Video games have always seduced us with fantasy. Whether you play a carjacker in Grand Theft Auto or a mad scientist in The Sims, you can forget your worries as you plot your path to glory. So it may seem odd that the very first thing you do in Wii Fit, an unconventional new game that goes on sale for $90 in the U.S. on May 19, is step on a scale and weigh yourself. I don't know about you, but weighing in each morning is not my idea of a good time. And it's certainly no fantasy.
This is the genius of Shigeru Miyamoto, the famed game designer and mastermind behind blockbusters like Legends of Zelda, Donkey Kong and the many Mario titles. He has managed to take an activity that many people dread exercise and actually make it feel like a game. "What is most interesting to me is helping people find something within themselves and then drawing it out," says Miyamoto, 55, who gave TIME a private demo of Wii Fit in a penthouse suite overlooking Central Park one morning in April. After two full weeks of sweating with it, I'm here to say he's right. Although I'll admit there were days when I hated Wii Fit, I kept going back for more.
Nintendo's Wii Fit comes with a wireless "balance board" that you set on the floor in front of a TV hooked up to the Wii console. About two feet wide and half as deep, the board is essentially a fancy scale, which not only measures your weight, but also detects your equilibrium with startling precision. To play Wii Fit, you stand on the board and go through a series of exercises/games that fall into one of four categories: balance, strength, aerobics and yoga. You can box, snowboard or hula-hoop. You can practice your tree pose and lotus position. Or you can play a tilting game that uses careful body movements to maneuver balls across a shaky platter onscreen, as you try to sink them into various holes.
You score points and unlock new challenges by completing each task without falling off the board or tilting too far in any direction. The board is constantly monitoring your center of balance and docking points for every wobble. The hardest part, I quickly discovered, was simply standing or crouching still for increasingly long periods of time. That's a far cry from your average shoot-'em-up game, in which fast moves and fancy button-punching are key to your success. Wii Fit, on the other hand, is all about subtlety and restraint.
I cringed the first time I stepped on the scale and endured the indignity of learning that my "Wii Fit Age" a figure that takes into account your weight, body mass index, and sense of balance was nine years older than I actually am. Puh-leeze. The insolence. I was miffed alright. Even more horrifying was the colorful chart Wii Fit generated each day to detail my progress (and setbacks). I felt like a contestant on the Biggest Loser. I started thinking about those late-night cookies and other treats that no one knew about for the first time in my life, I was accountable for everything I ate, and I wasn't so sure I liked that. Wii Fit wouldn't give me a break.
It did turn out to be fun, though. My favorite game by far was the Snowboard Slalom, in which you crouch down into a squat then twist your torso back and forth ever so gently as you slalom down the hill. Not only did this make my thighs burn, but it took 51 tries before I reached the top level: Champion! Although I've never snowboarded in my life, and am a klutz on skis, for a few minutes, I actually felt like a sports star.
I think Wii Fit will be more popular with adults than kids, and especially with women, although there are a few challenges, like trying to catch fish jumping out of the water by sliding from one side of the board to the other, that are especially kid friendly. Namco Bandai's WeSki patrol, which is compatible with the Wii balance board, is already on sale, and a bunch more titles using the board are rumored to be in the works.
Eventually I stopped dreading those daily weigh-ins and started trying to figure out exactly what I needed to do to shed a few pounds. "When you weigh yourself on a daily basis, and you see changes, you think about why," says Miyamoto. I was skeptical when he told me that a month ago, but now I'm a believer. It's no wonder Wii Fit has already sold more than two million units since it went on sale in Japan earlier this year. It's pure fantasy to imagine myself as a champion snowboarder, but being more aware of how skipping workouts and sneaking in snacks affects my weight is a reality check I'm at peace with. So thanks, Mr. Miyamoto, for dreaming up a game that makes hard work feel like serious play.