Version tested: Wii
This month will see the release of Grand Theft Auto IV. It's variously been described as the gaming event of the year / the defining moment of this console cycle / the pinnacle of human achievement including the discovery of fire, walking on the moon and the invention of the Oyster card. It'll sell millions of copies and more than a few consoles.
But while the launch will be covered in the mainstream media to some extent, you won't see Lorraine Kelly giving it a go on GMTV. Fern and Philip won't be discussing the merits of the new cover system and procedural animations, and Richard and Judy won't marvel at how the motorbikes can do backflips.
Wii Fit, on the other hand, will be everywhere. It's launching on 25th April, four days before GTA IV, and it's going eat column inches, take up all the airtime and fly off the shelves. Will it sell more copies than GTA? That will partly depend on whether Nintendo can churn out balance boards quickly enough to meet demand. Two things, however, are certain: Wii Fit will be huge, and it deserves to be.
For GBP 69.99 / EUR 89.99 you get a copy of the game and a balance board peripheral, neatly packaged in one of those pristine white boxes Nintendo does so well. They even throw in the four AA batteries required for operation. The board has a real heft to it. This is no cheapo bit of plastic (yes, Mr Wii Zapper, that means you), but a serious piece of machinery.
That fact becomes even more evident once you boot up the disc and set about creating your Wii Fit profile. You can register as any of the Miis stored on your console, create a new one or play as a guest. Then it's time to take a Body Test. After entering your birthdate and height, the balance board measures your weight and calculates your Body Mass Index, telling you whether you're Underweight, Ideal, Overweight or Obese.
Your actual weight isn't displayed on-screen unless you hit the specific button, so no one else in the room will know what it is unless you want them to. You can even set a password so other console users can't peek at your weight or Body Test records when you're not around.
Once your BMI has been recorded, you can take a series of balance tests. These involve things like shifting your weight left or right on the board so you stay within certain markers on the screen, or trying to remain steady while standing on one leg. At the end of all this your BMI, age and balance test results are combined to calculate your Wii Fit age.
It's hard to tell just how scientific all this is, but some wild variations in results suggest it shouldn't be taken too seriously. The first time I took the Body Test, I was given a Wii Fit age of 46; the next day I had apparently lost four pounds and 20 years. All that really changed was I chose the "light" rather than "heavy" option when asked to describe my clothing and was better at the second day's selection of balance tests. Friends had similar experiences, which suggests these two variables might have an overly significant effect on the outcome of the Body Test. (Not nearly as much of an effect as alcohol, though; a bottle of wine and a pint of Cheeky Vimto can add half-centuries.)
Despite this it's fun to compare Wii Fit ages, and it's a neat way of tracking your progress. As with Brain Training you get to stamp your calendar each day you complete a test. There are graphs to show how you're progressing and how close you are to reaching any weight loss targets set. There's satisfaction to be had.
With the Body Test out of the way it's time to move on to training. There are four categories of exercises to choose from - Yoga, Muscle Workouts, Aerobic Exercises and Balance games. They're designed to improve your posture, tone your muscles, burn fat and improve your balance respectively.
At first less than half the exercises in each category are available. The amount of time you spend on them is stored in a virtual piggy bank, and the more minutes you collect the more exercises you unlock. So even if you're rubbish at everything, you're rewarded just for putting in the effort (although if you do perform well you'll get extras such as higher difficulty levels and different stamps for your calendar).
Wii Fit Yoga, like proper yoga, is all about stretching your body and maintaining your balance - the difference being the balance board is there to measure performance. The Muscle Workouts are more traditional exercises, involving lots of lunging and bending and some impossibly hard press-up sequences. You're often left feeling out of breath and, if you're not used to this whole fitness thing and didn't warm-up properly, with aching limbs the next day.
The yoga and muscle exercises are most like what you'd expect to do in a gym, and are consequently the most boring. Being able to track your balance does add novelty value, and there's the added advantage of not having to show a group of strangers what you look like in lycra. (Unless you work for the Internet, but that's another story.) But it's a shame there are 15 in each category to unlock compared to nine each in the Aerobic and Balance sections, which are much more fun.
This is partly because they feature Miis stored on your console rather than the android-like trainers. The aerobic step exercise, for example, shows you and a bundle of familiar Miis standing on a stage as you work out, facing an audience of other friendly faces - so you might see your Mum cheering you on. When you're jogging through a pretty Nintendo park (an exercise which doesn't use the balance board at all, but instructs you to place the Wii remote in your back pocket to act as a pedometer) your friends will wave at you from the sidelines. In one memorable incident, my ex-boyfriend raced past me only to trip and fall flat on his face.
In addition, Wii Fit gives regular players priority placing as background characters. So if you're trying out the hula hoop catching exercise (wiggling your pelvis in circles, shifting your weight left and right at the right moment), the last two people who played the game will be the ones chucking the hoops. It's just one of many neat little touches that remind you this is a Nintendo product through and through.
The Balance exercises are the most fun, because they're the most like proper games. Table Tilt is Marble Madness except you control the tilt using your weight, and the balls bear the faces of your friends. It's addictive. There's a great game involving flying penguins, and the ski slalom and jump exercises are excellent for party play.
In fact it's surprising how well Wii Fit works with a group of friends. You can't perform any of the exercises simultaneously, but they're short and entertaining enough to ensure that taking turns isn't a pain. The only real problem is having to quit out to the Wii Fit Plaza (or main menu screen, in old money) each time you want to select a different Mii. A party mode enabling you to quickly pick your own character between turns would have been useful here.
The question, as with so many Wii titles, is whether the novelty will wear off. Everyone wants to come round and have a go at Wii Fit right now, but will they get bored in a few weeks like they did with Wii Sports tennis? There is the added bonus of being able to track your progress, but regular play is required to make it a real incentive.
Which is probably why Wii Fit is being presented as a solo experience more than a party game. You can compare your results with others, but really it's about setting your own targets and seeing how your performance improves. So far I've found this provides enough motivation to play Wii Fit every day - sometimes for ten minutes, sometimes for an hour. I don't know how long I'll keep this up for, but I do know switching on the Wii is a lot easier than going to the gym. Wii Fit is not as beneficial, undoubtedly, but a lot more fun.
Which just about sums it up. With Wii Fit, Nintendo has made exercising enjoyable. Not as enjoyable as eating a giant burger obviously, but it's a good effort. It's produced a superbly made peripheral and a piece of software that offers both entertainment and a sense of achievement. It's all very slick and lifestyle, with plenty of white everywhere, but there are the bold shapes, bright colours and moments of sheer charm you'd expect from Nintendo.
In a similar vein, Grand Theft Auto IV looks set to feature the unique visuals, innovative gameplay and superb humour you'd expect from Rockstar. There will be plenty of gamers who want what's on offer there, and who have any desire to spend GBP 70 on what they perceive as a pair of scales that can tell how good you are at standing on one leg.
What's brilliant is that these titles can come out simultaneously and both sell millions of copies, even if one gets more mainstream column inches than the other. You probably already know which title you'll be picking up at the end of April. If you're one of those people who'll be buying both, you're in for a great May.
8 / 10