Sunday, July 27, 2008


Animal Crossing: Wild World

What can I say about Animal Crossing that hasn't already been said? What perspective can I give that is uniquely mine? What story is left to tell?

I don't want to describe the game, exactly -- I should hope that it doesn't surprise anyone that the game involves paying off a mortgage by selling everything you can get your hands on to a sleepy-eyed raccoon. No, I'd like to get closer to the heart of the matter. Why is this game enjoyable? Why isn't it? Why do I keep coming back? Why do I stay away?

And the problem with that is that everyone's experience with the game is going to be different. There's so much going on in the game, and so little of it is truly mandatory to progress, that everyone who plays it is going to have a slightly different experience.

So. Where to begin?

Animal Crossing Can Be Very Absorbing

The odd thing about Animal Crossing is that it doesn't really feel like there's a whole lot of meat to it. It's not like there are massive dungeons to crawl or a 50-hour storyline to read through -- when you pare down your options to just the things that you want to accomplish in one sitting, it doesn't seem like you've got much to work with.

And yet, sit yourself down with it, and you'll find the hours just melting away.

Part of the reason is because the game flirts unapologetically with the hunter/gatherer nature that lurks inside us all. It doesn't matter what personal chore you're trying to accomplish when you set out from your house -- if you see a brown cicada perched on the nearby tree, you have to catch it. Same with the enticingly large shadow of a fish in the river. Or the little X-marked patch of dirt that you come across. The game world, small as it is, is constantly being restocked with delicious, live game, trembling in fear before the might of your bug net, just waiting to be exchanged for a paltry bounty at Tom Nook's.

And with your tiny inventory capacity, you'll be taking the walk to Nook's very, very frequently. And you'll be seething with jealousy at all of the treasures that you'll have to pass up along the way simply because your pockets are too stuffed to get more.

And if you can resist the urge to grind for bells, there are all of your animal neighbors who need your constant, unblinking attention. I've developed a soft spot for Lobo, a rude, cranky wolf who values fishing and his own masculine stench. I'm compelled to visit him every time I play, because if I don't, he might move away.

Even putting that aside, your random social encounters tend to be pretty entertaining. Your neighbors will engage you in fetch quests and fishing competitions and ask you to inspire them with nicknames and catch phrases. And, you know, it's something to do.

And after a hard half hour of work, you can spend some of your extra bells on an animation of your character sitting down and drinking a cup of coffee. It has very little impact on gameplay -- the only visible result is that it improves your relationship with Brewster, the barista, which seems to be limited to changing what he says when you talk to him -- and yet, I find that I've developed an addiction to virtual java. If a play session doesn't include a trip to The Roost, I feel like I've missed out. (And this game is pre-Godot, so I can't blame his influence.)

And I guess the personalization aspects are pretty cute. My character doesn't change his wardrobe very much, but why should he have to? He's wearing a bunny hood, a gas mask, and a homemade Melbourne Tatty shirt. Tell me that's not Animal Crossing cosplay in its purest, most perfect form.

You're wrong.

Filling up the museum is entertaining until you've done it and/or you get sick of trying to find where they hid the last five bugs on the list. Making a town tune is cute if you know how to compose music. K. K. Slider's weekly show is a must-see event. I'm glad that there are more interactive holiday events now -- the Flea Market days, in particular, are a lot of fun. I'm sure there's stuff I'm missing, but the point is that the experience as a whole is deceptively solid.

Animal Crossing is a Rather Inconvenient Game

The first point against Animal Crossing: Wild World is that it's just not a very good portable game. Now don't get me wrong, I'd rather have it portable than not, but it requires roughly the same amount of commitment that it takes to play a console game. Entering and exiting the game seems to take forever, and there's the threat of reprisal from Mr. Resetti if you have to power down in a hurry.

Okay, fair enough, but what the hell did they do with Sleep Mode? To preserve their precious little "real-time life adventure" thing, they removed the single most useful feature to ever come out for portable video games ever, the snap-shut sleep mode. If you close the system, the sound is killed and the screens go dim, but the power indicator stays solid green, suggesting that the system is still running (and still draining batteries) to keep its little world simulation running whether you're there to appreciate it or not. Certainly not the sort of thing I want to leave unattended in my pocket for an hour or two.

Second problem, the game needs a damned babysitter. Engrossing and enchanting as Animal Crossing is, my recreational hours are few and precious, and I want as wide a range of experiences as I can possibly get. Animal Crossing is a needy, clingy little game. If you put it away for a month, you'll come back to find that garden you planted has been replaced with a field of weeds, your house is crawling with cockroaches, and that shy little koala that you thought was kind of cute has been evicted, leaving behind nothing but a tear-soaked farewell letter.

I mean, god dammit, am I the only one who ever does anything in this town?!

Maybe this is a good baby step for little kids who need some exercise in dedication and responsibility before they encounter it in real life, but for an adult who has to practice it every god damned day and wants to pick up a video game to escape from that sort of thing, the whole experience is just a little unsatisfying.

And finally, Tom Nook's. Gosh, I really feel for the guy, working sun up to sun down and all, seven days a week without fail, always chipper, always amiable, but... would it kill him to hire someone for third shift? Thing is, Tom Nook's store is Animal Crossing. In a game where the biggest looming objective is to make money, there's not much to do when the location that transforms your activities into money isn't open. Sure, you can get some fishing in at 7:00am before you have to go to work. But then you'll have an inventory full of fish and nothing to do with them until 8:00am.

The game demands your dedication. You have to manage your life around what it wants. Not exactly the most polite recreational activity in the world. And what do you get out of it?

Animal Crossing Can Be Pretty Boring

Catching bugs and fish repeatedly doesn't sound like the most engrossing gameplay ever devised, and yet I'll do it for long periods of time as I'm playing this game.

Maybe it's because there's really not much else to do.

In the Gamecube game, the NES consoles were one of the most coveted items you could get. And I'm willing to bet that it has less to do with our undying devotion to Balloon Fight (though that's certainly part of it) and more to do with the fact that they were the only damned things you could put in your house that you could do anything with.

Let's look at The Sims. There was a game where you had to fill your house with furniture and appliances, but that served a purpose -- your simulated people needed care, and those things helped you achieve your goals.

In Animal Crossing, the majority of the pieces are just for show. Yes, you can stack things on tables, lamps will light up a room, you can make your character sit in a chair or lie down on a bed, cupboards can be filled, and certain objects like televisions can be turned on and off. Woooo. The point is, none of this crap has any point from a gameplay perspective, and none of it really does anything entertaining enough that you'll want to bother.

I dunno, maybe it's just because I'm a guy, but playing Virtual Doll House just rapidly loses its appeal for me when the doll house you've set up becomes a stage for a single character wandering around purposelessly. As my mansion grows ever larger with every successful loan payment, the emptiness weighs in on me. I live there all alone. No one to share my sumptuous Cabin decor with. An upright arcade machine quickly loses its charm when you're the only person in the arcade.

So one of the biggest features of the game -- the acquisition of furnishings -- is completely lost on me. I rarely go to Nook's to buy -- only to sell. I'll accept or purchase the things that my neighbors offer me strictly as an act of goodwill; everything I get from them goes to Nook's or attached to a letter and given to someone else. I guess I could play the Happy Room Academy game, but the feedback is too finicky for me to really feel involved in it. Or I could look up a Feng Shui guide and fill my house with lucky charms, if I wanted my house to look like a pile of randomly arranged crap. Not that my current organization model works much better -- just dump at random the things that managed to catch my interest which I haven't bothered to sell off yet.

... Which might explain why my real house looks the way it does, come to think of it.

Anyway, the postal system. When I first heard about Animal Crossing -- you know, back when it was a Nintendo 64 game -- I was smitten with this idea of postal exchange. You can send a letter to one of the in-game characters, and he or she will write back to you! This was mind-blowing stuff! And...

Well, it wasn't what I was expecting. Rather than try and implement some sort of chat bot system, the good folks at Nintendo opted to reward letter-writing players with random messages. As cute as some of them were, it got old pretty quick. There's just nothing rewarding about using the crummy keyboard interface to knock out a four-line letter of any substance whatsoever only to receive the same old messages you always get from that character in reply.

So after a day or two of fishing and bug hunting, I start to get this creeping feeling that there's really nothing useful to work toward in this game.

And Then It Went Online

Yeah, boo hoo, friend codes, etc. Look, I had my character hacked in Phantasy Star Online, I really don't mind that Nintendo is taking steps to protect me from jack asses who think it's funny to turn other people's town gates into museums. I don't mind being restricted to playing with people I know and trust, and friend codes, imperfect as they are, are at least tolerable.

The real problem is what happens once you're all connected. Basically, it's exactly like playing alone except there's another player character wandering around. And you can chat with each other.

So it's a lot like a super restricted chat room. Where you can fish.

I dunno. I just don't get it is all.

So What the Hell?

The game doesn't hold up well to in-depth analysis, but it's fun to play. It's not especially rewarding, but it can suck you in just the same. It can be hard (for me) to shoehorn a play session into my schedule, but I'm generally pleased when I can.

So is Animal Crossing, in the end, a good game? Is it worth owning? Yeah, probably. Good night.


Saturday, July 26, 2008



I was at a Target the other day, and I saw six entire Wii consoles just sitting there.

On the shelves.

No lines, no mobs, nothing.

Clearly this is the end of Nintendo's crushing dominance on the world markets. But it was nice while it lasted, eh?


Wednesday, July 23, 2008


Mario & Luigi Superstar Saga

There are any number of reasons why Superstar Saga stands out as my very favorite in the strange and storied series of loosely-associated Super Mario/RPG hybrid games. Where Square stranded Mario in an isometric 3D Final Fantasy game and Intelligent Systems basically built their combat system out of Duplos, Alpha Dream stands apart for making a Mario RPG that compromises neither the Mario nor the RPG. Every aspect of the game feels strong, all the way down the line.

The story opens as the evil witch Cackletta, disguised as an ambassador, gains entry to Princess Peach's castle and steals her voice. Whenever Peach tries to speak thereafter, exploding characters rain down from her speech balloons, creating both panic and pandemonium. Unable to kidnap her in this enchanted state, Bowser enlists Mario (and a reluctant Luigi) to help him chase down the wicked witch as she makes her escape into the neighboring Bean Bean Kingdom.

Eschewing the straightforward "find the seven star things" storyline that's been the focus of every other damned game in the series (including, alas, its sequel), Superstar Saga finds the time to lay out a strange and delicious plot that loops and twirls and laughs at your expectations. They play around with the implications of traveling abroad that lesser games would gloss over -- the Mario Brothers get passports as they enter the new country, their money is subject to currency exchange rates, and some time is spent at the midgame, exploring diplomatic relationships between the Mushroom and Bean Bean Kingdoms. There's lots of laughs, lots of surprises, and lots and lots of cute Charles Martinet voice work to enjoy along the way.

Turn-Based Platforming

It's amazing how much the combat system has evolved from Legend of the Seven Stars. Square's game had pretty traditional turn-based combat with only one really interesting twist -- as the combatants went through their animations, you could hit harder or block more damage by hitting a button at exactly the right time. Furthermore, most special attacks had some sort of timing or button mashing cue to power them up. It made the turn-based gameplay just a bit more active.

Then came Paper Mario, which turned the whole combat system on its head. Rather than trying to fit Mario into an existing turn-based combat system, they envisioned what Super Mario Brothers would look like if it had been born with turn-based combat. And the result is actually pretty impressive. Jumping on Spinies hurts Mario, Koopas take more damage when they've been flipped on their backs, jumping on a flying enemy sometimes makes it fall to the ground, etc. But it was still the same idea -- timing and button-mashing cues made the world go around.

Superstar Saga brought on a small revolution.

See, your party is only ever made up of one or two characters -- Mario and/or Luigi. All of Mario's actions are activated with the A button, all of Luigi's with the B button. Combat is still turn-based, but pressing a character's button will usually make him do something, even when it's not his turn. One small example -- if you press B when it's Mario's turn, then Luigi will jump. It doesn't necessarily accomplish anything, but it's a real-time jump.

Attacks are done with the same old timing cues that they've always used. Where the new system really shines is on the enemies' turns, when you have to defend. In previous games, defending properly would shave some damage off, but you'd still take a hit. In this game, things are different.

As an enemy is going through its attack animation, you can press a character's button to make him jump or ready his hammer, depending on the situation. Timing is still an issue, of course, but this time around it's all real-time action. Say a goomba is running up to Mario. If you jump at the right time, you'll jump right over it and take no damage whatsoever. What's more, you can time your jump so that you'll land on the goomba instead of jumping over it. If you do this, you'll take no damage, but the goomba will take damage for being stomped.

Can you see how beautiful this is? How this is a complete paradigm shift? It's still turn-based combat, but the question of hit or miss is an almost completely skill-based proposition. You can still dominate at this game with piss-poor experience levels if you can get good enough at dodging and counterattacking.

Combat is thick, juicy, and satisfying. As you get further into the game, you'll run into all manner of enemies with creative attack patterns. It's a lot of fun to figure out how best to use their own attacks against them, especially with the bosses. The end boss in particular rolls out some completely devastating attacks, and dealing with the onslaught can make you forget that you're not playing a pure action game.

And the whole system is built on a system of statistics that are instantly comfortable and familiar to traditional RPG fans. None of this "star points" and "badge points" crap from Paper Mario -- no, this is good, old fashioned RPGery, complete with attacks that deal out dozens of hit points per strike. It's so natural and comfortable to RPG fans that it doesn't even need any explanation.

Also Regular Platforming

Superstar Saga isn't particularly deeper in the platforming aspects than any of the other Mario RPGs. The big gimmick on display here is that, just as in battle, you control both Mario Brothers simultaneously. You can press Start at any time to switch the one that you control, and in most situations, the other one will follow along behind you. As you progress through the game, the brothers will pick up cute new abilities to use in the overworld, and the shoulder buttons toggle between all of the available options.

Just as in Paper Mario, you'll run into some of those annoying spots where you have to unlock a figurative door to the next area by exercising a special ability. You know what I'm talking about. There's a long gap in the road, so you switch to the Spin Jump that will get you across it. It requires neither skill nor wit -- the developers just want to delay you for the two seconds that it takes to put Luigi in the lead and switch to Mario's Spin Jump ability.

This is mitigated somewhat by the fact that they actually do manage to make some interesting puzzles to solve and by the fact that the game doesn't ask you to run back and forth across the same stretch of land five or six times in order to accomplish anything. Most of the "dungeon" areas in Superstar Saga are fairly straight-shot propositions. When the game does make you back track, it takes the classy tactic of not respawning any of the enemies unless you completely leave the area.

The Best to Date

This is, in short, everything that a Super Mario RPG should be. Which is why it was so sad to see its direct sequel, Partners in Time, arrive without the inspired plot or the crazy humor.

I could go on and on. I haven't even touched on Fawful, Prince Peasley, Queen Bean, Luigi's side quest, Popple the Shadow Thief, Bubbles the soda brewer, Boddle the Yoshi enthusiast, the Starbeans Cafe, or the giant fire-breathing, man-eating hermaphrodite. The game is, from start to finish, an insane, hilarious sugar rush, a delectable treat that you'll want to play through again and again and again. If you missed out on it, well... that's quite a pity.


Sunday, July 20, 2008


Nintendo's Data Storage Non-Solution

The push to make a hard drive for the Wii has been around for a long time, but now that Wii Ware has introduced the idea of downloadable content that can take up almost 300 precious blocks at a time, it seems like the Wii's tiny internal memory has become the biggest issue of the decade among editorialists who write about Nintendo. Nintendo's reactions have ranged from dismissive to insulting. Ultimately, their message is that we need to live with it.

I have to admit, I've been feeling the pinch lately. When Wii Ware launched, I realized that something was going to have to go if I was going to make room for it. At first it was easy enough -- I had a bunch of Virtual Console games that I didn't especially like. It was no big deal to delete Star Fox 64 to make room for Lost Winds, or Yoshi's Story to make room for Dr. Mario.

But the memory hogs kept coming. I wanted the Nintendo Channel, after all. The Wii Fit Channel looked pretty cute on my channel list. And I decided to download Check Mii Out again. And My Pokemon Ranch. And who could live without Everybody Votes?

And with every program that absolutely had to live on my Wii, there was less and less room for my precious virtual console games. Super Mario 64 went packing, as did Paper Mario. It was a little disheartening to think that I didn't have a definitive library of games living on my Wii 100% of the time.

E3 came and went, and all Nintendo had to say about the storage situation was, gee, isn't it great how iPods and Wiis remember what kind of software you have, so you can keep things in rotation? Erase what you don't need, then get it back when you need it again? And a funny thing happened.

I decided to give it a try.

I spent a long evening backing up every piece of software I'd ever downloaded onto a 2GB SD card. It was a very long process -- I'd heard about how long it took to transfer data to SD, but without so much as a progress bar to entertain me, it was excruciating. And when I had a copy of every piece of software I "owned", I deleted it all. (With the exception of utility channels, which I use frequently, and four games -- Super Mario Brothers, Dr. Mario, Pac-Man, and Mario Kart 64 -- that should live on the console as a convenience to other family members, who love those games and won't want to dink around with the downloading crap.) And I had my first surprise.

I quite liked the result.

My channel menu looked... Clean. Elegant. Efficient.

Your Wii Channel menu is, after all, a software garden. It just doesn't feel right when it's cluttered with options. There was a time when I tried to group my Wii channels across the four pages according to theme, frequency of use, and other factors, but it never felt quite as nice as seeing all of my software summarized on one screen, with 12 friendly buttons to press.

My original plan was to keep all of my software backed up on the SD card, and to load it into Wii memory as needed, but after seeing how much quicker it is to just download it again from the Shop channel, I've decided to keep the SD card strictly as a backup for a situation where the household Net is down. And besides, it's fun to download stuff from the Shop. There's something adorable about watching Mario run around gathering coins as an indication of download progress. And the Shop keeps a convenient list of the games you've already purchased, making it easy to pull something out of the virtual vault and back into your system.

And there are added psychological benefits.

Now, I'm sure I won't be able to explain this correctly, but the basic idea is this. When my Wii's memory was stuffed to the brim, there was this obstacle in my mind to re-downloading, say, Paper Mario to play with it for a few hours. "Sure, I could do that," I would think to myself, "But then I'd have to delete Lost Winds or Defend Your Castle. And what would I do when I wanted to play those again?"

But now that I have practically nothing in my channels to play with and hundreds of blocks of open memory, downloading Paper Mario again is suddenly a tantalizing proposition.

And there's every chance that I'll get more out of my VC games by having fewer of them immediately available to me. If you create an obstacle to changing games, you'll use the ones available to you more and tend to get more out of them. It's like when you own a classic arcade collection -- if it's easier to change games than it is to get good at the one you're playing, you're much more likely to play one round, then switch to something else.

If I know I'll have to go through the rigmarole of deleting The Lost Levels and loading up the Shop to get Super Mario Brothers 3, I'll be less likely to play it for five minutes, get bored, and change games. I'll get more use out of The Lost Levels when I have it available.

I might even get good at it.

Let me finish by saying that this should not be interpreted as an apology or an endorsement for what Nintendo has done. I'm sure they could make a system that was just as elegant and useful if they had a larger storage system and, say, a single channel that allowed you to choose from all of your VC games. The system in place is not ideal.

All I can really say is that I've learned to live with it. And I've come to see it less as a crippling handicap and more as a cute little foible.


Thursday, July 17, 2008


I Guess I Could Talk About E3?

Tycho had this to say about Nintendo's keynote at E3 this year:

No doubt the proprietors of Ladies' Home Journal were breathless during Nintendo's presentation, but those outside of that august body may derive less enjoyment. This is the deep-dish, delicious irony endured by the Nintendo stalwart: to see their platform of choice ascendant, even as their bright God turns his face away.

I thought this was an interesting observation to make for a number of reasons. There's a suggestion that Nintendo fans should be unhappy about the non-traditional content that the company is creating and attracting. I feel that I should offer a patently obvious counter-argument.

The only way to really be a Nintendo fan these days is if you absolutely love this shit.

There are still some hangers-on, of course. These are the people who whined about Wii Fit last year, the people who are expecting Nintendo to create one Metroid and one Zelda every month for the next five years rather than following their obviously established pattern of ever more clean and approachable Wii-branded software.

These people cannot accept reality. Sucks to be them.

Me? I'm in love with my Wii. I've just completed my eighth straight week of Wii Fit (fifteen pounds lighter, thank you very much). I bought that Rock Band game that all the cool kids are making fun of, and surprise surprise, it's quite enjoyable. And when it comes right down to it, there's just so much crap coming out in the near future that I doubt I'll be able to keep up with it all.

When the "bright God" that Tycho talks about turns away from him, it shines its light on me. I am Nintendo's market. And I'm loving it.

With that said, let's break down the big stuff that Nintendo announced this week:

Rhythm Heaven -- Also known as that one rhythm game from the guys who made Wario Ware that never came to America. Well, now it's on the DS, and it's going to get a proper localization. I was curious about the first one, but what can I say, I prefer the convenience of games that are on sale in my own country. Consider this one on the radar.

Wario Land Shake It -- The big problem with this one is that Wario Land 4 sucked. Maybe it wasn't an awful game, but it was a follow-up to Wario Land 3. WARIO LAND 3. You can't follow up Wario Land 3 with an average platformer! You've got to get divine power on your side if you want to take a crack at that particular holy grail. Anyway, we'll see.

Animal Crossing: City Folk -- Well, I'll give them one thing. They struck a pretty classy compromise between the familiarity of the classic AC avatars and the inarguable necessity of Mii integration. I'll give them two more things -- Wii Speak and connectivity with Wild World are neat ideas. But here's the thing -- it's Animal Crossing. The Game About Nothing. I've played it twice already. Do I really need the guilt of having a third virtual town sitting in neglect, overgrown with weeds because I've been playing something else for two months?

Wii Sports Resort -- Wii Sports remains my favorite Wii game of all, completely unchallenged by fluff like Super Mario Galaxy and Super Smash Brothers Brawl. It's got five sports that are easy to care about, and they're all done well enough to make me want to play them. What does Wii Sports Resort have going for it? Swordplay sounds all right, I guess. Eh.

Wii Music -- Yeah, but I already have Rock Band. GOD STOP COMING OUT WITH INSTRUMENT GAMES.

WiiMotion Plus -- I just plain don't get it. It seems like the sort of thing you need to pick up and feel before you can really appreciate it, but as it is? It's hard to get particularly excited about this one. I already have a motion controller, don't I? Don't I?!

Miyamoto mentions that they're making Pikmin -- Oh. Well. Good for you then.

All in all, my gaming forecast hasn't seen any drastic changes after this year's E3. Retro Gaming Challenge dominates my consciousness. I'm preparing myself to get some hardcore rental time in with Order Up! next week. And in the meantime, I'm getting in some time with Animal Crossing: Wild World to help remind myself why I stopped caring about this series to begin with.


Friday, July 11, 2008


Holy Fucking Fuck!







Monday, July 07, 2008


On the Radar

Oh, my poor, poor savings account. I already own Wii Fit and Rock Band and Super Smash Brothers Brawl and Super Mario Galaxy. I have vast treasure troves of Wii Ware and Virtual Console, and that's not even considering my vault of games for systems stretching back four generations.

And yet, no matter how much I have, it seems like there's always room for more.

So here's a quick look at some of the titles for the Wii that I have my eye on. And this is just this year. God help me in 2009.

Active Life: Outdoor Challenge

This one came out of nowhere. I was browsing the Nintendo Channel at random, spotted this game with a weird title on the list, saw it had a video, and decided to give it a watch. My pants were charmed straight off. Yes, it's yet another minigame compilation for the Wii, but so fucking what? I bought the system for active games, dammit, and so far only Wii Sports, Wii Fit, and Wario Ware seem to get that. The games in Outdoor Challenge look like they have the potential to be cool, but much more interesting is watching the people playing them. That play pad looks deliciously versatile, and single-pad multiplayer is an enticing proposition. The promise of an entire series of games to support it sweetens the deal considerably.

Strong Bad's Cool Game For Attractive People

Being a long-time Homestar Runner fan, this one was pretty much a given. Frankly, the footage I've seen so far doesn't give me much hope for maintaining the humor of The Brothers Chaps in interactive 3D form, but I'll give it a go for old time's sake. And for the Videlectrix guys.

Sam & Max Season One

After playing the first Phoenix Wright game, I've become somewhat enamored with the idea of equating interactive fiction with television series. I've heard nothing but good things about Sam & Max on PC. Basically, I just want to see what all the fuss is about.

We Love Golf!

Wii Sports proved one thing to me -- I would love a motion-sensitive golf game. The reviews I've heard so far have made me hesitant to try one of the golf games already available for the Wii. But this game's got quite a pedigree -- from the folks who made Hot Shots Golf and Mario Golf, and featuring Capcom characters like Apollo Justice. If anyone can get a golf game right on the Wii, it'll be these folks.

Order Up!

This could be a Cooking Mama killer. If they can manage the same robust cooking gameplay that made Mama so charming, and enhance it with the features I've been craving -- random orders, business modeling, room for improvisation -- then this'll be the Rock Band of cooking games.

Samba de Amigo

When I heard about the Wii, the first thing that came to my mind was Samba de Amigo. Now that it's coming true, I almost feel like it's my duty to pick this one up. I'm hesitant for a number of reasons. Are the controls natural? Will it have all of the old songs? What the hell is this about paid download content? One thing is for sure though -- I've got to try it.


Thursday, July 03, 2008


Wii Fit

Wii Fit couldn't have come at a better time for me. The local gym just adjusted its pricing structure out of my reach, the home treadmill broke down, and I'll be damned if I'm going to go for a walk outside like a chump.

So thank goodness that Nintendo struck upon the idea of making an exercise video game, because God knows I wouldn't have had the slightest interest if it was a Sony or Microsoft product. Seriously, I was on board from day one. I put in a pre-order on Amazon as soon as it was possible. And it turned out to be a clever bit of foresight on my part, because it's starting to look like the demand for the product is going to outstrip demand for the Wii itself.

But what is Wii Fit? What can it do for me? After spending six weeks with My Electronic Fitness Instructor, I can begin to answer these questions with the utmost confidence and/or lack of any real weight loss expertise whatsoever.

How do I do the Wii Fit?

Wii Fit is a game about exercising. Remember Brain Age? Then you've got a pretty good idea of the structure this thing takes on.

The first time you start the game up, you create a profile for yourself and take a "Body Test". This consists of measuring your weight and playing a game where you have to shift your weight back and forth. If you don't do well enough at the game, it means you're 87 years old, I guess. Point is, your Wii Fit Age is meaningless and can be discarded without penalty.

Once you've overcome the shock of finding out that you're 60 pounds overweight for a person of your height, you're invited to set a weight loss goal for yourself. I decided that going from Obese to Overweight by the end of the summer was a pretty good starting point. Properly ashamed and humiliated, you're let loose into the Training activities.

Again, the setup is pretty familiar for Brain Age veterans, except that instead of solving math problems and reading out loud, you're doing pushups and jogging in place. You can choose from Yoga, Strength, and Aerobics exercises, offering up at least one way to work out any major muscle group you could care about.

Thing about the Balance Board is, it detects weight and shifts in weight. So, although it's a pretty fair judge of whether or not you've done a regulation pushup, the only thing it can really comment on for most exercises is your posture. Most of the Yoga and Strength exercises give you a score in the end based on how steady you kept your center of gravity while you were exercising. Which is helpful and interesting, but hardly as interactive as I was hoping for; you can still screw up your poses and exercises without the system complaining, and there's even room to consciously trick the system into giving you an undeserved score.

Much more interesting are the Aerobics exercises. There are only four of them, but really, at the higher duration levels, that's all you'll need to make a half hour exercise session. Ironically enough, my very favorite activity in the game is jogging in place, which doesn't use the board at all; you slip a Wii remote in your pocket, and the motion sensor works like a pedometer to measure how fast you're jogging, which translates into the animation of your Mii jogging around Wii Fit Island with Bill Clinton, Albert Einstein, and all of the other celebrity Miis you've downloaded from the Check Mii Out Channel. Rhythm Boxing and Step use the board like a very simplistic DDR mat, simply detecting whether you've stepped on or off the board. And the Hula Hoop ("HULA HOOP" IS A REGISTERED TRADEMARK OF THE WHAM-O TOY COMPANY) game measures with uncanny accuracy how you're swinging your hips, and uses this information to judge whether or not your Mii can keep those hoops a-twirlin'. The Aerobics activities just feel more like "real" games, primarily because it's more difficult to trick the system into thinking you're doing an activity than it is to actually do it.

Oh, and there are Balance Games, in case you need to be bored.

Can You Use Wii Fit to Lose Weight?

This is the big question, isn't it? It's one thing to say that your video game encourages people to lose weight. It's quite another to prove that your video game actually gives people effective tools to use for reaching that goal.

The sad fact is that, yes, Wii Fit seems to be just as good as any other piece of home fitness equipment or any other exercise video I've ever encountered. The exercises you perform are, after all, real -- provided that you're doing them the way you're shown, you will burn calories and build muscle mass doing the workouts that Wii Fit has available.

But it's not a magic wand. If you have tried other home fitness equipment or exercise videos and haven't had the results you wanted, chances are Wii Fit isn't going to do it for you either. The Wii Fit package never claims to offer any shortcuts. It never says that this is going to be quick, easy, or even fun. The only thing you can really say about Wii Fit is that if you put something into it, you'll get something out of it.

Many reviewers have lamented the fact that the game doesn't come with any sort of officially-sanctioned workout routine. While I can sympathize with this sentiment to an extent, I understand why they didn't do something like that. It's because Nintendo is a video game company AND MAYBE WE SHOULDN'T BE LOOKING TO VIDEO GAME COMPANIES TO ANSWER QUESTIONS THAT CAN HAVE AN IMPACT ON OUR HEALTH.

If you really want to lose weight with Wii Fit, you're going to have to do it the hard way. You're going to have to set up your own exercise routines and get yourself on a diet. The question, then, is why we need this package in the first place. Really, as far as actual exercise goes, there's nothing going on here that you can't do without the balance board. You could get roughly the same results with just about any exercise video.

But there's one major difference.

When you pop in an exercise video, it's not going to comment on how long it's been since your last session.

An exercise video isn't going to track your weight from day to day and demand an explanation for those three pounds you gained.

An exercise video isn't going to call you out if you stop after three reps.

What Wii Fit gives you is real-time encouragement, motivation, and advice. It's the next best thing to having a real person looming over you to keep you on task. You want to succeed, you want to push yourself, because there are psychological consequences for failure.

When I first got Wii Fit, I figured I would just play it here and there and see what happened. Even though my first Body Test ranked me on the shallow end of Obese territory, I really didn't expect that I was going to be altering my lifestyle too much.

But then the next morning, I found I had put on over a pound, and the game asked me to think about why that was. I saw that steep jump in the graph, taking me well into my post-college weight, and I had this image of myself just apathetically putting on pound after pound day after day. And so I resolved to nip it in the bud.

No more sweets. No more beef. Lots of vegetables. Smaller meals spaced three to four hours apart. And half an hour of exercise every morning, six days a week. Three days for aerobics, three days for strength, on alternating days. I got some pretty good advice regarding diet and exercise from, of all places, the GameFAQs message boards, where a gentleman by the name of Pow Pow Punishment took it upon himself to dispel all of our misconceived ideas about exercise and weight loss.

Seven weeks later, I'm down into the high end of the Overweight region and dropping all the time. I've lost thirteen pounds and two belt notches. I'm never starving myself. I feel FANTASTIC. And I'm finally starting to set some high scores in the Yoga exercises.

The value of the software is that it turns your weight loss goals into a game. Just as Miyamoto promised, you can't help but start to take an active interest in your personal health as you clock more and more hours into it. It's the same feeling of accomplishment that you get from watching your Pokemon level up and evolve, except now you're watching your BMI shift toward a more normal weight category and seeing your 20-pound weight loss goal dwindle into the single digits.

It's a Keeper

There are a lot of games that I like, grudgingly or otherwise, but there are very few that I consider to be essential for myself. Super Mario Brothers. Shiren the Wanderer. Samba de Amigo.

Well, you can add Wii Fit to the list. I haven't played anything like it, and I doubt I will again. (This is because I won't be playing the "Me too!" clones that come out in the coming months.) It makes me feel like I'm still at the gym, in the comfort of my own living room, using nothing but a small platform about the size of a bathroom scale.

To me, the package has justified its cost. I can't help thinking that it's going to continue to provide value to me for years to come.


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