The Exercise RPG

It was an accidental, but masterful timing when Nintendo released their new fitness game, Ring Fit Adventure, last October. It was initially received as another quirky game from the company, one that took advantage of the portability of the Switch’s Joy-Con controllers and Nintendo’s propensity for selling accessories, to integrate video game design and mechanics to another domain. Fitness and exercise at home isn’t exactly an up-and-coming market, even though Peloton did enough business to become a public company the month prior.

Of course, even though it feels like a decade ago at this point, we know what happened: COVID caused a total shutdown in Wuhan late January, New York and the SF Bay Area locked down by March, and the rest of the US followed by April. People scrambled to replicate activities within the confines of their apartments; in particular, there were—and still are—shortages of exercise equipment which can approximate going to the gym or the rec. center. As you’d guess, Ring Fit was also popular and widely sold out, first in China when people were trapped indoors for months, and then more recently in the US as our own lockdown dragged on through the summer1.

At its core, Ring Fit Adventure is a series of arm, leg, ab, and yoga exercises performed with a pilates ring, with motion-sensing controllers strapped onto the ring and the leg to detect the body’s motions. But instead of presenting the exercises for what they are—like pretty much every other exercise video or program—the game takes its players on an adventure to chase and defeat an uncomfortably muscular dragon who also moonlights as a personal trainer. Players get to run (in-place) through obstacle courses, collect coins and raw veggies along the way2, and fight monsters via exercise reps.

The RPG elements are layered on top, and they’re fairly light: your character gains levels, has attack and defense attributes, and can customize their set of exercise “attacks” with an eye towards elemental damage type, spread, and cooldown. It’s all turn-based and pretty straight forward—the point, after all, is to encourage people to keep moving by providing a sense of progression. I happen to be playing also-excellent the Final Fantasy VII: REMAKE right now, and it’s quite the contrast in RPG system sophistication and complexity.

That’s not to belittle Ring Fit‘s approach. In fact, by keeping things simple and cute, both my wife and my kids have made the game a part of their daily routines3. The game is slow enough—some exercise routines have 20+ reps where each rep requires holding a position for 5 seconds or more—that my kids (in second grade and pre-k, mind you) are starting to strategize which attack to use for which enemies, how much damage is is needed to defeat a group, and how to optimize each turn. They even participate in the exercises themselves, blissfully unaware of how the motion controls work.

Somehow, it all kinda works; credit to Nintendo for applying gaming mechanics to something like exercise and making it more accessible. And while Ring Fit isn’t exactly CrossFit levels of intensity, the hardest part is just pushing its players to get started.

  1. It looks like inventory is finally getting back to normal levels now, though.

  2. To buy clothing and squeeze out smoothies, respectively.

  3. It also helps that our historically terrible wildfires and air quality have kept us even more sheltered indoors.

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