HEAT VISION

Can Nintendo Spark Another Gaming Fitness Revolution?

In 2007, the company set off a craze for "exergaming" technology with its Wii Fit peripheral, but can the new Ring Fit Adventure, a fitness add-on for the Switch, do the same?

Finding time to take care of one's body amid the hustle and bustle of work, commutes and social obligations can often feel like a juggling act performed on a unicycle. As such, many would-be fitness enthusiasts look to cram in a workout wherever and whenever they can, be it opting for the stairs over the crowded confines of an office elevator, sitting on a wobbly exercise ball at their desk or spending a large lump of cash on converting that extra bedroom into a home gym. With a finger on this pulse, Nintendo provided a hopeful jolt in 2007 with the release of Wii Fit, perhaps the biggest publicity bump for the genre of "exergaming" (a clever portmanteau of "exercise" and "gaming," for those still foggy from their runs this morning).

The launch of Wii Fit caused a bit of a revolution in exergaming, with other industry leaders such as Microsoft and Ubisoft EA following suit with their own get-of-your-butts titles such as Just Dance (2009), EA Sports Active (2009) and Nike+ Kinect Training (2012). More than a decade later, the exergaming trend had quieted, until Thursday morning, when Nintendo unveiled the first look at its upcoming Ring Fit Adventure, a hula-hoop, leg-strap peripheral hardware add-on to the Switch console that is aimed at getting gamers' heart rates up. 

The success of Wii Fit was staggering. More than 18 million units — $2 billion in worldwide sales — were sold in the 18 months following the game's launch. Utilizing a platform peripheral that tracked the player's balance, weight and stance, Wii Fit offered a collection of minigames that made exercise into a fun experience for many who may have been reticent to take their first steps toward a healthier lifestyle. 

While Wii Fit can be pointed to as the single title and accessory that really took exergaming into the mainstream, the genre existed more than two decades earlier. In 1982, Atari debuted the Joyboard, a black pad resembling a scale that would most likely be found in a brutalist German hotel or Dracula's lavatory, which was packed with the tech of an Atari 2600 controller. Players would stand on the Joyboard to hit the slopes in Mogul Maniac, which emulated the bobbing weave of slalom skiing. 

While the Joyboard was a commercial failure, it wasn't the only planned fitness add-on from Atari. The Atari Puffer (not a fish) was to be a device which attached to exercise bikes, making the fitness equipment the controller. Pedal faster, make your car go. Huff and puff to get Dig Dug to shovel more dirt. Et cetera. Ultimately, the project was scrapped and never made its way to the market as Atari declared bankruptcy following the video game crash of 1983. 

A few years later, however, Nintendo, along with Bandai, dipped a sweaty toe into the exergaming waters. The Power Pad, launched in the U.S. in 1988, was a mat equipped with various pressure sensors corresponding to input controls on the Nintendo Entertainment System. The accessory worked with a number of different NES games, most of which were sports-themed. Total sales figures for the accessory are not publicly available.

Over the next decade and a half, a number of other companies tried their hand at exergaming, from massive, expensive rigs such as the Tectrix VR Bike (a recumbent exercise bike rigged to a CRT display that retailed for a whopping $28,000 in its heyday) to elaborate arcade cabinets such as Konami's Dance Dance Revolution, which later made its way to home consoles via its own set of peripheral add-ons. 

It wasn't until Wii Fit that the trend really broke wide open. Nintendo signaled to the gaming industry that this was a market with potential, if the price was right (Wii Fit launched with a $90 price tag) and the game was engaging (players used their customizable Mii character to track their progress). Wii Fit Plus, a 2009 follow-up, has sold more than 21 million copies in its lifetime (slightly below the original game's 22.8 million) but 2013's Wii Fit U was unable to emulate the success, likely because it fell on the outside of the exergaming craze its predecessors created.

Whether Ring Fit can reach the lofty heights of Wii Fit remains to be seen. The latest exergaming peripheral from Nintendo launches Oct. 18 for $80. What Ring Fit does show is that Nintendo continues to be unafraid of unique approaches to gaming. 

The Switch itself has shaken up the industry, with its ability to go from docked gaming on a big screen to handheld console in an instant. Meanwhile, in 2018, the company revealed the Nintendo Labo, a series of cardboard DIY construction kits that transformed the Switch (and the player) into a robot, a fishing rod or a race car, among other arrangements. A massive swing for innovation or a misguided step from a company drunk on its power is an opinion that lies in the eye of the beholder, but regardless of Labo's successes or failures (just shy of 1.4 million units have sold worldwide), the move was a bold one. 

Ring Fit Adventure, if nothing else, is Nintendo flexing its creative prowess and offering a product that its competitors are either incapable, or uninterested, in providing. As AR and VR tech have advanced considerably since Wii Fit's glory days in the late aughts, Ring Fit also has the benefit of a more responsive and adaptive control scheme. Even if it can't spark another home fitness revolution, Ring Fit hints at a company unafraid to give more "out there" concepts considerable backing, and maybe help gamers shed a few pounds in the process.

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