Fitness Boxing: Fist of the North Star – a not so superhuman approach to escapism and self-improvement

Fitness Boxing: Fist of the North Star, released on Nintendo Switch in 2023, developed by Imagineer

In their own unique ways, exercise-focused and motion controlled games should offer the most immersive of interactive experiences. After all, these are games ultimately about transposing your physical self into a digital world to test your limits.  This can be true whether a player’s input is based on using their voice, dance moves or waving around a controller like a racket in the hope of beating Donkey Kong at tennis. The latter can be a notable challenge when trying to manage the real world limitations of having a dodgy knee. What then is the secret of blending good gameplay with the possibility of self improvement?

“What hope do we have of changing the world, if we can’t change our sorry-ass selves?”

-The Secret of Superhuman Strength, by Alison Bechdel

What is the point of exercise?  Is it purely a means of protecting our mobility and extending our lives, or a quest to reach some physical ideal that may ultimately allude us or even exceed an individual’s wildest expectations of what they can look like?

It is entirely possible that exercise is really about our potential for transformation as much it is staying healthy. The idea of staying ‘healthy’ in itself can be a complex concept, whether in terms of ensuring we have functioning joints, or being mentally prepared for the rigours of existence that can extend beyond the purely physical.

Perhaps for some. exercise is also just something to do – like a videogame that you fully exist in with body and mind.

Bechdel’s guide to superhumans

The wider significance of fitness and existence is all touched upon in the long-form comic book, ‘The Secret to Superhuman Strength’ from the writer and artist Alison Bechdel.

Bechdel uses the comic to consider the deeply personal and life long relationship we have with exercise and staying healthy.

Her conclusions, as much as anyone we can make about a life still underway, is that exercise is as much about the hopes and dreams of getting a body like Captain America, as it is about ensuring our existential wellbeing and finding some form of purpose in life.

Our struggles with physical betterment and our health are as much about working out our bodies as they are about understanding and perhaps transcending the limitations and mental struggles that we face for however long we get to exist.

It is notable that Bechdel’s earliest views of fitness, self-improvement and exercise come from a childhood dream to have the physical form of a superhuman being. In the world of the 1950s, this was best represented by body builders such as Charles Atlas and the comic books populated by the fantastical superheroes of the ‘golden-age’ era of comic books. 

These are childish fantasies in one sense. But in another way, it is not that illogical an ambition for someone to want to have the arms and self-assurance of Christopher Reeve’s Superman.

The book itself is actually an exploration about the dream of superhuman strength and what that actually entails. Surely it isn’t childish to want to be more than our limitations.

Instead, our love/hate relationship with exercise is perhaps borne out of deeper longer of wanting to be safe and strong in the myriad ways that might entail.  We all want to survive the slings of arrows of life and ensure those closest to us can do the same.

Bechdel’s comic becomes less about an achieving an impossible end point in the journey for self-improvement. It is more about trying to come to terms with achieving something more realistic and less certain in an unending struggle to be ‘better’.

The fitness videogame

It shouldn’t be a surprise that videogames are evolving to look at different ways of entertaining ourselves at the same time of physically training or challenging our bodies to be better and do more.

Games such as Fitness Boxing 2, Ring-Fit Adventure and even the VR rhythm game Beat Sabre are built on not only engaging a player’s mind, but also in extracting some physical toll as a condition of ‘winning’ the game.

It is interesting then that an updated and, initially, very full price update of Fitness Boxing 2 sequel is based around using the characters, music and broad post-apocalyptic setting of the popular and extremely violent anime series, Fist of The North Star.

The appeal of this sequel seems to be based around perfecting one’s technique while performing different combinations of jabs, straights, hooks, uppercuts and dodges to the beat of the original anime’s metal-infused score.

Fitness Boxing: Fist of the North Star’s biggest selling point and innovation is the inclusion of a ‘Battle Mode’.  This asks the player to now focus their punches directly at opponents on the other side of their screens.

Punching through your problems 

In theory, this is a logical extension of the game that has previously focused on the fitness aspect of boxing and self-improvement. 

Earlier games in the series asked the player not to throw their punches at an opponent, but instead try and match the actions of their online trainer. Your opponent, such as one can exist in a fitness game, is the individual player themselves. Their aim is not to bring down some awful tyrant, but instead to beat their individuals records and become more capable or better at the game and physical exercise.

The new Battle Mode built around the Fist of the North Star series is, in its early stages at least, a shallow and surface level change for the Fitness Boxing brand.  The player is still ultimately asked to perform a series of punches and exercises in line with the beat of a pre-determined rhythm.   Successfully performing combos allows them to fell some bad guy and move onto the next until a set number of opponents are knocked down and the time for your routine ends. There is no bonus for beating asset number of opponents early, or even a high-risk gamble to player can choose to take to push themselves through an intense bout of exercise for more powerful attacks.

The battle element, despite the wider development of motion control games, is surprisingly lacking a dynamism in terms of the options open to the player for interacting with the game.  There are also no options to allow the player to diverge from the pre-planned routine in time with the action. No real choice is offered to let the player decide when to block or avoid attacks or go off script.

Even the game’s main bosses, picked from the Fist of the North Star’s roster of villains, are just another routine for the player to overcome.

In a 12 minute boss bout, the player will eventually find they are performing the same combinations multiple times, rather than being asked to react to their rival’s attack and to respond.  Whether the player is attacking or defending, they are still performing the same punching actions.  What then makes this any different from regular Fitness Boxing?  The question remains, what is the player really battling against?

In moments where a battle is broken up by the threat of their rival unleashing a terrifying special move with names such as as the ‘Nanto Thousand Dragons Strike’ – this stills result in making sure they are performing the same combo – albeit it with flashier graphics. 

This can lead to the on-screen action being extremely at odds with the movement the player is being asked to perform.

The spectacle becomes more immersion breaking than thrilling, especially compared to other moments of pure arcade appeal in the game, such as a bad guy flinching to the right as the player is asked to unload a left hook into their face.

In this sense, Fitness Boxing: Fist of the North Star can feel like a missed opportunity to take a series into a new direction that experiments with being an immersive fighting and fitness games.

At the end of the day, it is a fitness boxing game where the player is still ultimately being challenged to push themselves physically, as opposed to playing with the idea of becoming a master digital martial artist.  The game is about punching a lot, regardless of whether this is for fitness or to live out the role of a martial arts hero.  In the end, the player is still shadow boxing – but this time you don’t have a choice of Ed Sheeran or Katy Perry songs to punch to.

The added objective of overcoming five bad guys is less about creating a satisfying end goal and motivation tool for the player. They are still just working out to a beat.  Long after the bad guys have fallen, players will ultimately face the challenge of deciding whether they want to keep going with their Fitness Boxing routines, or look at other ways to push themselves forward with the aim of trying to maintain their health and wellbeing.  

Rising to the challenge

Gamers broadly like to be transported through their screen to another place where they can test themselves with challenges that can be terrifying, otherworldly and sometimes mentally, vocally or physically taxing.

These experiences can include being threatened by an apocalyptic warlord with striking blonde hair and highly dextrous fingers.   

Fitness Boxing: Fist of the North Star certainly offers such an experience from a visual and audio perspective, but as a fighting game, it suggest that boxing is less a satisfying tool of violent retribution, as it is as a good way to shift calories and gain some discipline in regards to fitness.

There are worse messages for a game to give, but it can be a little underwhelming as an experience for a player hoping to spend 40 minutes on a Saturday pretending that they might capable of ducking, dodging and performing the odd superhuman power punch.

Sure, you still get a decent workout, but is it too much nice for a game to also help the player pretend they might sometimes be able to push past their physical limitations in order to use their wits and muscles to bring down some truly bad dudes.  Sometimes it can be nice to believe there might be something superhuman lurking in you.

Does physical self-improvement always have to be so….. healthy?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s