon world: they cheer us along on the running path, applaud in the audience as we step on and off the balance board in perfect rhythm. Everybody is so earnest about my getting fit that it’s delightful, in a postmodern way.

And does it work? Well, I lost 11 pounds in the first two months, which is a pretty good pace. (It lists my ideal weight if I want, but I’ll never see that again, bub.) I get real-world fitness tips too: for instance, if you can’t exercise at least ten minutes in a stretch, at least 30 minutes in a day, you’re not doing yourself much good. But the most important contribution is that I’m more aware of my body. The Wii weighs me every morning, and it’s become painfully evident that there are two things involved in losing poundage: the exercise, and being more careful about what I cram into my piehole. Most astonishingly, I’ve begun to look forward to my daily workout. I hate to exercise, but this thing makes it fun.

Just this morning I installed the new Wii Sports Resort, more sports games including something I’ve wanted all my life, a Frisbee dog. They’ve come up with this new controller called Motion Plus, which is way more sensitive and makes it that much harder to properly release an arrow or swing a golf club. But the real anticipation is for the October release of Wii Fit II, more ways to have fun and do right by my body. It didn’t turn out to be a trend or fad – it’s legit workout gear, and whenever I’m home, I wouldn’t start my day without it.

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