By Neil Merrett
Ring Fit Adventure, released on Nintendo Switch in 2019, published by Nintendo
Nintendo’s latest experiment with motion controls creates a turn-based fantasy adventure that takes a different approach to VR by making the player literally feel the impacts of their in-game actions. It’s an RPG that feels good for the mind, but not so much for ageing knees
The turned-based RPG, whether in a Japanese format, a western-style or some strange variation of the two, is dependent on some tried and tested game concepts.
Whether battling foul space creatures, armoured orcs, or generic, gelatinous monstrosities of various colours, you are working on some variation of attack, counter attack or defensive moves to try and second guess your opponent’s next action.
From this simple basis, some of the most popular and profitable games of all time have been built. These games may play around with adapting or mutating some of these concepts, but the basic mechanics of an RPG have gone largely unchanged for decades.
So long as you have enough action points, a decent size magic bar or mana to use them, marvellous magic spells, weapons or items are all at your disposal.
There is of course an in-game expense to the deeds and actions you can perform. Take a bad hit, you may need to heal, or give yourself literally thicker skin to better protect against damage on the next turn.
This expense is often portrayed on screen with stats and numbers to determine the capability of a player to perform a specific action – once you hit zero, you cannot do anything.
Feeling the pain
But what if there was a real-world physical toll on the player as a result of their in-game endeavours? Imagine a game that really made you feel your labours physically.
What if some incredible attack that was capable of felling several demons at once actually required you to test and challenge your ageing limbs in order to perform it.
You might then have to rethink a certain strategy if your preferred attack pattern was dependent on performing planks or a complicated yoga maneuver where you must bend into the shape of a noodle-limbed warrior.
This is the essential concept of Ring Fit Adventure, Nintendo’s belated return to the thrills of fully motion-controlled games. These titles very briefly seemed to dominate the videogame landscape in the era of the game maker’s massively successful Wii console.
What the Ring Fit game essentially boils down to is a mix of a colourful traditional RPG, a fitness simulator/instruction programme and an on-rails treadmill shooter where movement is defined by how quickly you can jog on the spot or lift your knees up to deal with digital stairs or arduous swamp land.
With a single Joy-Con strapped to your thigh, and another to an extremely durable rubber band, you are charged with jogging, jumping and using upper body strength to hover across chasms in order to uncover secrets, get to the level end and strike a pose that tests your glutes and ability to squat.
Fitness games and motion controls are often derided as somehow not being true or proper videogames. The idea of using a controller system that is able to record physical movement and relay it into actions in-game never seemed to escape the concept of being a gimmick for many. What was the point of motion controls beyond a few games of Christmas Wii Bowling or Mario Kart?
With a strangely subdued launch that seems to have targeted specific European markets, Ring Fit Adventure sees Nintendo reviving the concept of motion controls, fitness games and measuring your pulse all at once and grafting them onto the classic tropes of an RPG.
Unlike the functional, serious yoga-minded Wii-Fit Trainer software and the snazzy Wii Fit board of a decade ago – this is an actual game. One with goodies, baddies and collectables and characters that inform you of where garlic’s pungent smell comes from.
While it retains the functionality of a digital fitness regime programme, your endeavours are built into a story that seems to touch on themes of toxic masculinity and loosing oneself to your worst fears and misplaced self perceptions, as well as the importance of spinach in a balanced diet.
After a handy on-screen calibration and training intro, the majority of the game is controlled through your ring-fit peripheral that repurposes the controller into your narrative companion and guide. The other controller essentially become your thigh and seems to make sure you are doing the correct movements as required.
The ring device is a mixture of shield, weapon, hand glider and digital smoothie maker – think of it as a tactile virtual reality appliance for those not keen on goggles to create a feel of immersion into a different world.
This requires a player at any given moment to balance a need to faster runner down a collapsing platform, while trying to not annoy the people living below you with needlessly heavy footsteps.
Combat is at the heart of the game’s appeal and exercises. When the player finds themselves confronted by multiple enemies or a boss, they are entered into turn-based combat mode where magic and swords swipes are replaced by exercise regimes that can be chosen and enacted in line with the personal preferences of the player.
The game builds simply enough from allowing you to rely on a strategy of targeting one enemy with a concentrated light yoga move to inflict damage, or turning to more intensive overhead bicep presses to perform to try and wipe out several attackers.
Defensive maneuvers are meanwhile performed by pressing the ring into your abs and testing your stomach muscles, with the greater the effort ensuring less damage for the player.
The effectiveness of your efforts are reflected both through the damage rate of your moves on-screen, as well as a snazzy visual mechanic where the character’s hair literally burst into flame and provides controller feedback to let you know you are smashing it.
The problem with choice
In true RPG-style, the player’s progression begins to lead to a more strategic and complicated combat experience. The introduction of colour coding suddenly means that certain exercise types will have a much greater effect on enemies of a certain shade of red or yellow.
This might be great for yoga fans looking to use the chair position to dispatch a couple of spindly jade monsters, but blue enemies that are weak against squat-based exercises may need a different approach for those less keen on sticking out their arse and letting their knees do the heavy lifting.
Likewise, the standard exercises that open the game can later be swapped out for stronger attacks that target multiple baddies. But this means weighing up their benefit against lighter floor-based exercises.
Why not replace floor stretching with a higher damage arrow attack that involves pulling the Ring-Fit controller to the point your biceps ache. The player will have to perform less of these to dispatch a baddie, yet will no doubt feel them in the morning.
Risk and reward is directly tied to your longer-term physical well being and your ability to push yourself a little harder.
From here, all those other key RPG staples are integrated. Should you chose to run the same level a second time, you can discover different paths and battle more enemies. This will allow the in-game character to level up, rewarding them with increased attack and defence abilities that should make the next boss less physically taxing in terms of exercise.
Likewise, in-game currency can be used to buy enchanted trainers and mystic gym bras for your character that offer different benefits and physical attributes that may mean having to perform half the squats you are normally required to perform.
Different ingredients can also be found and purchased throughout the main game, or via mini-games, to create new smoothies that restore health or improve the effectiveness of your exercises during some testing bout of combat yoga.
Feeling the grind… for realsies
These are all fairly standard RPG mechanics delivered with Nintendo’s usual style and colourful interface, but the use of motion controls begins to feel oddly immersive as you square up to some beefy tyrannical dragon that has seemingly turned mad from the intensity of endless gym sessions.
The idea of grinding in gaming – trying to create a satisfying form of progression and development performing similar tasks over and over – is often a vital part of a game’s appeal to a certain player.
Ring Fit Adventure put the impacts of that grind, as well as its benefits, directly on the player’s body.
The character’s limits are yours. Its special moves and abilities are tied directly to your propensity for being able to stretch a certain limb under pressure multiple times and then step up the pace as ‘the burn’ kicks in.
Ring Fit Adventure arguably has as valid a claim to being a virtual reality gaming experience as some title on the Occulus Rift. Here instead of having to pick up and manipulate a fictional digital world with your hand movements that are enhanced by some screens stuck over your retina, you are stretching your back muscles rhythmically to simulate taking out a line of monsters.
Here’s then to the return of motion controls as a legitimate gaming mechanic, and a genuine, life affirming excuse to mess around on your living room in just your underpants for a few carefree, if surprisingly sweaty hours.