Personal Trainer: Walking (DS)
Like politicians and their hookers, or the fact that firemen smoke, videogame writers have their own professional guilty secrets. Next to that neoprene bottle of vodka in the desk drawer, you'll find this hidden gem:
Game journalists worry that we don't give a game enough time before reviewing it. And we also worry that game fans will call us out for not completing all the Achievements in Fallout 3 before writing a review, or for not sticking with some indecipherable role-playing game until our girlfriends leave us, our wives divorce us, and we end up with adult-onset diabetes for staying indoors to grind up to level 99.
In short, we just worry that that we are not hardcore enough to give a game all of our heart before we take out our mightier-than-the-sword pen and start stabbing a crummy title in the face, over and over and over again.
And while it's just as well that critics think twice about the amount of time they spend playing before writing, the fact is, rarely -- if ever -- does a game get better as it goes on. Just to prove the point, I started "playing" Personal Trainer: Walking and haven't stopped, 70 days later.
Taking a whole month more than God needed to flood the earth, I concluded that what I thought about the game after the first day had stuck with me through my extended period of testing. Call it a lack of insight or imagination, a burned-in stubbornness or even laziness on my part. But I'd say that games are not that hard to judge up front -- and, in this case, first impressions are the only meaningful impressions you get.
In case you missed this oddball trifle from Nintendo, the basic idea is that you walk around with a small digital pedometer in your pocket or clipped to your purse, and every day you sync the little doodad with your Nintendo DS. A creepy Mii then gives you fitness advice, shows you a graph of how many steps you have taken, and describes your walking pattern in terms of an animal.
"It looks like you are a daytime ant!"
And when that grows tiresome, you can convert your steps into drawings of objects scattered across a teeny spinning globe, compare your walking distances to others' on the DSi network, and view various statistics of your walking patterns over the days you've been playing the game.
Wait a minute. Draw objects with your steps? Are you serious? You mean I have to store up 11,000 steps just to watch my Mii walk around creating a chalk outline and dropping clues that he is, in fact, going to show me a picture of a tomato?
To say I was perplexed the first time I encountered this mini-"game" was also to say that I would find it rather unusual to discover a Bigfoot in my house. Some things are just so out of place and odd that you wonder if it's just you who doesn't get what is going on.
Thankfully, I've had 70 days to ponder this title. What keeps going over and over in my mind is what I like to think of as:
Game-Development Sessions as They Really Happened.
(Cut to: Nintendo Headquarters)
Roger: OK, team, what do you have for me?
Chet: Fitness games are quite popular these days.
Roger: Fitness! Good work, Chet. What can we do that's new in the fitness genre?
Doug: Fencing -- no! Running! No, sit-ups! No, wait, I got it? Walking.
Roger: Brilliant! Gamers aren't in very good shape, but they can probably walk. So, what do we do: Add a calorie counter and a GPS that tracks where they go, hire some famous walking coach to design a fitness program for us?
Chet: Do you think people really want to use a game to lose weight? And the GPS would be way too expensive, and who has ever heard of a walking coach? But, we could include a little digital pedometer that measures how many steps you take in a day.
Doug: And we could put two in the box, so you could carry one and you could hook one up to your dog!
Roger: Brilliant! Get dev on it right away. We need to ship this in three months to make sure we don't miss the fitness wave. Besides, those Pok?mon guys upstairs are working on some game that turns walking into Pok?-power, and we gotta beat them to the punch!
Chet: That's it? That's all we are putting in the box? A pedometer for a dog?
Roger: Now don't be a Mr. Cranky Pants, Chet. People will love it. People love dogs. But, Doug, don't you have a summer intern? Get him on coming up with some walking mini-games, maybe some charts or something. Oh, and that guy that did all the Mii art; he's not doing anything, right? Have him whip up some graphics by this Friday. Time is money, gentlemen. Let's get walking!
(Fade to Mario giving that goofy wink that means -- Hoohoohoohoo! We gotcha again!)
If this isn't a reasonable facsimile of what went on in the design session for this game, then I don't want to imagine the creativity-crushing bureaucracy that turned something as pleasant as walking into something so strange.
You see, I like to walk. In my world, bicycles and buses are for those arrogant do-gooders who live far from a place, but demand everyone else be inconvenienced so they can get where they are going. I walk to get to work, walk to go out, walk just for fun. Walking is about the most natural form of transportation and relaxation ever invented. Walking is just so easy to do.
Turning walking into a sort of life achievement, by measuring steps and letting you unlock 100 random objects from across the globe, doesn't really do much to make taking a stroll any more fun.
But day after day, I'd load my pedometer's data into the DS and make sure that I stuck the gadget in my pocket for another day of measuring.
Which raises the question as to why I stuck with this soul-rending idea of turning something as pleasant as walking into a kind of score. It certainly wasn't fame or glory, or even an obsession about getting the review right.
For a month, I just kept waiting for the big payoff. The day that the Mii got all exited because I had stored up a million steps. Or maybe that after a few months of this grind, I'd log in and he'd chuckle about what a good walker I was. I was even hoping, Brain Age-style, that the game would learn a little about me and give me some life advice.
"Your usual afternoon horse pattern has turned into a morning panda. Are you not feeling well? Maybe it's time for an afternoon walk!"
Nope. All I got was the same creepy Mii, every day, telling me useless things -- that I had gotten up later that day than the day before (thanks, jerk; I'm late to work, too) or that I had walked extra-far that day (Oh, really? Well, I guess there is something to getting dragged around the mall all day).
And every day, he'd ask me to place a stamp on the day -- smiley, frowny or just stoic. And even though almost every day was the average not-smiling, not-frowning day, he never said a word when I had one of those brilliant happy days, or tried to cheer me up when I was having a sad-face day.
It took me 70 days to realize that Walking didn't love me, and was never going to surprise me.
But, in the strangest turn of all, I have become hooked on storing my steps in this DS game. It's not to unlock the other 90 secret drawing objects that I still have to access. With about 800,000 steps in my pool, I could probably unlock most of them in a day -- if it weren't so boring to watch the little guy draw the pictures in slow-motion and keep stopping to tell me facts I don't want to hear.
No; it's not the goodies, the mini-game that lets me light up my Mii house with my steps, or the one that lets me contribute my steps to some senseless effort to walk to the moon.
I just like walking, and my little white pedometer with its cheerful blinking light has become my walking pal and reminder that all those steps add up to something.
Even if it is just a picture of a tomato.
This review is based on a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher.