First look: Wii Fit fits the Wii mold

Posted by Mark Raby

New York (NY) - At an event held by Nintendo yesterday in New York City, we got a chance to score some more hands-on time with some of Nintendo's upcoming titles and made sure we put Wii Fit through its paces, at least for its initial preview build. Here is what you can expect when the device will debut in the first half of next year.


In pictures: Wii Fit (9 slides) ...

The Balance Board, a brand new controller, was in the spotlight for our demo.  First revealed two weeks ago at the E3 Media & Business Summit in California, the Balance Board is a platform designed to be set on the floor, and is controlled entirely by pressure-sensitive touch.  The wirelessly connected board assigns itself to an available controller slot.  For example, in our demo the Wii Remote was registered as controller 1 and the Balance Board was controller 4. Setup of the board takes some configuration time, including to stand “completely balanced” on the device. After being a bit taken aback at how terrible my normal posture appeared to be, the Wii Fit game was ready to go.

The “headbutt” exercise (see image gallery), which was seen during the on-stage presentation of the game at E3, was without doubt the most fun. It's similar to the "dodging" exercise in Wii Sports boxing, where the player has to position a character's head to knock back soccer balls but avoid other objects. 

Instead of controlling the character with hand movements, though, the game is played based on the weight you apply to each foot.  Putting a lot of pressure on the right foot causes the character's head to move to the right; shift your weight to left and the character moves to the left accordingly. There are also times when you have to “stand in the middle”, completely balanced. I have to admit, it did seem a bit awkward to be controlling the character's head movement with my feet, and even after I finished my time with it I was still a bit disoriented.  However, the controls do actually make sense, and the hardware-software combination provides a great "easy to learn, but difficult to master" feeling.  

I also gave a ski jumping mini-game a try, that had me kneeling down for the descent and then quickly stand up at the jump point, all the while keeping my center of balance squarely in the middle.  There was a "balance map" on the screen that showed exactly where my center of balance was, and I had to do my best to keep it in one spot during the hill, and then in another spot during the jump.  This meant practically stepping on my tip toes at the top end of the Balance Board during the hill, followed by standing back and perfectly in the middle while my character was in the air. The game measured how well I was able to keep my balance, combined with how well I timed the jump – indicating reaction times.  

Without a doubt the most humiliating game I tried was the hula hoop.  In that, I had to shake my hips as forcefully as possible, which I guess has a direct effect on how my feet are positioned.  As the resident non-athlete at TG Daily, this challenge proved difficult for me, but it's just the kind of thing I'd like to work at and get better, especially when I'm not being watched by a handful of Nintendo PR people.  It also was the first exercise I tried that I thought actually had the potential to be a real fitness exercise.  The headbutt and ski jump exercises really didn't require me to move around that much. 

I'd be more interested in seeing something like a treadmill exercise where you have to run in place on the Balance Board.  I don't know how much of a beating the board can take, but in my 10 - 15 minutes with the game it appeared to be very durable. Also a surprising experience was that the board in fact is “comfortable”.  There are contours around it so that it doesn't feel like you're stepping onto a thick piece of plastic.  During my trial runs, the device was extremely responsive and as far as I could tell, very accurate.  The slightest shift in weight to one side of the board was picked up instantaneously.  Much like the Wii Remote, it's tough to compare the Balance Board to anything because there's never been a controller like it. 

Unlike the Dance Dance Revolution dance pads or Nintendo's own legendary Power Pad for the original NES, it detects exactly how much pressure you're exerting throughout the entire pad.  It's not just a new way of mapping out a couple buttons.  It's a new controller experience. According to Nintendo of America's PR director Kelli Horner, there are no other confirmed titles in the works for the new controller, but there is excitement about it from third-party publishers.  It should be easy enough for developers to incorporate it should they want to.  Horner described one possible application with a golf game.  "You could use the controller to swing the golf club while the Balance Board measures how balanced your feet are," she said.  It's not going to be another way for controlling games, but it certainly could add a deeper level to a traditional game experience.

Nintendo confirmed to us that Wii Fit, which will include the Balance Board, will be available in the first half of 2008.  The company is not talking about price yet, which could suggest a slight premium over the standard $50 price tag.  There's also no talk yet about standalone copies of the game or Balance Board.

The scant selection of exercises didn't really show me how well the Balance Board could be used as part of a fitness regimen, but it did something more important in showing how it can be used for a range of different applications.  In true Nintendo fashion, it's completely new and original.  I actually wasn't blown away when I saw it unveiled at E3, but after getting some hands-on time with it, I think Nintendo has the potential to turn this into yet another killer app.  The game needs to have a really good mix of fun mini-game events but also true fitness exercises, and it should show off all the possibilities with the controller to get third-party game creators interested.  If Nintendo can fit all that into Wii Fit, it will most likely be one of the console's defining titles in 2008.