From Atari Joyboard to Wii Fit: 25 years of "exergaming"

After hugely successful launches in Japan and Europe, Nintendo's Wii Fit exercise game is coming to the United States May on 19th, where it is sure to find sales success. But Wii Fit is hardly the first example of an attempt to meld videogaming and exercise — it's not even the first fitness offering from Nintendo.

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Atari Joyboard (1982)
In 1982, Atari released the "Joyboard," a simple four-switch balance board controller for the Atari 2600 that stuffed the guts of a standard joystick into a ridged, black plastic slab. A single game was released for the Joyboard. Dubbed Mogul Maniac, the game emulated the experience of slalom skiing with all the subtlety a four-position digital sensor could provide.

The Joyboard is generally considered a failure, too finicky for nuanced control. In fact, one of the most interesting uses for the Joyboard involved not triggering its switches: some claim, perhaps apocryphally, that engineers building the Commodore Amiga used to manage development stress by sitting perfectly motionless on the Joyboard in zazen, leading to the "Guru Meditation" verbiage in the Amiga's crash warning dialog. Game developer Ian Bogost developed a game of the same name that uses the Joyboard as an interface, in which fully motionless sitting causes an on-screen guru avatar to slowly decamp from his mat into the air with yogic flight. [Image: AtariAge.com]

Had the Joyboard seen retail triumph, it's conceivable Atari might have developed a proper exercise game, complete with weight statistics and performance tracking.

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Atari Puffer (1982)
Left unreleased due to the videogame industry crash of the early '80s, Atari's "Puffer" would have brought gaming and exercise — "exergaming," if one is susceptible to portmanteaus — into not just the home, but also the gym. An internal memo described the project:

Concept: There is a whole generation of kids (and adults) out there who aren't into sports and/or don't get enough exercise. At the same time there is a huge fitness market. We have seen how kids can become addicted to our video games. We are going to hook up an exercise bike to a video game, where the bike is the controller. Hook up a bike to "Pole Position" and you have to pedal to make your car "go". Hook it up to "Dig-Dug" and shovel faster - or else! We can make fitness freaks out of the kids and game players out of the keep-fitters. We capitalize on the combination of the two powerful markets -- video games and aerobic fitness.

The Puffer project was all but ready to go when Atari declared bankruptcy. By pedaling an exercise bike that was hooked up to an Atari 400/800 or 5200 console, players could control the speed of their characters in custom-designed games like Tumbleweeds and Jungle River Cruise, a sort of Pitfall clone. A gamepad mounted on the bike's handlebars provided additional inputs. A listing from the Jungle River Cruise "Projects Report" by J. Leiterman, dated October 6th, 1982, gives some detail of the hardware prototype development: "After second week into the project, pick out switches and have model shop hook up to spring loaded hand brake type controllers. When finished there, have Lab solder everything together to connector and mount to exercycle."

Three models of the Puffer system were planned:

• Pro Model — This was the top-of-the-line unit for use in gyms, and health clubs. It included a heart rate monitor.
• Arcade Model — This would have been used in video arcades. It was planned to be a one-piece device, with a coin slot. Supposedly, a game similar to Atari's arcade game "Paperboy" was under consideration for this unit.
• Home Model – This would hook up to an Atari home computer or Atari 5200. It also come with the necessary hardware to hook your existing exercise bike up to the Atari computer/game console. The price was estimated between $140-$170.

BackNTime.net goes on to claim that Atari, an official sponsor of the 1984 Olympics, was going to attempt a proper launch of the Puffer to coincide with the games, but something — probably lack of capital in an over-saturated market — preempted the release yet again.

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AutoDesk HighCycle (198x)
References abound to two Autodesk projects from the early '80s — HighCycle and Virtual Racquetball – which incorporated exercise bikes and virtual reality systems such as head-mounted displays. Today, however, Autodesk's Media & Entertainment group didn't remember a thing about these projects when we asked for more information. They're digging through the archives, but in the meantime, if you have anything to offer, we'd love to hear about it.

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RacerMate CompuTrainer (1986)
Wilfried Baatz, president of RacerMate, did well for his company by inventing the first "wind trainer" exercise bike, which used a fan in a wheel for resistance instead of friction from a belt or weights. Coasting on that success, RacerMate released the "CompuTrainer," which hooked up to the rear wheel of working road bicycles, providing electro-magnetic resistance and a connection to a computer. Many used the Nintendo Entertainment System version of the CompuTrainer, but the earliest models were powered by the Commodore 64.

RacerMate evolved the CompuTrainer line, releasing updated versions of the hardware and software for PCs, as well as adding 3D graphics. The latest version models wind resistance based on body shape, pairs up with topographic maps provided by Delorme to allow virtual riding on real roads, and overlays the 3D rider on HD video of real courses. Multiple CompuTrainer bikes can network with "MultiRider" software that allows eight players to compete in real time.

Prices vary depending on configuration, but hardware and software can cost thousands of dollars. CompuTrainer products aren't meant for casual exercisers or gamers.

[Screenshot from early PC version; Image: ABCC.co.uk]

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Nintendo Power Pad (1988)
Nintendo licensed Bandai's 12-sensor plastic mat and released it along with World Class Track Meet in the NES "Power Set" bundle. For at least one child mocked for not owning a Nintendo, the Power Pad was a blessing, taking him from gameless pariah to keeper of floorboard-rattling fun.

Bandai released several compatible games in Japan, but few came to the United States. Perhaps the most influential would be Dance Aerobics, released in March, 1989, whose high-stepping leotardation presaged the dance game revolution of the following decade.

Most of the exercise value of the Power Pad withered away once it was discovered that the easiest way to mash the sensors in the slippery pad was not with sock feet, but perched over the top slapping the triggers by hand. Few athletes were molded, we wager, but perhaps a few Turkish masseuses.


Power Pad television commercial

More: Power Pad games; Bandai's Family Fun Fitness magazine advertisement; concept mockup for a Wii Power Pad; cute Japanese Family Trainer box art;

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Power Glove (1989)
VPL's sophisticated Dataglove was a robotic gauntlet, precisely measuring yaw, pitch and roll with fiber optic sensors, and capable of detecting up to 256 points of articulation in the digits. A marvelously sophisticated device for 1989, it was too sophisticated for the hyperactive, sociopathic children already prone to shattering their NES controllers against the wall after missing one of Mike Tyson's sly, insinuating winks. Instead, a design team headed by Grant Goddard, William Novak and Sam Davis took the Dataglove and mercilessly stripped all function from it. The Nintendo Power Glove was born... exergaming's accidental, incompetent hero.

Consider the commercial...

A cyborg video game warrior struts into a dramatically-lit industrial loft: a post-human cyberpunk gladiator not merely "awesome" or "radical," but utterly dudical. SHODAN narrates: "The NES Power Glove. Now you and the games are one." Our hero stabs commands into his robotic arm, and the next thing we see is his effortless mastery of Nintendo's entire video game library, culminating in a powerhouse upper cut that lifts him six inches off the floor. The promise was explicit: if you bought the Power Glove, you would not longer merely be a gamer. You'd be a God, conquering worlds with gestures alone.

In reality, the hapless suckers who bought Power Gloves discovered that it was all but unusable. The downscaling of VPL's Dataglove technology resulted in a glove that could only detect roll and the most wild digital contortions. Despite its dominating presence in the famous television commercial, Mike Tyson's Punch Out was barely playable with the Power Glove... and certainly not as a straight boxing simulator. In fact the, only two games that were playable with the Power Glove were specifically programmed to be forgiving of the device's input-capturing eccentricities: Super Glove Ball, a 3D Breakout variant, and Bad Street Brawler, generally considered one of the worst beat'em ups of all time, although you did get to play "DUKE DAVIS, former punk rocker and the world's coolest martial arts vigilante!"

Abomination though it was, the Power Glove's pedigree in the history of exercise gaming is well-earned. Mattel never marketed the Power Glove as an exercise device... a missed opportunity of stupefying proportions, considering the fact that every 80's kid wheedled their parents into buying them one by saying it would help them exercise. In truth, the Power Glove did help kids exercise, although that was accidental as well: control was so frustrating and imprecise that simply moving Mario from one side of the screen to another could pump up even the most ectomorphic ten year old's right arm into a throbbing bicep of the same sinewy circumference as a horse's calf. Even navigating Metroid's menu required a caloric expenditure equivalent to three large sticks of butter rolled in cinnamon sugar and eaten like candy bars.

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Tectrix VR Bike and VR Climber (1992)
More variations on the "bike and a game" rigs, the "Tectrix VR Bike" was a gym-class piece of equipment, featuring a recumbent pedaling position, an integrated CRT, and wind-generating fans that blew sweaty air in the face of the rider. Six different "worlds" were available to users, all stored on an internal CD-ROM. A version of the Bike VR was even developed for the US military, based in part on classic tank games like Battlezone. Networked Bike VR machines running the "Tank" game could disable and destroy tanks controlled by riders on other machines.

Tectrix VR Climber offered the same sort of interactive adventure, replacing the bike with a step machine.

Tectrix VR Bikes weren't inexpensive. One listing shows the price for fitness clubs to be $28,000, although used machines can now be purchased for as little as $1,500.

More: Thatcher Ulrich, VR Bike software developer; Tectrix VR Bike software disc on eBay

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Dance Dance Revolution (1998)
When Dance Dance Revolution machines showed up in American arcades, most were timorously secluded in dark alcoves by operators unsure how a sedentary public would take to stomping and flailing to j-pop pablum for points. Within weeks, smart arcade owners had made room for the outsized machines right at the front, taking advantage of a DDR machine's preternatural tendency to draw a crowd of tittering gawkers. For a short while, arcades served again as ampitheaters of public performance, as talented Dance Dancers showed off their latest pops and locks to other players. And often, the players' parents.

Then home versions of Dance Dance Revolution were released, making it possible for devotees to practice routines in their bedrooms, lack of the arcade version's sturdy support bar notwithstanding. Stories of weight loss brought the game into the mainstream spotlight, with some of the most dedicated players experiencing life-changing losses of 50 pounds or more.

Progressive school systems even began offering DDR playtime for physical education; West Virginia partnered with game publisher Konami to put DDR in all 765 of its public schools.

While the Wii and music games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band have supplanted DDR as the go-to party game for most gamers, Dance Dance Revolution still enjoys a healthy amount of popularity, with tournaments, home-brew dance pads, and updated versions of the home and arcade game showing up at a healthy clip. Three separate DDR games were announced today, in fact: Dance Dance Revolution X for the PlayStation2; Dance Dance Revolution Universe 3 for the Xbox 360; and Dance Dance Revolution Hottest Party 2 for the Wii.

Interestingly, Red Octane, the company who made the original Guitar Hero controllers, got its start making Dance Dance Revolution pads which it still sells. [Image: Shira Golding]

More: Mom extols DDR's weight loss effect on Jeopardy (video); Stepmania, a free PC version; Tap Tap Revolution, a version for the iPhone; Dance Dance Revolution- Disney Mix

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Cat-Eye Game Bike (2003)
Rather than trying to write custom software for their exercise bike, Cat Eye Fitness's "GameBike" worked with a variety of PlayStation 1 and 2 racing games, mapping the accelerator in the games to the speed of the pedals on the bike.

Reviews were generally positive, although it's clear the GameBike isn't designed to maximize race performance, but instead to give players an interesting way to while through the monotony of exercise. GameBikes can still be ordered for $400.

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Yourself! Fitness (2004)
More than any other exergaming device or program on this list, Respondesign's 2004 Yourself!Fitness is the one most likely to get you into shape. That's its triumph: if you play Yourself!Fitness every day for an hour, you will be putting in the equivalent of an hour at the gym. You will lose weight. You will get stronger. But Yourself!Fitness has the same caveat as actual exercise: if you find working out to be tedious, Yourself!Fitness isn't going to magically infuse your push-ups with the frenetic viscerality of a game of Contra, because unlike all the other programs and devices on this list, Yourself!Fitness is only technically a game by dint of running on a PlayStation 2 or XBox. In reality, it's something far more powerful: a virtual physical trainer, utterly devoted to you getting in shape.

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Yourself!Fitness' avatar is a svelte polygonal beauty by the name of Maya. When you first boot up Yourself!Fitness, Maya asks you to do a series of tests to gauge your fitness level: she asks you your weight, your level of physical activity. She asks you to take your pulse. Then the trials begin: she asks you to do two minutes of jumping jacks. She asks you how many push-ups or sit-ups you can do without stopping. She asks you if you are flexible enough to head butt your pudenda. At the end of the 15-minute profile creation, Maya knows enough about you to suggest a fitness regimen to you. Surprise! You're a fatty. But it's okay: Maya is entirely dedicated to helping you work it off.

At this point, Yourself!Fitness becomes an interactive daily exercise tape. You are meant to follow your calendar and meet Maya regularly in order to work-out together: she'll show you how to do lunges and upright rows, squats and side crunches. One day, she might lead you through some rigorous cardio exercises; the next, she might work on your flexibility. After every few exercises, she wipes her dry, unperturbed brow and asks how you're feeling: depending on how you answer, she will either incrementally step up the intensity of that type of workout in the future, leave it as is, or decrease it.

Yourself!Fitness' ability to dynamically adjust itself to your own human weakness is its major strength as an exercise program. We all miss a day at the gym, but if you miss a day, Maya will compensate for it, slightly increasing the intensity of the workouts for the rest of the week to make-up for it. The program also dynamically tracks your progress: every ten workouts, you are asked to re-do Maya's initial program of fitness-gaging exercises, and your progress is graphed.

The problem is, it's not very fun. Unlike Wii Fit, you won't be asked to snowboard down a mountain while dodging oncoming penguins. But there's no denying that Yourself!Fitness is effective. With some better marketing and a more gamer-friendly skin, perhaps Yourself!Fitness could have been to the Xbox or PS2 what Wii Fit is to the Wii. Perhaps Respondesign will learn a thing or two from Nintendo about making exercise gamer-friendly when their follow-up, Y!F! Lifestyle, comes out next year.

Trivia: Respondesign was sued by none other than Hollywood screenwriter and Pulp Fiction co-scribe Roger Avary for stealing a pitch he made to Microsoft for a Virtual Yoga game. Do they do double step touches in what, motherfucker?

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Bodypad for Fighting Games (2005)
Dreams fueled by virtual reality fantasies like The Lawnmower Man, every gamer knew that millenial gaming would be done inside musty rubber suits, every limb attached to a motion-tracking sensor. And we were right. In 2005, the "Bodypad", a suite of controllers that strapped at the knees, waist, elbows and hands did allow gamers to control their favorite PlayStation fighting games just by gesticulating shadow punches in the air. Despite favorable press and reports of strong sales, the Bodypad soon faded into history for the same reason as most games controllers sold without custom-designed software: it's more efficient to make your burly Japanese street brawler throw a punch with a thumbstick and a button than it is to thrust your fist against the air dozens of times per match.

More: A positive review but you still know it's awful; Using the Bodypad instead of the Wii for weight loss: a chronicle

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Gamercize (2007)

To see the steaming pool of afterbirth, that progeny of your loins, be savagely hewn from the umbilical cord, then use his gift of sentience to hew himself to another umbilicus, this time a video game controller, is a horrible thing. The mind reels, trying to come up with some way to disassociate the lazy sprogling from the pixel-spewing teat of his adoptive mother. Perhaps you could get him outside? But no, he is a pupae of translucent goo. But what if you could somehow introduce exercise into his gaming? What if you could make the game the carrot? Could that somehow prod the child into a more active lifestyle?

That's the sort of thought process that Gamercize, makers of power stepper peripherals for all major consoles and computers, are banking on. The Gamercize's concept is simple: you plug it into your kid's Xbox, PlayStation or Gamecube and now, if he wants to play a game, he needs to keep exercising. Pausing on the stepper results in pausing the game. It's a "Start" button in the form of a step machine. Gamercize even has a neat little chart on their site rating the best games on each platform to Gamercize to, and they're not afraid to editorialize (the review for the PlayStation 2 port of The Golden Compass dryly notes: "Another bad game that is based on a film.")

Not a bad gimmick overall, but no kid's going to stand around for hours marching in place when they can simply unplug the damn thing the second their Mom leaves the room.

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Fisher Price Smart Cycle
Fisher Price's Smart Cycle Physical Learning Arcade System aims to stop little ones from becoming big ones too quickly. A miniature exercise bike with integrated gaming hardware, it costs about $90 and comes with a free crap game called "Learning Adventure."

Other games cost $20 and feature kiddie-console stalwarts such as Dora the Explorer and Spongebob, each placed in a scenario contrived to get the youngster pedaling away. The graphics are terrible, but what does a 4 year-old care?

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Prop Cycle (1996)
Namco's 1996 arcade title Prop Cycle was little more than an exercise bike glued to a simplistic Steampunk-themed game. In its cute, brightly-lit world, the protagonist huffs and puffs as he whirls around in a pedal-powered ornithopter, popping magic balloons. In the real world, you probably broke the machine by accident, quietly looked around to see if anyone had noticed, then fled.

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Ultima 7 with Exult and Dance Pad (1992, 2004)
Those of us whose experience of this epic role-playing series is limited to Ultima IX are plenty fit: it drove us up the wall, over and over again. The superior classic titles, like Ultima 7, were more likely to keep us glued to our seats, indolent and full of cake.

Things have now changed, thanks to the Exult project. Among many other more consequential things (such as making the old game run on modern hardware) it allows the player to control it with a DDR mat.

Yes, Avatar! Now you can dance your way to the virtues.

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Extertainment System (1995)
With its ludicrous $3,500 price tag, buyers of an Exertainment system lost weight simply by having nothing to eat for weeks except lint. Another Nintendo collaboration — this time with Life Fitness — it connects to a SNES. One pounds away on the system's exercise bike and something correspondingly bicycle-tastic would occur on-screen in compatible games.

Of which there were two: Mountain Bike Rally and a special edition of 1994's Speed Racer. Others were planned, but the market for Pac Man biking games failed to materialize.

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The Journey to Wild Divine (2003)
Wild Divine's website has all the trimmings of an internet quack shop: gentle pastel colors, lots of pictures of water, a Deepak Chopra testimonial — and, of course, an astoundingly expensive snake-oil gadget.

Comprising proprietary biofeedback hardware and finger sensors, the squid-like device can be bought with The Passage, a "unique adventure game," for $150. Or it may be obtained as part of a "Healing Rhythms" pack, for $300. One can even embark upon a "Wisdom Quest" from the comfort of home, simply by sliding one's fingers into the new age udder glove and rolling through the contents of a DIY yogic breathing and meditation CD-ROM. Don't forget the $20 mouse rug!

We'll take our chances with mescaline and Jack, thanks.

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Wii Fit (2008)
First shown in July of 2007, Nintendo's Wii Fit was first released in Japan the following December and quickly racked up over a million units in sales. The combination of the personalized training software buffed to a typical Nintendo shine plus a specialized "Wii Balance Board" that measures center of balance and resistance — not to mention the allure of any device that promises to "make exercise fun" — all but guarantees that Wii Fit will be soon be under millions of American couches, forgotten.

Reviews: 1Up (Jennifer Tsao); Videogamer.com; TotalVideoGames.com; T3; Yahoo! Games; Times Online; Kotaku (Brian Ashcraft)

Weight loss testimonials: Game|Life (Chris Kohler); 4 Color Rebellion

Upcoming games: EA's "'Western' cardio-vascular workout" game for women; Atari's Family Trainer uses its own power pad;

Accessories: Wii Fit socks (promotional); Silicone no-slip pad (Japan); Another no-slip bad and a "microfiber spray and dust cleaner"; Huge list, including battery packs, carry cases, sleeves, and mats

More: "...designed to appeal to women looking to lose weight."Wall Street Journal; "The prototype didn’t actually consist of anything at all." – Shigeru Miyamoto, designer, interviewed

Buy: Amazon (currently pre-sold out); Toys R Us (currently pre-sold out); Best Buy (No pre-orders); Game Stop (currently pre-sold out)

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