During Nintendo-related discussions with friends, I have quipped that there are two ways to say a game is "just a very Nintendo thing." One is the version where your voice sort of drops at the end and your face scrunches up and everyone imagines the Virtual Boy, the Wii U, or Nintendo's current excuse for in-game voice chat.
The other version of that statement invokes fond thoughts of Nintendo's riskier payoffs, from the Wii console and the success of Wii Fit and Wii Sports to, now, the Nintendo Switch and its answer to the company's decade-long push for video game fitness: Ring Fit Adventure. The latter is in fact where critics are landing after their time with the Ring-Con controller and leg strap, with most reviewers praising the game for finding balance, sans Balance Board, between an enjoyable fitness routine and something more akin to a typical RPG game.
There is a lot happening with Ring Fit Adventure that falls outside the bounds of most video games and how they are reviewed. It's an RPG game that requires the player to jog in place with a leg strap attached and a pilates ring in hand, both with Joy-Cons slotted in, to move forward. Get into a battle, and you have to perform an exercise to unleash an attack. The game is almost impossible to binge, with critics by necessity tackling it in 30- to 60-minute sessions once a day.
It tries, as IGN's Jonathon Dornbush points out, to be an appealing RPG, but fails to be a deep one because it's more focused on getting you to do lots of squats and tree poses:
"Ring Fit liberally uses all the standard RPG tropes like they're about to be banned"
"Ring Fit liberally uses all the standard RPG tropes like they're about to be banned, which is doubly disappointing because it's on the cusp of being a truly interesting spin on the genre instead of a weak parody of it," Dornbush writes. "Its pun-filled world has a land called Sporta and characters like Abdonis (which I admit are pretty good), and there are some clever character designs based on anthropomorphized exercise equipment.
"They're all signs that a good-natured sense of humor went into the world, but any clever moment is often dashed away by monotony, both in the world and its dialogue."
Ring Fit Adventure's insistence on being a turn-based RPG appealed in a very different way to several reviewers, including Martin Robinson at Eurogamer. In his review, Robinson didn't mind the lack of mechanical gameplay depth, since the physical quirks of playing with a Ring-Con and leg strap gave the adventure a very different type of hustle.
"The real magic, though, comes through where the Joy-Con and Ring-Con interact," he said. "This way, the Ring-Con becomes a controller you push and pull, your efforts measured and translated effortlessly, and all accompanied with a satisfying level of haptic feedback. When hooked up with the Ring-Con and Leg-Con strapped discreetly around your left thigh, your entire body is the controller - though if that particular phrase gives you flashbacks to the dark ages of motion control of which Wii Fit was a part, be assured that this thing works, and it does so flawlessly."
"Flawlessly" wasn't felt entirely across the board. There was near-universal praise for how the two pieces worked together, the lightness of the Ring-Con, and the way the sensors tracked subtle movements (Dornbush specifically referred to it as a "surprising level of finesse"). But critics such as Sam Loveridge at GamesRadar experienced frustrations with the leg strap in particular.
"The game advises that you sit it somewhere around the middle of your upper leg, but I have much more success riding higher up my thigh, as otherwise, it tends to make a slow descent towards your knee the more you move unless you have it tight to the point of tourniquet," she wrote. "I also have the frustrating issue of the left Joy-Con unsyncing with the game the moment I get down on the floor and start (attempting) to do a series of ab crunches. That means I have to get back up, realign the leg strap and start the process all over again - a frustrating process mid-workout."
"When hooked up with the Ring-Con and Leg-Con strapped discreetly around your left thigh, your entire body is the controller"
Regardless of how they felt the individual, separate elements of game and fitness were treated, most critics agreed that bringing an RPG campaign into exercise routines was an improvement on the less-structured minigame-like organization of Wii Fit and Wii Fit U. Andrew Webster at The Verge said that it helped him reconsider his attitude toward exercise, only breaking his daily routine with the game when an illness forced him to:
"The best part about the game, though, is that it is just plain fun," he wrote. "I'm a little bit dubious about how accurate it is in terms of tracking my calories and heart rate, but I don't think the specifics matter all that much, at least for me. Instead, the most important thing is how it changed the way I think about exercise. It's no longer a chore. By making the experience into something I'm intimately familiar with - namely, a nerdy RPG - Ring Fit Adventure gave me a structure that made sense and that I enjoyed.
"The result is that once I started playing, I didn't want to stop. I've missed three out of the last 14 days, and I feel guilty even about that. That's pretty decent progress for someone who generally avoids the gym."
"Ring Fit Adventure is also respectful of players who might be new to working out"
And Ring Fit Adventure is kind with its attitude toward fitness, said Polygon's Mike McWhertor, which may be a relief to players upset with how Wii Fit and Wii Fit U communicated to users who didn't fall neatly into certain BMI categories:
"Ring Fit Adventure is also respectful of players who might be new to working out," he said. "The game regularly checks in with me to make sure I'm staying hydrated, and asks if I need to take a break without being annoying or condescending. It asks me each day how I'm feeling about the challenge level so far: Too easy? Too tough? Just right?
"Ring Fit Adventure also does its part to dispel myths about physical fitness, explaining that you're not going to get bodybuilder-ripped just by using the ring-shaped resistance controller or doing squats. The mystical ring buddy I travel with is constantly shouting words of motivation, yet somehow never becomes a pest."
Even with its No.3 debut in the UK Charts, it's far too early to tell whether Ring Fit Adventure can run the same sales marathon its successful Wii cousin did. But Robinson notes that, at least in theme, the game is a fitting successor, saying that the greatest video game enemy he's faced this year is Ring Fit Adventure's stairs.
"It's a burn you'll feel in your thighs, mostly. Heck, it's a burn I can still feel tingling away, a full day since I last played this fascinating new Switch game. You might not even consider it a game, really - a successor of sorts to the hugely successful Wii Fit, it's a piece of fitness software that, as my aches attest, is remarkably effective.
"But if Wii Fit was emblematic of that era of Nintendo, cheerily blurring the lines as it courted - and attained - mainstream success, then Ring Fit Adventure is emblematic of this current Nintendo era. This is a video game, and loudly and proudly so."