The Wii Fit Effect: A History of the Exercise Game Movement

Thursday, May 31st, 2018

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Exercise-driven video games are a nifty idea. As opposed to the monthly charges of a gym, and the reputation video games have as a slothful activity, exercise games for home consoles allow users work out in the comfort of their own home. Interactive exercise products, combined with the interactivity of a video game, can make for an engaging combination of mediums. And when users actually stick with their workouts over time, they can see effective weight loss and cardio results.

Ten years ago this month, Nintendo released their most audacious next step in this line of game design, the fitness application Wii Fit. To say it blew up out of the gate is a gross understatement. Wii Fit let people interface with their consoles in a novel way by manipulating their bodies on a balancing board, with all the marketability of pushing a health agenda. While Wii Fit was ultimately a fad-scale success, it left a pronounced impact on the industry and consumer electronics with popularizing exergames with the masses.

To understand Wii Fit is to understand the history of video games as an exercise tool. We (Wii?) have to go back…to before…the beginning…

In the beginning, there was the Nintendo Entertainment System. Nintendo saw this, and it was good. Over in Japan, games publisher and toy maker Bandai had some interesting plans of their own. In 1986, the company released the software Family Stadium and the Family Trainer accessory (better known as the Nintendo-released Power Pad in the States).

This plastic pad predates all manner of physical activity-based game accessories for the home, as users stepped on the plastic mat to simulate stadium events like the 100 meter dash. If you’re familiar with dance pads, the Power Pad should be familiar to you. Like those, this tested a user’s timing, coordination, and memory skills. How Bandai’s game and accessory wound up in Nintendo’s hands as a major NES bundle is a story all of its own, proving that even in the 80s, games had a perception problem that exercise-orientation could try to fix.

On the Super NES, there was no fitness pad but instead a giant exercise bike. The Nintendo Exertainment Life Cycle, in conjunction with games Mountain Bike Rally and Speed Racer, allowed users to simulate the experience of mountain biking digitally. Unlike the Power Pad, it gained no market traction due to its relative obscurity and it now auctions for exorbitant prices (as high as $2,000 USD).

After the tangent that was the Super NES’s replica of an exercise bike came Konami and Dance Dance Revolution. Konami’s arcade smash was one of the earlier video game successes that attracted positive press coverage, thanks to how it got players moving. While the “Simon Says” gameplay of DDR could be more described as “Stomp Stomp Revolution”, following a quick succession of arrows on-screen in time to fast-paced music was an effective way to get players to “exercise” without them even knowing it. The series made a splash in the home in the early 2000s across multiple platforms with its compact, affordable plastic dance mat, directly descended from Bandai and the Power Pad concept from the ’80s.

Then came 2006. It was the dawning of the age of Wii, Nintendo’s Blue Ocean Strategy realized. The mid-2000s were a time where Nintendo reflected that gaming had become too intimidating for wider audiences, too hardcore to grow as a business. The Wii would make moves to cater to both gamers and people who’d never picked up a controller, delivered through a lower-cost console. Internally, Nintendo was burning with ideas on how to appeal to the broader demographic. From this line of thought came the Balance Board…

Would you believe the technical genesis of Wii Fit actually came out of the DS? In an interview with former President Satoru Iwata, Nintendo EAD’s Hiroshi Matsunaga had the idea for a DS software that allowed users to input their weight, inspired by his own dietary calorie tracking at the time. The motive was to create something that allowed users to see how their weight was affected by what they ate, approaching the early concept from a nutritional perspective.

Over time, the concept of a weight-tracking game moved from DS to Wii, and that’s when the Balance Board began to take form, a bathroom scale that could plug into the TV. Despite EAD’s worries about every home having a bathroom scale, they focused their tech on one that measured body fat. From there, the project began to steamroll into a bigger undertaking that would encourage users to check their weight and practice fitness everyday, either solo or in a family setting.

His body…his body was ready.

Wii Fit made its global premiere at Nintendo’s E3 2007 presentation, to much befuddlement. Amidst a presentation fixated on Nintendo’s financial and demographic success with their current batch of hardware, Wii Fit was positioned as the next revolution for non-gamers. Even if the company’s fans felt alienated by another “gimmick game”, it’s hard to deny the presentation was anything short of memorable. This would only be the beginning of a revolutionary turning-of-the-head in a long-dormant form of video gaming.

Developed by the same team at Nintendo who made Wii Sports, Wii Fit was, at its core, a yoga game with workout regimes and mini-games included. It was built around working user’s core balance, divvied between aerobics, balance games, yoga, and strength training. Every time you loaded the software, you were encouraged to not only check your weight, but also your balance accuracy. This dichotomy would dictate your “Wii Fit Age”, going as low as the magic number 20 for maximum healthiness.

Users could see how well they held their balance, follow calorie counts, and track their health progress over time. By applying their profiles to their Mii avatars, it gave Wii Fit a clinical yet charming look. Wii Fit was about making fitness…fun…though not entirely perfectly. Wii Fit‘s method of ranking a user’s health was through Body Mass Index (BMI), which raised consternation with some users being told they were too fat despite many being built on muscle mass.

The real secret sauce to Wii Fit was its Balance Board. The peripheral was signature to controlling the on-screen action in all manner of inputs. Its identifiable nature with real-world bathroom scales was the immediacy that helped Wii Fit become a success. Audiences could relate, and when they played it the first time, it was a revelation. Maybe the hardcore among us derided it for being so goofy and “mainstream”, but it ultimately didn’t stop the game from major success.

Wii Fit was already a big deal when it launched in Japan the December beforehand, and its launch in the West took it to a new level. Nintendo launched it big in the States with a Central Park demonstration for folks to see what the fuss was about. It sold nearly 700,000 units in its debut month alone, and by the end of the year, that total number grew to 20 million worldwide. Critics, meanwhile, were kind to the bold experiment from Nintendo, giving it generally positive reviews and an 81 on Metacritic. Wii Fit scored so big, it went through months of shortages on store shelves, the same sales pattern shared with the Wii itself.

Nintendo’s own marketing alone cannot account for the “must-have” status of Wii Fit when it was fresh and new. Amateur viral marketing, on the rise of the internet in 2008, further helped popularize the game with people who otherwise hadn’t touched a controller (look no further than the questionable NSFW ‘Wii Fit Girl‘ viral videos, a YouTube genre unto itself). Wii Fit made similar rounds with mainstream news coverage, themselves curious that (gasp) a video game could play a positive role in one’s livelihood. The mission statement of the game, plus its premium $90 price point, made Wii Fit a can’t-miss prospect to consumers, a veritable must-have item that would improve their lives.

Wii Fit‘s success could only mean one thing: a glorified expansion pack. 2009 saw the release of the upgraded Wii Fit Plus, a sleeker, savvier edition of the original. Not only did it let users custom-build actual workout routines, it added many new and wacky mini-games and exercises to the mix. Now you could thrill to smashing activities like simulated skateboarding, a platforming obstacle course, and flapping your arms to land a fluttering chicken on platforms. Its business model for existing Wii Fit owners was smart, too. Owners of the Balance Board could buy a stand-alone disc for $20, as well as thankfully port their existing data over so as not to miss a beat.

Of course, Wii Fit wasn’t the only game in town when it came to cornering the exercise market. As often happens with video game successes,  so come the imitators, Some publishers tried to be innovative, others were lazy to a comical fault.

Western publisher EA gave their try with EA Sports Active, a personal training game that not only used the Balance Board, but also came bundled with an elastic band for resistance exercises. If Wii Fit’s fitness was Eastern-focused, EA made their game Western-oriented revolving around weight loss. Players were rewarded achievement-style for active play, such as partaking in the game’s 30 Day Challenge. It sold 600,000 copies worldwide, enough to encourage EA to make a sequel (creatively subtitled, ‘More Workouts‘).

Wii Fit‘s influence managed to reach the Microsoft Kinect, with Your Shape: Fitness Evolved, a launch game for the camera controller in November 2010. French publisher Ubisoft was already no stranger to biting off the causal apple Nintendo was serving that generation, themselves publishing a number of casual-targeting games for DS and Wii. Some of them were also fitness-based, and one of them included a step pedometer of its own (My Weight Loss Coach DS). Now, with the power of Kinect, they turned their sights to the Xbox 360. Your Shape turned out to be smartly designed regarding workout regimes, developed in conjunction with magazines Men’s Health and Women’s Health. It offered custom options for men and women, a number of cardio exercises to follow along to, and online sharing to share results with friends. But could you really “feel the magic of Kinect” with Your Shape? It varied from person to person, meaning the Kinect’s camera tracking was fickle with visibility issues.

This was a real thing that happened.

These above two were some of the more notable examples of making inroads on fitness game market. There were plenty of others who sought a bigger slice of the pie, with efforts ranging from goofy to terrible. Konami, itself an owner of fitness centers in Japan, released the goofy walk simulator Walk it Out on Wii. Underneath its dated visuals, the game wanted users to simulate the art of walking outside with the Wii’s Dance Dance Revolution pad or Nintendo’s Balance Board. WiiWare itself had a terribly limited “fitness” game, Step Up, that pretended to use the Balance Board for yoga (it’s one of the worst-reviewed games on Wii of all time). This doesn’t even scratch the surface of other imitators, such as forgotten shovelware like Family Party: Fitness Fun.

Aside from literal fitness games on the market, other genre’s incorporated a degree of physical activity, including the venerable music genre. Just Dance would begin to incorporate “workout” modes to encourage physical activity. Meanwhile, the rise of the Zumba workout craze begat Majesco’s Zumba Fitness, another dance game series, like Just Dance, but one that also masqueraded as an exercise experience fine-tuned to funky Latin rhythms (fitness is right there in the title).

For every up comes the decline. For all of Wii Fit‘s successes, Nintendo couldn’t keep up the momentum forever. The decline of Wii Fit in itself coincided with the sales free fall of the Wii during 2011. With Nintendo positioning their next-gen Wii U as something of a continuation of their major success with Wii, Wii Fit was poised to return and make use of the new system.

Formally announced at E3 2012, Wii Fit U may as well have been Wii Fit 2. The promise of Wii Fit U was a brand-new pedometer that measured your steps, altitude, and what not and brand-new mini-games (the lunge was an especial favorite at E3). You would think it was launch software, but Wii Fit U was penciled in as “launch window”. It was oft delayed until November 2013, initially as a digital-only offer. In a smart and consumer-friendly marketing move, Wii Fit U was free for a month to upgrading customers with the purchase of the game’s $20 fitness meter.

Wii Fit U was ultimately a smart evolution of the concept, offering new mini-games that interfaced with both the Balance Board and the GamePad in clever ways. The signature selling point was a Wii Fit Meter pedometer that measured not only calories, but altitude and steps. This data could be plugged in the game and let users compare their progress to major worldly monuments and locations (try matching the heights of Mt. Everest). New activities ranged from using the GamePad as a tray of dishes you had to keep from falling or as a viewpoint to aim a water nozzle, while other new mini-games used two Wii Remotes on top of the Balance Board for maximum trackability. The requisite off-TV play made checking your weight and updating your Fit Meter data a breeze of convenience.

For all its good intentions, Wii Fit U‘s fate was sealed at retail before it ever came out. Faced with already poor sales of the console, the retail disc and associated bundles were delayed in North America until January 2014, missing out on key holiday sales. Why Nintendo let their once-mass hit go out to die is a mystery, but, in probability, the company knew there wasn’t much they could do to save face with their exergame sequel. Wii Fit U ultimately bombed in stores. Nintendo has never released sales figures, though some estimates peg it at under a million units sold at retail worldwide.

What killed the dinosaur that was Wii Fit U? It wasn’t the ice age, it just came too late to the party. By 2013, exergames had gone out of style, certainly from an over-saturated marketplace of imitators. Meanwhile, other smarter fitness alternatives came out and let users track their health stats better than a Wii Fit even could. The relatively-popular Fitbit wearables paired up with smart devices, a device which relatively everyone had, to easily track your movement and stats. Wii U’s small audience and its stationary status as a console limited the sequel’s potential in this new world order. About the longest lasting impact Wii Fit had with gamers was that its trainer avatar is a playable character in Super Smash Bros.

You’ll never see any third party publishers chase the exergame rainbow these days. Although they gave it the old college try, EA and Ubisoft now rely on smaller portfolios of software that make them more money. Mega-publishers don’t need to rely on casual-focused software or expanded audience on consoles when they can use mobile platforms for that same demographic.

No matter the mockery it brought, Wii Fit did find success beyond sales figures and being a relative fad. It brought awareness of physical health to people who may not have even considered their fitness before. Science has backed up Wii Fit to a degree as well, the BMI issues notwithstanding. Research have found that regular play of games like Wii Fit and Wii Sports could improve posture, self-perception, and rehabilitation among all age groups, including the elderly. While it can’t replace real exercise or the gym, Wii Fit is and was a good compliment, not a supplement, to one’s physical fitness routine.

Nintendo itself doesn’t need Wii Fit anymore, as the audience moved on and fitness fads aren’t in right now. In a strange way, their recently-released Nintendo Labo is their current accessory game, targeting the DIY market with pricey kits of cardboard construction. How Labo will fare in the long run is another story entirely. Beyond Labo, The Switch itself has doubled down on for-real games, and is not interested in the Wii-series or Blue Ocean software that once made Wii and DS so successful. The Switch has sold over 17 million units to date, largely on the strength of it’s “core” games, and it doesn’t need a Wii Fit or Balance Board for help.

Where will the fitness game genre go in 2018? Right now, nowhere. Smart phones have effectively cornered the digital fitness market, and publishers have no reason to keep the exergame movement going. It’d be difficult to resurrect the Wii Fit concept on Nintendo’s Switch and make a splash a second time. Wii Fit was a product of its time, but what an ingenious and novel product it was. It’s amazing in hindsight that Nintendo could get millions of people all over scooping up glorified bathroom scales.

About Alex Irish

When he's not writing about games, Alex Irish is an illustrator and animation expert. His favorite gaming franchise is Pokémon, full-stop, but his favorite game of all time is Resident Evil 4. He attended the first-ever IGN House Party and is a five-time attendee of the Ottowa International Animation Festival.