So far in 2019 I’ve bested mechs the size of skyscrapers, pummelled ancient demons into the pavement, even terrorised the citizens of a sleepy English village as one very naughty goose. But the greatest video game enemy I’ve faced this year? It’s Ring Fit Adventure’s stairs. These things burn.
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. At its heart Ring Fit Adventure is an RPG in which you’re guiding your avatar through fantastical meadows and sugar pop savannahs, fighting off magical beasts as you level up and learn new abilities along the way.
Oh, and you’ll be doing this while holding the Ring-Con, the packed-in accessory that enables all of this. It’s a pilates ring effectively, a thick matte rubber thing that works in unison with the Leg-Strap that’s also included, and it’s all sturdy and slim enough to pack in your bag so you can play anywhere (I wouldn’t advise busting out the squat thrusts during your commute, though it is handy to be able to carry it with you on short trips – and you can even set the activity to low impact so you don’t wake people up in the hotel room downstairs).
The real magic, though, comes through where the Joy-Con and Ring-Con interact. 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.
As a piece of hardware, Ring Fit Adventure is assured. As a piece of software, it’s often inspired. The adventure is at the heart of it all, a fully-fledged, full-length RPG that has you and your avatar traversing the lands to defeat Dragaux the body-building dragon. You do this by conquering several self-contained worlds, each featuring a series of short levels where you run from one point to another and beat the various enemies you encounter along the way.
The traversal itself is a form of exercise as you jog gently on the spot. Inclines are harder to climb, while stairs – those damn stairs – require high-knees running in place, providing short bursts of more intense activity. Along the way there are incidentals such as coins to hoover up – which you’ll do by pulling on the Ring-Con – and doors to blast open – this time by pushing on the Ring-Con to mimic bellowing air. There are even small gaps to leap over, your jump and hover enabled by holding the Ring-Con to face the ground then giving it a hearty squeeze.
It’s exercise, but when playing it never really feels like it. There’s more serious burn when you face enemies, as you draw on your loadout of moves, going on to match them with enemy types to deal out more effective attacks. An overhead press might be just the thing to take on the crab with dumbbells for claws that stands in your way, for example, while later on you might need to draw upon your store of smoothies to up your health points when taking on a boss.
It’s very video games, in other words, drawing upon staples of the medium and breaking them down into exercise routines. Judged purely as an RPG it can be a bit ramshackle – environments are quickly recycled, and good god your anthropomorphic Ring Fit friend can grate – but most importantly it has that pull of XP points and easily defined progression that gets all those gaming synapses popping, all while you’re producing endorphins by sprinting on the spot or tackling mobs with well-maintained yoga poses.
There’s a wonderful blend that Nintendo has achieved here, and it’s heightened by what a considerate piece of software Ring Fit Adventure is. Keeping track of multiple users is seamless, you can set system-level alarm clocks to schedule your own exercise – and good lord I wish whoever designed the systems on Ring Fit Adventure was given free reign with the Switch’s front-end – and you can even do reps on the Ring-Con while your Switch sleeps and still have your progress tracked.
Scrape away at all that – at the fitness aspect, at the RPG and at the lifestyle elements that accompany Ring Fit Adventure – and you have something that’s pure Nintendo. Perhaps you’ll see that at its purest in the 12 included mini-games, all with their own global and local leaderboards, and all unlocked off the bat. Here you’ll ease a parachute as you glide through a course, sculpt pottery by maintaining posture or play a game of circular whack-a-mole by pushing and pulling the Ring-Con.
There’s an end-of-pier charm to it all, the showmanship of the arcade matched with Nintendo’s time-proven ability to take something – here the humble pilates ring – and imbue it with a sense of play and wonder. Ring Fit Adventure is that and then some, boasting all the inventiveness of last year’s curio Labo and matching it with a video game that compels you to come back for more. This might not have the show-stopping pull of a Mario or Zelda, but I can guarantee that it’s the purest Nintendo experience you’ll play this year.