Grand Slam Tennis & Wii Motion Plus

I wanted another game that got me off the couch and using the Wii Motion Plus, and my choice was a tennis game or a tennis game. After checking around it seemed commonly accepted that EA’s Grand Slam Tennis made better use of the Wii Motion Plus than Sega’s Virtua Tennis did.

Now you may have heard people saying that the Wii Motion Control-scheme in Grand Slam Tennis is horribly broken. Or you may have heard that the experience is sublime and anyone who doesn’t think so needs to Learn-2-Play.

As is so often the case, neither extreme stance is accurate. In practice, there is some skill and methodology involved in playing Grand Slam Tennis. If you pick up the remote and start swinging like you would a tennis racket, you might run into some problems, which is frankly unfortunate. Ideally a game like this should be as naturally tennis-like as possible.

To get the best experience, you have to make a deliberate effort to “return to center” after every swing. Hold the remote level and in front of you between each swing and the game works pretty nicely. Aiming feels very natural; if you’ve ever swung a tennis racket you’ll be able to aim in Grand Slam Tennis. Top and backspin works more or less accurately too, with the caveat that every swing has to move forward. If you try to ‘cut’ a fast shot (by which I mean swinging the racket almost vertically and letting the speed of the ball rebound the shot) the Wii will spazz out. It doesn’t understand what you’re doing. I also haven’t had much luck with overhead shots. This is a game of forehands and backhands. Lobs and drop shots are cheaply accomplished by holding down the A or B button.

Grand Slam Tennis has 3 difficulty levels, and the option to play with or without the Nunchuk. With it, you control the movement of the player with the analog stick. Without it, the AI takes care of moving your player side to side, and you send him to the net with the Up on the cross-button, and back to the baseline with the Down. I’ve had a lot of trouble doing this as it seems once you’ve given the order to charge the net, the AI isn’t going to move you laterally until you get there.

So I’ve mostly been playing a baseline game of tennis where I limit myself to fore and backhand shots. And when that’s working, it feels absolutely great. But too often you run into shots you want to make that the game won’t understand, or you forget to ‘center’ and the game gets confused and hits a backhand when you wanted a forehand (or vice versa). Or just swings way too early.

You can play as a pro, or create a player. The stylized graphics look great on the Wii and I found I did a better job of making a player who looks like me here than I did in the much more complex character creator of Tiger Woods.

The campaign in the game is odd. You have major tournaments that are surrounded by strange satellite events where you can win abilities to improve your player. (e.g. Beat a Pro to get their ability.) Then you enter the tourney and if you lose, you’re done. On to the next tourney. So far I’ve been in Australia, France and England, and I’m too much of a non-tennnis fan to tell you the names of any of the tourneys beyond Wimbleton.

There’s also a lite fitness option where the game tracks (roughly…it doesn’t ask your weight or age or anything) how many calories you’re burning while playing. You can set a daily goal and try to play enough every day to meet it.

So is it worth getting? With caveats, yes. You have to go into this with your eyes wide open. If you can work with the limitations of the software, you can have plenty of fun. But if you want a perfect experience, wait for Grand Slam Tennis 11 or whatever next year’s iteration will be called. I hope that Wii Motion Plus controls continue to improve and become more natural and less fussy.

Here’s a video showing what I mean when I talk about ‘centering’ between shots. Thanks to the dude who made this; it saved me lots of frustration.

Active Day 30!

So today was Day 30 of my EA Sports Active 30 Day Challenge. I wish I could say it felt great, but it didn’t; I was just having one of those off days, and so was Active (exercises I never have a problem with weren’t registering properly). I toughed it out though, as I’ve had to tough it out about 5 other times during the month. I wish I could figure out what leads to these really low energy days, so I could stop doing whatever it is that causes them!

Of the 3 goals that are automatically set for you (you can change them, of course) I hit 2 really quickly… easily within the first two weeks of the program. And the third I never hit. 🙁 It’s a goal of spending X hours with Active in 30 days, and I only got 96% of the way there.

I’m going to take 2 days off, and start another 30 Day Challenge on Light. I’m going to use a stronger band to increase the challenge of the upper body stuff. The lower body stuff is still enough of a struggle that I think I can get plenty more out of the Light program (my body and running do not get along well). I want to get where I can do all the running in a workout at “Perfect” speed, for one thing, and my left leg in particular got hurt 3 times in the 30 days, so I think it needs more work at Light. I’m in this for the long haul.

I bought a box of Pilates bands at Target for $10 or so, but they’re a little short. I can use them for bent over stuff, but doing overhead presses just seems impossible with them. You can feel when these bands ‘run out of stretch’ and that’s what happens when I try to use these bands in overhead workouts. I think I’m going to buy a 2nd box and just tie them together. If the knot is always between my feet it should be fine.

Fitting the workout into life continues to be a challenge. On workout days we don’t get to dinner until nearly 8 o’clock, which really cuts into free time, but I guess that’s a small price to pay in exchange for not being a decrepit old man in a few years. 🙂

The weight loss isn’t really coming too consistently yet. I tend to go down during the week then shoot back up over the weekend, so at least I know where to focus my attentions. Too many opportunities for snacking on weekends, I guess.

This will probably be my last Active blog post for a while. It’s all fairly routine at this point and I don’t have a lot more to say about it. Maybe I’ll check in after my next challenge, or if something dramatic happens.

Overall, I’m a big fan of the program even if it isn’t perfect. It’s better than any other ‘home gym’ solution I’ve tried, at least for me.

Wii Motion Plus (and Tigers Woods PGA Tour 10)

So my bundle arrived today, and I played 18 holes of the new Tiger Woods with the Wii Motion Plus. This post is going to focus on what the Motion Plus brings to the table.

First the hardware. You’ve no doubt seen it by now. It’s a module that adds about 1.25″ to the length of the Wii Remote (WiiMote). It comes semi-permanently attached to a WiiMote Sleeve. You stick the front end of the WiiMote into the sleeve, thread the strap through a slit in the back of the sleeve (the strap stays attached to the main WiiMote, not the Motion Plus) and then kind of pull on the sleeve to stretch it a little in order to get the Motion Plus to slide into the Nunchuk port. There’re buttons on either side that you need to press in order for it to engage, and there’s a lock on the back of the thing for once you get it attached. And of course there’s a passthrough Nunchuk port on the bottom, with a ‘cap’ to seal the port. The cap attaches to the Motion Plus with a cord, and you thread that into the Nunchuk cable for security (since the main cable is no longer close to the Nunchuk).

Attaching/detaching the Motion Plus just takes a minute, which is good since the WiiMote won’t fit into a charging station with the Plus attached (I’m assuming most regular Wii owners have broken down and bought a charging station by now…if not, then I see no reason why you wouldn’t leave the Plus attached all the time).

OK so how does it work with Tiger Woods? Well, the game plays MUCH more like real golf. You don’t pick a shot type (full, chip, etc) from a menu. Instead the way you swing the WiiMote determines what kind of shot you make. If you turn your wrist while you swing, you’ll hit a fade or a draw shot. There’s no way to put top or backspin on the ball via motion controls, though. You still need to use buttons for that.

In order to swing, you have to point the WiiMote at the floor and hold down the B button (this is true with or without the Plus). This means you more or less have to be standing to play. I tried sitting in a chair and dangling my hand over the side, and I could swing (awkwardly) by making a short fast arc; this is a tad disappointing — I was hoping the game would require a full swing, but we’re not that far yet. The game plays better using a full swing, and for the most authentic experience, hold the WiiMote in a more-or-less proper golf grip and swing that way (the extra length of the Plus actually helps with that, giving you a bit more to grab onto).

Playing that way, Tiger Woods is tough on the most ‘realistic’ settings! I was hitting 8’s and 9’s on par 4’s in my first round. It’s been a few decades since I played real golf, but when I did I had trouble with a persistent slice. And the same was true here. I found doing a full swing with one arm was a nice balance of emulating real golf and having better control. Serious golfers might do better with a two hand swing, though.

And then there’s Disc Golf (guess they didn’t want to pay for the rights to the name Frisbee). Picking up the Frisbee and throwing it feels very, very natural. (You can play without the Plus but it feels stiff and kind of limited.) I really wish I could just turn the golf aspect off and run around the course flinging the Frisbee around for a while. It controls just like a real Frisbee. Tilt it left or right to curve, a bit up for more loft, etc.

Overall, I’m pretty impressed with the Wii Motion Plus. It really does enhance the Wii experience, and I’m looking forward to seeing what developers do with it.

Active Day 22

Today was Day 22 of my 30 day challenge in EA Sports Active.

First a recap. On Sunday, I pulled/tore something in my left calf during the “warm up” portion of the workout. Nothing terribly serious but I kind of limped/hobbled through the workout, then limped through the rest of the day. Happily yesterday was a rest day.

One of the few complaints I (and many others) have about Active is that the warmup and cooldown periods are so short as to be useless. The warmup when I hurt myself consisted of, Exercise 1: RUN! with the trainer urging me to pick up the pace, which I did, and suddenly it was like someone drove a knife into my calf (the pain eased a lot fairly quickly, but that first ouch was intense). Active needs both some stretching exercises built in, and a longer warm-up, at least. Maybe in the expansion coming this holiday.

So today, my calf was still tender but I finally did what I’ve *known* I should be doing all along. I stretched first. Angela helped me out there as she used to do martial arts and knows all kinds of stretches from doing them. And what a difference that made! I was so much more limber, and exercises like the side lunge with toe touches became pretty easy, and touching the floor with the tip of the remote was a cinch (without stretching I’d get about as far down as my ankle).

Luckily today was heavy on upper body stuff, so it was easy on the hurt calf. I still jogged very slowly on the final ‘cooldown’ run, just to be safe. So it wasn’t a particularly strenuous workout, but it felt really good, and I felt really good after it.

I’ve got a bit more than a week left in the challenge and I’m not sure what the program will point me towards when its done, but left to my own devices, I think I’ll re-do the 30 Day Challenge on “Light” difficulty, only using a Medium weight elastic band to increase the difficulty of the upper body stuff. I know there’s a fine line between being careful and slacking, but I am nearly 50 and horribly out of shape. I can not yet do the “Long” running sections at a “Perfect” pace (when I started I couldn’t even get up to a Perfect pace, now I can do about 1.5 laps at it…the program wants 2.5) and I figure a second time through Light will help me get up to speed on that. At the same time, the upper body exercises with the Active band have been so trivial that I don’t feel like I’ve made any progress with my arms/shoulders, so doing those all again with a store-bought medium band might get some development going on there.

Weight-wise I’ve been all over the place, according to the Wii Balance Board and Wii Fit. I was losing, then one day it said I’d gained 1.8 lbs, then the next day another .4 lbs, then the day after that it said I’d lost 1.5 lbs! Averaging it all out, I don’t think I’ve lost anything, but I haven’t changed my eating habits significantly, beyond snacking.

I’m not too upset about that, though. This first 30 Day Challenge is more about making a habit of working out. Getting myself and Angela used to the new schedule, getting used to having pleasantly sore legs and sort of being more aware of my body. If I lose weight, great. If not.. well I *know* I’m feeling more limber and my legs feel stronger, so the program is having a positive impact. The weight can come later after I’ve laid down the foundations of a healthier lifestyle.

Motion Controller Wars

So now that all three of the major console makers have some kind of motion controller system, I figured I’d stick my oar in and give my thoughts on what each platform offers. Major caveat: I’m not at E3. I’m basing all the following on what I’ve read, and building on the hard work the professional gaming press is doing in LA.

Nintendo (Existing):
When the Nintendo Wii initially came out, it offered 2 weeks of great fun followed by a period of “This is it?” for a lot of early adopters. Playing Wii Sports was awesome, but once that was out of the way, a long procession of games with ‘forced waggle’ followed, and many gamers quickly tired of randomly shaking the controller in order to accomplish anything.

Eventually the waggle-wave cooled a bit, and games started coming out that used motion control where it fit in naturally (e.g. pointing, or a quick flip to reload a gun), and standard controls for the rest of the game. Suddenly the Wii was interesting again, and I actually grew fond of the nunchuk/remote combo for controlling games. Having the controller essentially broken into two halves made gaming very comfortable.

Nintendo (Wii Motion Plus):
Next week, the Wii Motion Plus comes out. This is supposed to add more precision and 1-to-1 correspondence between controller and on-screen presentation. This means we’ll have to get up off the couch again. When Tiger Woods 10 is played with the Wii Motion Plus, you’ll have to actually do a full swing of the virtual club, rather than a quick pendulum motion with the WiiMote. At least, that’s my understanding. Hopefully the Wii Motion Plus won’t set back the state of Wii games by very much.

At this point, the Wii is essentially the ‘base line’ of motion controllers. Both Sony and Microsoft seem to be leap-frogging Nintendo in the motion controller arena.

Microsoft and Project Natal:
Microsoft really wowed audiences with its controller-free motion control system. A sensor bar consisting of an IR camera, an RGB camera, and a microphone sits in front of (or on top of) the TV and reads the movements of players. The IR camera actually measures heat, and via heat, distance from the TV. The microphone is for voice commands.

Folks who’ve tried the system say it really works. The neatest demo I saw was a version of Burnout hacked so that the player steered just by holding his arms out as if they were on a steering wheel. When they turn the imaginary wheel, the car turns. Sliding their foot forward and back controlled acceleration. Very neat tech demo.

But I have some concerns. First of all, how well is this going to work when I’m wearing a checkered shirt and standing in front of a paisley-print couch? [Update: After pondering this for a while, it occurred to me that this might not be an issue, given the IR camera. It could use the heat of you body to tell the difference between you and the couch.] The demos were done in an empty room with white walls. Apparently the system can adjust for lighting differences, so they have that much licked.

Assuming the tech works, is this what we really want? If you have a choice of playing air guitar Rock Band, or fake-instrument Rock Band, which would be more fun? Props are important; they give play a visceral feel. I find it ironic that when the PS3 came out with a controller that lacked rumble, they were heavily criticized for losing that feedback. But now Microsoft has a system that by definition has no feedback at all, and everyone is going nuts for it. Nintendo’s Wii Remote has rumble and a microphone and these aspects really add to the immersion. When you wallop a tennis ball with the Wii Remote, you hear and feel the impact of the racket hitting the ball. You won’t get that kind of feedback with Natal, nor is it clear how you’d move around using Natal. How do you get your on-screen character to run, turn (without you turning so you can no longer see the screen) or fire a gun?

So I think Natal will spawn a new genre of games that take advantage of the hands-free control system. But where I think Natal will have the largest impact is with the overall UI of the Xbox. The idea of never having to search for the remote is very appealing. I wave my hand to browser through video or music selections, then I say “Play” to begin playback. Now *that* is both radical and useful, and I’d really love to see MS license Natal to other consumer electronics manufacturers.

And then there’s Milo. I’m sorry, but I don’t believe in Milo. The demo was a heavily scripted event (Molyneux himself apparently admitted that) that made the demo seem more than it was. One of the most interesting aspect of Milo was the facial recognition. A person could stand in front of the Natal sensor and say his name, then when he returned, ‘Milo’ could identify who the person was. That’s pretty neat. The bit where the player splashed around in the water wasn’t anything new: the Sony Eyetoy has been able to do that for a while (granted the fidelity was better here). The conversation stuff was the most scripted…apparently Milo ‘understood’ just a few questions: this is understandable. If Milo worked as well as he *seemed* to work (without tricks) then he’d be about as smart as the voice actuated and controlled computer on Star Trek, and we just aren’t there yet.

But what was really, really cool about Milo was the head tracking. As you walked around the room, the view on-screen changed to reflect how you’d see the virtual world from that new location. This is really huge because it allows some very cool ‘virtual 3D’ effects; I can’t wait for MS to roll those out (see the video at the end of this post for an example of what I’m talking about).

So Milo was a really fun tech demo with some really cutting edge aspects, some rehashed stuff, and some smoke and mirrors. But the aspects that people seem so excited about (talking to Milo) isn’t what was really cool about the demo.

Sony’s Wand System:
Lastly we have Sony’s wand-based motion-control system. If you haven’t seen it, it consists of a pair of wands that include traditional controller buttons, and a light on the end of each wand. The Sony Eyetoy can track the lights with a high degree of fidelity. During the Project Natal demo, a player ‘painted’ by splashing buckets of paint on a wall. During the Sony demo, a player very legibly wrote his name on a virtual wall. That’s the difference in fidelity between the two systems.

In a lot of ways the Sony system seems like the Nintendo Wii Remote on steroids. A bunch of game applications immediately spring to mind. It has buttons so you can shoot a gun, and they could put an analog stick on it so you could move around a 3D space that way (a la the Nintendo nunchuk). The demo showed a very simple RTS game being played using the wands like a mouse. Let’s just pray that we don’t get a bunch of waggle games from Sony!

Really the three systems map well to now, soon, and future. Nintendo is the now solution. Depending on how much Wii Motion Plus adds, we’re all pretty familiar with what Nintendo can do. Sony offers the next step; an enhanced way of controlling your games that should be available and working well pretty soon (Spring 2010 they’re saying). And Project Natal represents the dreamy future. When Natal launches (my guess? sometime in 2011) it’s going to mean a rebirth of the Xbox 360 in much the same way that the NXE did. I don’t honestly see a lot of mainstream games supporting Natal, but I do see it refreshing the entire UI of the Xbox in remarkable ways, as well as adding a new genre: Natal Games.

Back to the head tracking issue. Here’s the video I mentioned. This fellow now works for Microsoft, but before he went to the big M he was hacking Wii Remotes:

*THIS* is the technology of Project Natal that I am most excited about!

UPDATE: GameSetWatch has a brief article up confirming that Johnny Lee is working on Natal.

UPDATE: Johnny Lee himself chimes in on his blog.

EA Active Day 8

I know, I know, I promised this wouldn’t turn into a fitness blog, and it really isn’t. But I’ve been mega-overdrive busy lately (back to work after this post) and what gaming time I’ve had has been spent in LOTRO, and y’know, it’s LOTRO. I enjoy it but don’t have a lot to say about it other than “Hey, I really enjoy this!” Enough that I spent all day Sunday playing, and blew off work on Monday to play some more, and I’m paying for that now. Shoulda spent the holiday getting a jump start on the week.

Anyway, so today was Day 8 of EA Sports Active.  Before I start I want to point something out. This isn’t a game. I keep hearing people as “Is that EA Active game any good?” There’re no game modes in the package. It’s just a workout tool. I just don’t want someone to be disappointed and think they’ll be getting stuff like the downhill skiing that comes in Wii Fit.

So Workout #6 and I’m still getting new things thrown my way…today was shooting baskets (which was kind of difficult for me…the game registering a throw when I didn’t mean to be throwing, ending up with a wimpy toss that wouldn’t make it halfway to the basket). It was a nice break but didn’t feel much like exercise.

Aerobic boxing has turned out to be an awesome workout, when you have to hit that bodybag 90 times as fast as possible it gets the heart pumping!

But I wanted to post because today I noticed something. Last Tuesday I did my first 30-Day Challenge workout and one of the first things I did was squats. The idea is you lower yourself until your thighs are parallel to the floor. I couldn’t do it. I was that out of shape. I got down low enough for it to count, barely (there’s a guage on the screen showing how low you’ve gone) and when I was done, I was in pain.

Today I did squats as part of the warmup. I got down far enough to put the indicator about halfway down the gauge, and doing them felt like a warm up. I think the light workout has you do 8 squats, and that was really nothing at this point.

It just really dawned on me as I was doing them. In one single week I’d made this much progress!! Now I know it won’t always come so easy…one benefit of being totally out of shape is that getting slightly-less-than-totally out of shape is pretty easy. Getting in-shape is gonna be hard. But it felt like real-world progress that I could point out and say “Look at what I can do!”

Now mind you, there are plenty of other tricks up Active trainer’s sleeve and I was still wiped out when I was done.

But at least I was nicely rewarded. I was in the shower after my workout, conditioner in my hair, washing my face, covered in soap and lather, and the building maintanance crew turned the damned water off!!! ARGH! Angela had to bring me a couple bottles of water out of the kitchen so semi-rinse off with. BRRR!

Anyway, I’m trying to eat better, too, and that’s both hard and expensive. They say 6 (?) helpings of veggies a day. If I get in 2 I think I’m doing really well.  And I always get dinged on that “How many hours did you spend in front of a computer or watching TV.” The answer tops out at 12 and that’s usually where I am. My schedule is that I get up in the morning, spend 2 hours writing and publishing a blog post for ITWorld, then go to work and spend 8 hours coding. If I watch an hour of TV and take care of my email and catching up on RSS feeds (or writing in this blog) then bam, 12 hours right there.  Oh, and I get pinged on hours of sleep. During the week I’m glad to get 6 and often get 5 or less and the trainer is always yelling at me over that.

So lifestyle changes still have a ways to go, but I’m doing great on the workouts, and I’m feeling great, too. I have a lot more energy during the day, and when I go to sleep at night, I go to *sleep*. Like deep, restful sleep, which is really nice.

There might be something to this ‘get in shape’ stuff after all!

Active Day 5

Today was Day 5 of the 30-Day Challenge in EA Sports Active for the Wii. It was workout #4, since Thursday was a rest day (every 3rd day is rest, it seems).

Yesterday’s workout felt easy and it was over before I knew it. I was feeling cocky, then today came. Jump Squat and Jump Lunges and lots of running. Oh my aching legs.

I am doing better with the running but I’m not really sure how/why other than I’m feeling less reserved about the whole process. I realized as I started to really huff and puff that I’ve been so non-active for so long that I subconsciously have started thinking that heavy-breathing means something is wrong, and I pull back.

I don’t want to get too touchy-feely but I really feel like I’m starting to think differently about things. Even after just 5 days. After my first workout I felt terrible and really gross (sweat? EWWW!) but now, yeah, I’m wiped after the workout, but I’m kind of, I dunno, proud of the sweat? And I know I’ll feel GREAT in an hour or so, which is the best part of the whole experience.

I’m not eating any better, but I’m intending to eat better. LOL. We’ll see how that goes. Getting lots of veggies is a challenge for me. I take some baby carrots to work to snack on, but what other veggies are convenient & portable? Any suggestions?

I’m considering getting a set of these, once they release:
I just don’t know how they’d work with having to put the Nunchuk into the pocket. Maybe have 2 Nunchuks and just plug the appropriate one into the Wii Remote?

So far, really happy with the product, and feeling a bit better about my self. I already seem to feel like I have more energy, though maybe its all in my head. But I’m not questioning it for now.

If you’re on the fence about Active, I heartily recommend you give it a shot. It’s actually working for me in ways that Wii Fit never did.

EA Sports Active Day 2

I promise I’m not going to make this a daily workout blog! But I did think it might be of interest to some for me to relate a bit more EA Active experience.

I woke up this morning sore, but not uncomfortably so. In fact it was that “good feeling” soreness, though oddly it seemed to get worse, not better, as the day went on. That said, I worked from home today so my ‘commute’ was 15 feet from the bedroom to the office and plunked back down in the chair to write code.

I went out to do some shopping this afternoon and that loosened things up, but then it was back to work for part of the evening, so I didn’t get to EA Active until about 9:30 pm, which I think is much too late to do this kind of thing. But life happens, right?

Tonight’s workout was different from last night. A few new things, a few varieties of things I did yesterday. Yesterday I did side lunges, today it was side lunches with a toe touch, for instance. No boxing today, instead it was tennis (just returning balls at a target, not actually playing).

The leg strap was fussy again. I finally got it to stay put after Angela insisted I should wear it higher on my thigh than I’d been doing. After I looked at my on-screen trainer I saw she was right, so I put it almost as high as it would go and cinched it down pretty tight and it finally stayed in place. I kind of tucked the leg of my shorts around the pocket in the front and that seemed to work well. I think you’d have to do that with anything the least bit baggy. So under the shorts unless you’re wearing spandex or something, and believe you me, you do not want me wearing spandex. Even if you can’t see me, it would cause a darkness that would spread across the lands.

I’m already getting better at using the tension strap and pocketing/unpocketing the Nunchuk. The upper body exercises really feel kind of trivial. I know you can double up the strap but I’m afraid I’m going to break it (and I know some folks have broken them). I might see if I can find a heavier weight strap the next time I’m at a department store.

On the other hand, the lower body exercises continue to kick my behind. And I struggle on the track when it comes time to run. It *always* tells me I’m too slow. Brings back bad gym class memories. I was blaming the system, but then I just went for it and I got into the “Perfect” range, which I could maintain for about 10 seconds before I started wheezing. Plus we live on the 2nd floor and it was closing in on 10 pm and our office is technically the master bedroom so I was worried I was stomping on the floor when someone was trying to sleep.

But bottom line, it’s clear that the running is going to be an on-going challenge for me. But that’s ok.

I’ve also found that you have to be careful with the exercises and do them as instructed. For instance, I was doing these standing leg crunches… you lift one knee up high and are supposed to cross your hands over your belly and ‘crunch’ your abdomen forward. I was just lifting my leg, and I wasn’t getting any Active love. Turns out you NEED to cross your hands over you belly (thereby placing the Remote on you belly) and then you have to crunch forward in order to move the Remote, and then the rep counts.

In general, smooth controlled motions work best, but I guess those are best for maximum performance anyway. It’s important to know that you don’t have to start the exercise with the on-screen trainer…it’ll wait for you. So get your breathing right and then start. But once you start, you have to maintain cadence with him/her/it, and it will do things like make you hold a position for an extra few beats now and then. You WILL curse at this thing.

The good news is that after I was done, I didn’t feel the need to pass out. I managed to get right to the showers (yesterday after the workout I wouldn’t have trusted myself to stand up near all that hard porcelain). So Day 2 wasn’t as bad as Day 1. And Day 3 is a “rest” day and I have to confess I’m glad of that!

I have to say, I’m pretty impressed with the product. I do feel like I’ve had a full body workout, and I sure do sweat (I barely broke a sweat on Wii Fit). I’d just love to see EA take advantage of the Wii Motion Plus add-on when it comes out.

Oh, and my apologies for any typos. Apparently my brain is slightly oxygen starved after working out and my writing gets really sloppy, but I don’t really notice how bad it is until the next day!

EA Sports Active — this ain’t no Wii Fit!

I just got out of the shower. Over-share? Well, there’s a point to it. I’m a morning shower guy. I can’t leave the house without my morning shower. So why did I just get out of the shower at 9:30 at night?

Because EA Sports Active came out today, and I figured I’d start right in. You remember your first day with Wii Fit? You headed some soccer balls, hula’d some hoops, did a little downhill skiing. No biggie. So I fired up EA Sports Active and figured I’d jump into some relaxing introduction to the program.


Now in all fairness, I’m about as out of shape as a person can get while still being able to get out of a chair on his own locomotion. I spend my days sitting in front of a computer, and my evenings…sitting in front of a computer. And I’ve got the body to show it.

But still, I told Active I wanted a “lite” workout. That ended up being about 20 minutes of running in place, squats, side lunges, held-squats camouflaged to look like an inline skating mini-game, and some upper body stuff that honestly was pretty easy. It was the leg/thigh stuff that kicked my ass.

By the end of it I was a sweaty ball of jello, barely able to stay on my feet. It took a good 15 minutes before I could manage that shower.

So was it fun? No, frankly it wasn’t, but I feel better for having done it. The boxing exercise was fun (pretty similar to the one in Wii Fit, honestly), and the inline skating thing might’ve been fun had my legs not been screaming in agony by that point.

Was it convenient? Well, nothing works like it does in the ads. Active comes with a belt that you strap to your thigh, and for exercises like running, you stick the Nunchuk into it. That belt was a pain in the ass for me. I was wearing sweats when I started, and no matter how tightly I cinched the belt, after a while it’d slide down and finally off. I finally ditched the sweats and just worked out in boxers and a t-shirt, and then it did a better job of staying put. Guess it’s time to invest in some gym shorts; the guinea pigs were shocked.

Once you get the belt in place, you jam the Nunchuk into it. The fit is really tight and I worry about damage to the analog stick on the Nunchuk. And you only use the belt and ‘chuk for some exercises; for others you have to hold it, so you’re constantly jamming it into this pocket and pulling it back out.

You also get a ‘resistance band’ which you use for doing curls and stuff. You hold one end in each hand, and stand on the middle of the thing. Seems really easy, until you’re trying to grab the end of the band and the Wii Remote in one hand, and the other end of the band and the Nunchuk in the other, and trying not to get the cord between the Remote and the Nunchuk tangled in the band. I mean it ain’t rocket science but I did find myself wishing I had a third arm a few times.

I’m sure all of this will become less of an issue once I’ve used all this gear a few times.

The software itself is decent. For every exercise you can first watch a video to see how it’s done (demonstrated by a real person, not an avatar) and then during the exercise, your avatar takes up most of the screen, while a trainer leads you in an inset window. Encouragement is fairly constant but the trainer will bitch you out if you start messing up.

It all worked pretty well, except for the running towards the end of the workout. Suddenly it stopped registering consistently. My guess is that the belt/nunchuk had become twisted or something… I was about to pass out from fatigue so it isn’t all that clear to me what was going on 🙂 but I was jogging in place at what I thought was a consistently plodding pace, and my onscreen avatar keep slowing way down, then speeding up, then slowing again. Apparently the game watches the distance between the Nunchuk and the Remote to determine your pacing, so you do need to pump your arms as you run…maybe I was screwing that up? Running was working a lot better early in the session though, so it was something wonky, not bad software.

After the torture workout was over, my trainer gave me a glimpse at what we’d be doing tomorrow, and then I had to answer a couple of surveys about eating habits and exercise outside of the game. I found myself feeling guilty at not having eat enough veggies, or drinking enough water, and for only getting 3 hours of sleep last night. I found it interesting that I was already giving my digital trainer a ‘personality’ and wanting to please her. But I am a geek with something of a robot fetish, so there ya go… ok, over-sharing again.

For my trouble, I got a trophy for completing my first workout, and another for burning at least 100 calories . 🙂

So that was day 1 of EA Sports Active. It offers a much more real workout than Wii Fit ever did, for me. The pre-set 30 Day Challenge doesn’t let you just do the easiest things over and over, and downtime between exercises is basically the amount of time it takes you to change gear…none of that 2 minutes of mini-game, 2 minutes of loading screen that Wii Fit offers.

By the way, the game will work with the Balance Board, but ours is still out for repair, so I couldn’t test that.

At this point it’s pretty clear that I have the tools. If I stick with Active, I’ll wind up in better shape than I’m in now. I can tell you that just by how my legs and thighs are feeling after that 1st workout.

Final Fantasy Chrystal Chronicles: Echoes of Time (Wii)

So I’ve been struggling a bit with FFCC: Echoes of Time for the Wii. I can’t decide if I like it or not. Ever been on the fence like that? I feel like it is in my best interest to either play it now (or at least decide I’m really sure I want to play it), or trade it in now while it still has some value.

I figured it was time for a list of pros and cons!

I mentioned the shock I experienced on first firing up the game and getting a glimpse of the graphics. I don’t mind low-resolution 2D sprites in ‘retro’ feeling games, but EoT has low-resolution 3D models that are pretty hard to stomach on a big screen; I’m fairly certain they’re using the same assets as those in the DS version (and I’m kind of wishing I’d purchased the DS version, in fact).

However, the writing, such as I’ve seen of it, is pretty good. There’s a lot of weird little things going on that don’t have any impact (at least, I don’t think they do) on the gameplay or the main story. For instance, I come into a town and see a woman standing near some clothes on a clothesline. She says something about having to do the wash all over, and indeed it is looking rather gray. I walk a bit farther on, and there’re 2 children standing in front of a scolding mother, while another mother stands off to one side. Of the two kids, one is bummed that she’s not going to get dessert as punishment for getting the wash filthy. The other is totally unconcerned about what the scolding mom has to say. He displays that sense of entitlement that we see all too often in small children these days. In the meanwhile, his mother (the one off to the side) is bowing frantically and apologizing for the behavior of her son, and chatting on and on as if she has no control over her mouth. He looks like a brat, she looks like a buffoon. How often have I seen this play out in real life?

Social commentary in an RPG? I appreciate that.

But back to gameplay… the controls are strange. Not really bad, just so unconventional that they’re hard to get used to. For instance, to cast a spell, I push right on the cross-button on the WiiMote, then use the analog stick on the nunchuck to move a cursor up and down to select the spell I want to cast. Then I push down on the cross-button to bring up a targeting cursor, and use the analog stick to direct it to the enemy. When I let go, the spell fires off. That isn’t *too* bad, but you can stack spells, too. In order to do that, after moving the targeting cursor, you press A to lock it in place, then press right-cross, use analog to pick spell 2, press down-cross to bring up cursor again, use stick to lay this cursor on the first one, and then fire them both at once. And if you take too long, your first spell will auto-fire.

In all honesty this sounds more cumbersome than it really is. When you’re not running for your life it’s very easy. But as soon as things get frantic, it isn’t like you can fall back on your years of video game playing to draw on muscle memory to pull off these moves. They’re just too unique for those tracks to be laid down in your brain. And to be even more honest, I am using the ‘expert’ controls, but my thought is that whenever a game offers ‘Beginner’ and ‘Expert’ controls, you may as well just learn Expert out of the gate; otherwise you’ll have to unlearn Beginner at some point.

Maybe I should dig out the classic controller and see if that helps with the controls?

When it comes to actual fighting gameplay, a few things bug me here, too. First, this is hack and slash RPG (which I normally love) that has a LOT of jumping around frantically. I’m a little too old for frantic…it makes me irritable. The dungeons are like those you might find in a tactics game, built of blocks of different heights. When you kill a monster, treasure explodes from it, pinata style. Often this treasure will fall off a ledge, or wind up on top of a switch or even another character (you can take AI buddies into dungeons with you, or of course play multiplayer). You have to press a key to pick up loot, so this means jumping and hitting that key at the right time to grab the loot on top of stuff (or jumping off the ledge to get stuff that has dropped, then doing a series of jumps to get back to your starting position). I’ve picked up my AI buddy by mistake quite often, which while funny (me carrying her, her with a gold coin spinning on top of her head) gets frustrating after a while.

There’s also lots of box moving, lifting and tossing. This is all really imprecise. You move a box by standing next to it; you’ll autograb it and can then drag it around until you hit a button to let go. This means you’ll accidentally grab boxes constantly as you try to walk past them, yanking them out of place. With the boxes you can lift, throwing them feels really loose and iffy, and if you bump into a positioned box, you’ll knocking it out of position; the boxes seem to have very little mass (even if they can push down a rusted floor switch).

Lots of bitching, right?

At the same time, the combat feels pretty fun. Good hack and slash enjoyment. Bosses have specific weak points and you have to figure out the best way to get at them. You might hit a boss with a freeze spell then run up and jump/hack to hit a spot on their backs, for instance. You might just jump on their head and try to stay perched up there. Each boss is a bit of a puzzle, and the few I’ve seen have been really fun.

And there’s a crafting system of sorts, with lots of treasure being copper, sticks, fur, etc, that you can take to an NPC to make into weapons/armor/accessories. And a lot of gear can be socketed with gems, improving specific stats. Plus there’s this strange little “Scratch Card” system that gives you party buffs if you scratch the cards right (sorry to be vague, I’ve yet to figure that bit out). All this is stuff that I love in my RPGs.

The world is quirky and strange, the characters I’ve met have me intrigued and I want to find out what happens next. I’ve said too often that I’m mostly a narrative-driven gamer and the narrative here, while I’ve barely scratched the surface of it, calls to me. This is more of a ‘gut reaction’ than anything I can put a finger on.

So I have to decide if I can put up with the frantic jumping craziness (frantic to the point where it sometimes makes me feel queasy, motion-sickness style) and the really craptacular 3D graphics, in order to enjoy the dialog, crafting, world and button mashing combat.

Final thought: My Wii sat gathering dust for probably a year, and now suddenly I’m spending more time with it than with the PS3, XBox and PC combined. I’m not sure why that is…I’ve got great games waiting on all systems. There’s just something “cheery” about Wii games that is scratching an itch right now. I have no interest in picking up Resident Evil, Mad World or the upcoming The Conduit for it. I’m sticking to these kid-friendly, cheerful titles for now.