Version tested: Wii
Is Family Trainer an attempt to cash-in on the Wii Fit phenomenon? The game's title hints there may be some kind of exercise involved, and it comes bundled with a peripheral you stand on. But Wii Fit is made by Nintendo - new, sophisticated, lifestyle Nintendo. Family Trainer is made by Namco-Bandai. Let's explore what this means in practice.
The Wii Fit box features pale grey silhouettes of female figures performing yoga poses. The Family Trainer box features a mainly orange photograph of an over-excited family. It looks like it was taken from the MB Games image archive (folder: "Twister box art 1992 - 94"). The Dad is wearing jeans that are too short, white socks and no-brand trainers. He hasn't shaved. The little boy has a haircut that would get him nailed to the climbing frame in any self-respecting British playground. The Mum looks dead inside.
The Wii Fit box features no text other than the title of the game in discrete grey and green type. The Family Trainer box has the title of the game in giant orange letters. It also has the same message displayed in six different languages ("INCLUYE UNA ALFOMBRILLA ESPECIAL DE JUEGO!"). There are some stick shapes that look like they're pretending to be the kanji figures for Family Trainer, but have just been made up.
Inside the Wii Fit box you will find the balance board: a sleek, white, wireless peripheral that looks and feels like it is the end result of serious technological research and development. Inside the Family Trainer box you will find an extra-large dance mat covered in blue and orange. It features paragraph-long safety warnings (again in six different languages) about the dangers of playing while drunk or on drugs, plus what to do if the mat becomes "wet with sweat or other liquid", and a 2-metre long cable. The sound it makes when you step on it suggests it's filled with crisp packets.
So while booting up the Family Trainer game disc, you suspect you're in for a different experience. Sure enough, you're greeted with a huge fanfare of electronic trumpets and some intro music so jolly it would make Santa jealous. The screen is filled with sky blues, apple greens, pillar box reds and Lucozade oranges, and it feels like everything's going to be all right.
There's no weighing or height measurements, no blathering about BMI or your fictional body age. The single-player mode does have an "Exercise Training" mode, but all this means is you choose which part of your body you want to "exercise" and you're presented with a relevant mini-game.
There are 15 in total, which isn't a huge selection - but unlike with so many Wii mini-game compilations, they're not just four basic ideas wearing different hats. Highlights include Mole Stomper, which is Whack-A-Mole except you use your feet to hammer those little round heads into the ground. It's very silly and a lot of fun. In Pipe Slider you sit on the mat, using your hands to steer left and right as you avoid obstacles and aim for speed boosts. Watching me play this alone, Eurogamer's MMO expert Oli Welsh suggested it looked "spectacularly lame", to which I suggested it's more fun that it looks and anyway shouldn't he be punching rats with a hammer in the mines of Nerzzerzzaroth.
Kayak Attack involves standing up and lifting alternate legs to steer your boat while swinging the remote around like an oar. This can be quite tricky, and it's a bit disappointing when you're trying to paddle furiously round a bend and the game warns you that you're "swinging the remote too hard". Still, it's fun, especially when you go over the rainbow bits at the side of the river and it makes your boat go all fast.
Most of the games revolve around running, jumping or a combination of both. In Sprint Challenge you just run on the spot, except you're not really running, just jiggling your feet as fast as possible like Michael Flatley after too much orange squash; the best part is the bit at the end where it informs you of your top speed (I am proud to say I can run 75 miles per hour).
In Log Leaper you must time your jumps precisely as logs roll towards you at increasing speed. Speed Roller sees you rollerblading, moving your feet to go faster and using the remote to steer. Lake-top Trampoline and Mountain Boarder both work on the same principle: time your jumps right to soar high into the air, then step on the shape icons shown on-screen to perform special moves.
There are a few more, but you get the idea. The good news is almost all the games are fun to play, and some are downright hilarious. The mat might not be a sophisticated piece of technology, but it works. The timing of jumps and steps is recognised precisely and accurately. Only a few games involve the use of the remote, and never in a complex way - plus you never need the nunchuk. All the game mechanics are very easy to understand, which will come as a relief to anyone who's had to spend 20 minutes explaining when you let go of the button in Wii Sports bowling.
One criticism might be that although the Family Trainer mat is larger than your average dance mat, it's still a bit of a squeeze when two people are playing. However, this is all part of the fun - and there's no doubt Family Trainer is more fun with friends.
Happily, all the mini-games are available for free play right from the start, so there's no tedious single-player unlocking to be done. Some can only be played in turn-based fashion but, as many of them are hilarious to watch, this doesn't matter. When it comes to games played by two people on the same mat, there's not a huge selection, but they're almost all highly enjoyable. Highlights include Seesaw Battler, where you kneel down and try to hit symbols before your opponent, and two-player Log Leaper, as you can pretend you're going to jump to mess up their timing. I also like Pushing Each Other Off the Mat, a secret unlockable game which isn't present anywhere on the disc.
There are a few games that involve working as a team. Sounds tiresome, yes, but they're nicely designed - such the one where you have to steer a mine cart round a track, lifting the relevant legs at the right time. Another sees one player jumping up a series of ledges on a cliff face, while their team-mate uses the remote to yank them up on a rope. It's surprisingly rewarding, though not as much fun as pushing each other off the mat.
After a couple of hours' playtime, the design of the Family Trainer box makes perfect sense. It's got that MB feel to it, the same sense of excitement and silliness you get with games like Buckaroo, Kerplunk and Hungry Hippos. And as with those games, you're not likely to get Family Trainer out more than a few times a year - but when you do, you'll have a great time.
However, unlike with those games, you could have a problem if you live in a flat that isn't on the ground floor. For grown-ups Family Trainer is best played while riotously drunk, and that usually means late at night. It involves a lot of stamping, running and jumping, and there's no way to avoid that. Along with urging you to "give your sofa a break", the box should warn you will "give your neighbours a migraine" not to mention "cause for legal action over damage to their ceiling". But so it's always been with mat-based games; you could always move house.
All in all, Family Trainer will not appeal to everyone. There's a definite novelty value here, and it's not the sort of game you'll be playing every day for a month, or even a week. Nor does it come bundled with a sophisticated piece of technology, or pretend to offer any health benefits whatsoever.
But as a toy - one designed for use for family with friends, and only on occasion - it's great. It's also a lot cheaper than Wii Fit, with a suggested price of GBP 49.99. That's still a bit much to ask for a big old dance mat and 15 mini-games, but when you consider our friends ShopTo.net have already knocked 12 quid off that price, it's well worth thinking about if you want something to while away a few hours on Christmas day. And probably a bit of Boxing Day. And maybe an hour or two of New Year's Eve. And quite possibly a wet Sunday afternoon in March.
Well done, Nintendo, for broadening the demographic and making games more acceptable and all that. But thank you, Namco-Bandai, for still being silly.
7 / 10
Check out Ellie vs. Family Trainer on Eurogamer TV to see the game in action. It's out now.