In the middle of what’s turning out to be a crowded year-end release list for Nintendo, the company took a moment to drop a surprise trailer featuring a strange new Joy-Con accessory, and then following it up with a lengthy explanation a week later voiced by two overly-animated narrators. The truth, however, turned out to be much stranger than we anticipated: The new accessory (the Ring-Con) is a glorified hi-tech exercise band, and pairs with a leg strap to allow players to control a character in Ring Fit Adventure, an RPG-esque game that uses actual movements and exercises to explore the world and battle enemies. In other words, it’s Wii Fit meets Miitopia.
If your reaction is “Huh?”, trust me, you’re not alone. Such an off-the-wall move is so Nintendo-like that it’s kind of surprising that we didn’t see this coming, but this release feels exceptionally bizarre for a couple of reasons:
- Back when I discussed the Switch Lite reveal, I confidently declared that we’d seen the last of crazy Joy-Con technology, because the Switch Lite’s unseparable chassis meant that any game that made unorthodox use of the Joy-Cons incompatible with the new console. Nintendo, however, decided to go the Ring Fit Adventure route anyway, thereby locking out a potentially-large new segment of its install base from being able to play it.
- An accessory like the Ring-Con seems to run counter to the idea that the Switch is a system you can wherever and however you want. Sure, a Ring-Con is easier to carry around than a full home gym, but I have enough trouble as it is finding a convenient way to carry around my Pro Controller when I travel, to say nothing of a big plastic ring that eats up valuable carry-on space. On top of that, the use of separated Joy-Cons means that Ring Fit Adventure can at best be played in tabletop mode, and offers no handheld support at all. These feels like a game meant for home-use only, which feels a little awkward given the “play anywhere” mantra of the console.
While I don’t object to the the idea of an exercise-based adventure, it certainly raises a lot of questions in my mind. What’s really going on here? Why the purpose behind the release of Ring Fit Adventure? I can think of three possibilities:
- Nintendo is still chasing the success of its biggest console. The Switch has undoubtedly been a success thus far, but it hasn’t reached the cultural icon status that the Wii did over a decade ago. Consequently, the sales of Nintendo’s second 8th-gen console (why does Wikipedia list both the Wii U and Switch as 8th-gen?) are lagging behind its 7th-gen machine:
As cool as the Switch is, it’s still lacking that Wii Sports-like title that brought the Wii into retirement homes and other unexpected places. Ring Fit Adventure looks a bit too intense for those sorts of casual players, but it’s worth noting that Wii Fit was the sixth-best-selling game on the system. Nintendo seems to be betting that with the hardcore gaming crowd firmly in hand with games like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Super Mario Odyssey, and Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, they can take a chance on a title with mass-appeal potential and bring lapsed Wii players back into the fold.
- Nintendo is still thinking hard about the VR and AR. As I watched the in-depth reveal trailer, I couldn’t shake one thought: Where the heck is the VR support for this thing? A game that has you running and exercising in place seems like the perfect time to dust off that old Nintendo Labo headset and really immerse yourself in the story. Even without it, however, Ring Fit Adventure offers Nintendo a safe opportunity to experiment with different control styles, which may pay off down the line if the company decides to make a big play in the virtual-reality space. (While it’s the less exciting of the new accessories, I think the leg strap has a bit more potential than the Ring-Con, as it frees up the lower body for more movements (while the upper-body is a bit more constrained by having to constantly interact with the Ring-Con).
If virtual reality gaming takes off in the next few years, Nintendo gets head start in claiming the space through the experience gained through Joy-Con and Ring-Con gaming. If it doesn’t, we’re left with a simple exercise game with a progression system and a weird peripheral. For Nintendo, I don’t see a lot of downside here, especially given that the Switch’s success buys them some flexibility to experiment.
- With the entire industry under intense scrutiny, Nintendo is offering an argument for video games as a force for good. Let’s face it, video games haven’t had the greatest the summers in 2019. In the wake of a wave of mass shooting in America, many of the talking heads and power brokers in Washington (including the president himself) are pointing the finger at violent video games and blaming them for the decay in society. While such a claim is unproven at best, it leads to a deeper question: Forget what video games are doing to society—what are they doing for it?
Playing a video game, much like listening to music or watching a sport on television, is a leisure activity whose primary goals are to kill time and offer a respite from the day-to-day grind. At the end of the day, however, it can be hard to argue that you’re a better person for playing the game. Your skills aren’t easily transferable (for all the Mario Kart I’ve played, I’m still a terrible driver), your accomplishments are ephemeral (congratulations, you saved a non-existent princess and their non-existent kingdom!), and unless you’re a top-tier streamer, you aren’t making any money. Fair or not, the stereotypical “gamer” is a lethargic loser who needs to go outside, get a job, and stop wasting their time on silly games.
With Ring Fit Adventure, Nintendo has a chance to flip the narrative around gaming as an activity. It can point to its RFA and say “If you play this game, you will incorporate fitness into your life, become a healthier person, and live a better life.” How many games can you say that about? Because of this, the next time someone names video games as a plague upon society, Nintendo has a handy counterargument ready, one that (if it blows up) could change the entire conversation about what video games can do for the world.
Even if you’re a cynic like this who thinks gaming companies are thinking capitalistically instead of altruistically, there are a few good reasons why a game like Ring Fit Adventure could be an important arrow in Nintendo’s quiver. It’s a low-risk, high-reward move that has the potential to change our perception of what a video game can be, and if it falls flat, Pokémon will flush it from our memory banks by the end of November. That’s a fairly strong argument for existence in my book.