Nintendo releases Ring Fit Adventure this week, the latest attempt to make getting in shape via video games a thing. But this is far from the first time that companies have tried to sell digital entertainment as a way to burn fat and build muscle. What’s known in some circles as “exergaming” has been a thing for over 35 years, nearly as long as video games themselves. While you get ready to work out with your Switch, take a tour of the many ways video games have tried to get you swole.
Celebrity Fitness: Autodesk HighCycle / Atari Puffer
Generally regarded to be one of the first attempts to meld physical fitness and gaming, Autodesk’s cancelled HighCycle product tapped into the stationary bike craze of the early 1980s. The system was to have incorporated a primitive VR headset that showed the rider moving scenery keyed to how fast they pushed the pedals, with particularly speedy riders rewarded by their bike taking off and flying over the landscape.
At the same time, Atari was developing a project code-named “Puffer” that would allow a stationary bicycle to a variety of Atari home computers and consoles. Pedaling the bike would trigger one input, while additional directions worked through handlebar-mounted controls. A number of games were prototyped for the device, which was intended to be released in 1984, but the massive industry crash the year prior nulled that plan and the Puffer never saw the light of day either.
Celebrity Fitness: RacerMate Computrainer
1986 saw a company take the stationary bike gimmick and actually attach workable software to it. Seattle company RacerMate released the first iteration of their Computrainer system, which allowed early PC owners to hook up a device to their bike that would send data to the computer, allowing them to simulate riding through a variety of grades and conditions through adding magnetic resistance. The software let bikers do all sorts of interesting things, including pedaling through virtual courses and even drafting behind other bicycles to reduce wind drag.
Computrainer quickly became RacerMate’s flagship product, with the company updating it to keep on par with PC advances until 2017, when it was finally discontinued. They even produced a version of it for the Nintendo Entertainment System.
Celebrity Fitness: Exus Foot Craz
The Atari 2600 was the home video game system that dominated the early 1980s, a primitive 4-bit system that nevertheless sold over 30 million consoles over the course of three decades. While most games were controlled with a joystick or paddle, there were a few alternate controllers, including the first “exergaming” system, the Foot Craz.
Produced by software company Exus, the Foot Craz had a retail price of $99. It was a plastic pad that had five embedded microswitches, four that corresponded to each of the cardinal directions on an Atari joystick and one for the fire button. It came with a pair of pack-in titles, Video Jogger and Video Reflex. Reflex was the more interesting game, with players having to step on the corresponding colors on the foot pad to match the screen. In Video Jogger, you simply ran in place as fast as you could to advance a smiling face around an oval track.
Celebrity Fitness: Power Pad
By 1987, when the Foot Craz was released, the Atari 2600 had already been supplanted by the next wave of gaming – the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System. Peripherals and controllers were a major part of Nintendo’s marketing strategy in the United States, shipping the console with the Zapper light gun and R.O.B. robot. So it’s not surprising that it also saw an exercise-oriented foot controller, 1988’s Power Pad.
Known in Japan as the Family Trainer, the Power Pad was a flexible plastic mat developed by Bandai. They initially released it as Family Fun Fitness in the States, but Nintendo quickly bought the rights to the product and re-released it under a new name. It had two functional sides – side A had eight buttons, while side B had 12 arranged in three rows of four. The vast majority of the 11 games released for the peripheral used side B for some reason.
The Power Pad’s first game was Athletic World, which let players compete in five events like hurdles and log rolling. The developers at Human (who programmed nearly every game for the device) soon branched out with games like Dance Aerobics, which asked players to duplicate routines on-screen, and World Class Track Meet that prioritized fast footwork. The majority of Power Pad games never came to the States, with the last one released in 1989.
Celebrity Fitness: Activator
It seems like every console generation gets a different company to invest in a control scheme that uses the whole body, and for the 16-bit era of the early 1990s, Sega took their turn. The Activator was significantly different than the controllers that had gone before because it did not feature physical switches that players activated with their body weight. Instead, the octagonal device projected eight beams of infrared light upwards, and registered when they were broken either high or low, returning sixteen distinct inputs.
In a perfect world, that is. The Activator technology was not reliable, and playing games with it quickly became frustrating. The technology couldn’t process multiple inputs at the same time, which made things like diagonal movement impossible. No games were developed specifically for the device, although Comix Zone, Eternal Champions, and the home port of Mortal Kombat all had special code to support it. At a cost of $80 and requiring a separate power supply, the Activator quickly flopped.
Celebrity Fitness: Dance Dance Revolution
Although not explicitly positioned as an exergame, Konami’s 1998 arcade hit Dance Dance Revolution represented a quantum shift forward in body-controlled video games. The basic gameplay of DDR is similar to other foot-controlled games – four arrow panels in the cardinal directions correspond to arrows scrolling up the screen, and the more precisely you hit them on the beat, the better your score.
The basic gameplay was identical to 1997’s Beatmania, which used large buttons on the arcade cabinet, but transposing the action to the player’s feet created a very different experience. Producer Yoshihiko Ota led a team of non-dancing developers to make a game that channeled music and motion to an intense, competitive experience. To get good at DDR, you needed to pivot and turn the body as you lifted and lowered your feet, and songs could get incredibly fast and furious. The gaming press didn’t know what to make of it, but it quickly became a success for Konami.
Players started reporting weight loss and cardiovascular health improvements in the early 2000s, and fitness buffs liked the way it not only engaged the body but also the mind, requiring players to maintain intense focus on the music and the beat to keep the songs going. Many sequels and imitators followed, with the game developing an engaged fan community.
Celebrity Fitness: Wii Fit
The dam broke for exergaming in 2008 with the release of Wii Fit. Nintendo had already upended the home gaming paradigm with the Wii, an underpowered yet quirky console that used motion control to change the way players interacted with software. Although it was gimmicky, it captivated a new audience of casual gamers and sold in flabbergasting numbers.
The idea for Wii Fit came from Shigeru Miyamoto’s original brainstorm for the system’s core games, but Nintendo took nearly two years to develop the Balance Board peripheral. Inspired by the way sumo wrestlers weigh themselves with a pair of scales, it incorporated a quartet of pressure sensors that measure impact, balance and more. The included software contained a number of activities – yoga monitored the player’s center of balance as they held poses, while other activities such as step aerobics had them walking on and off the board.
Wii Fit was a tremendous success, selling nearly 23 million copies worldwide. It inspired a pair of sequels as well as a bunch of knock-offs. The balance board itself was the most successful peripheral of its type, with over 100 compatible games released.
Celebrity Fitness: Kinect
After Nintendo found success with motion sensing, other companies knew that they had to get on board or be left behind. Instead of controllers, Microsoft deployed Kinect, a mounted camera that allowed developers to track all sorts of interesting body positioning and facial recognition data. First released for the Xbox 360 in 2010, the platform made the jump to the Xbox One, with Microsoft so committed to it that they shipped every new console with one.
The Kinect supported a variety of fitness software, most notably Nike+ Kinect Training, which worked along the Wii Fit model to run players through a wide variety of exercises. This was one of the more intense and un-fun fitness games released to date, in keeping with the promise to turn ordinary gamers into elite athletes.
A wide variety of other Kinect fitness titles were released for the Xbox 360 and Xbox One, targeting a number of different demographics. Jillian Michaels Fitness Adventure leveraged the celebrity trainer’s brand to appeal to stay-at-home moms, while tougher bros could work out with UFC Personal Trainer.
Celebrity Fitness: Ring Fit Adventure
One of the biggest lessons Nintendo learned from the Wii was how adaptable the system’s motion controllers were, and although they’re not th