Crispy Gamer

Health Meter: Why You -- and Your Body -- Need an EyeToy

in

Oh, the fickle ways of public perception! As recently as the 1930s and ?40s, videogamers were considered the Adonises of society -- virile, strong and ruggedly handsome. Today, though, the perception of someone who might play, say, eight straight hours of Assassin's Creed is markedly different. Go to any industry event and you're bound to walk out with a handful of cool t-shirts. The only problem? They're all size XXXL. Gamers, like their close relatives on Linnaeus' taxonomy charts, Comic Book Collectors and Sci-fi Fans, have developed the rep of being sloppy, overweight messes. My daunting task is to change this worldview. I'm up to the challenge. When I'm not writing about the latest Nintendo DS brain-growing cart or must-have Xbox 360 disk, I'm writing fitness pieces for magazines like Men's Journal and putting clients through sweat-a-thons as a personal trainer. So take your protein pills and put your helmet on. It's time to get healthy.

The Japanese have already gotten a chance to balance and wobble their way to health with Wii Fit, but just because the game won't be dropping here until spring doesn't mean that you can't use your gaming systems to get in shape. Amazingly, even though the media has been heralding the Wii as the toy that'll get gamers off the couch and moving their bodies, currently, the best way to get a workout -- and have a hell of a fun time -- doesn't have anything to do with Nintendo's console. For a fraction of the price of a Wii, you're only an eBay auction or two away from grabbing an EyeToy and a couple of disks that'll test both your fitness and your gaming skills.

If you made a list of "The Most Underappreciated Things Ever About Videogames and Consoles," the EyeToy would rank right up there with the ability to watch ?Kill Bill? on the PSP and the entire Front Mission franchise. While it may be best known for giving you the power to throw your own face into any number of games -- even though it usually makes you look like you've been brought back from the dead -- Sony's USB PlayStation 2 camera (which also works with the PlayStation 3) shines its brightest when used with some of the games that were designed specifically for it.

The camera made its debut on these shores in late 2003, but it wasn't until the end of 2004 that a developer finally figured out how to use the thing for anything more than just quickie, semi-mindless mini-games. Not surprisingly, it was Harmonix, who would eventually go on to crank out Guitar Hero I and II and Rock Band, that came up with AntiGrav. AntiGrav puts you in control of a hover board rider. But instead of controlling your futuristic X-Gamer with your DualShock, similar to the way you deal with your snowboarder in the SSX games, in AntiGrav, you control all movement with your body.

The game met with mixed reviews when it was released, mainly because reviewers were trying to compare it to more conventional racing and tricking games. The fools! Yes, the controls are slightly simpler than those in a Tony Hawk game, for example, but only because the human body doesn't have four face buttons, a directional pad, four shoulder buttons and two analog sticks. What the human body does have is two legs, two arms and motion at the knees, hips and neck. I've never ridden a hover board in real life, but I'm guessing that in 200 or so years when I finally get the chance, it'll feel a lot like it does in AntiGrav. You lean your body to turn. You duck to get under things. You jump to fly over things.

In addition to just using your legs and movement around the hips to control the movement of the board, the game also forces you to use your arms to take out targets. The result is a full-body coordination and endurance experience that's a step above what legs-only games like DDR can deliver. You can grab AntiGrav, bundled with the camera, for about 20 bucks. The game, by itself, goes for about 10 bucks. Get it.

While a lot of clients at my Boston-area studio, Black Belt Fitness Personal Training, dig AntiGrav, even more of them are into EyeToy: Kinetic. Developed by Sony with the help of Nike Motionworks and released in late 2005, Kinetic -- to put it simply -- is the balls. Unlike AntiGrav, where you control an on-screen cartoon-y avatar, Kinetic plays like the older EyeToy games in that you can see yourself on-screen.

Playing the game as designed puts you in the hands of a virtual trainer for a 12-week exercise program that will work your cardiovascular conditioning, agility, coordination and even your meditation skills. Some of it works, some of it doesn't. The yoga and meditation chunks won't be the most scintillating things you've ever done with your PS2, and you'd best look elsewhere if you're aiming to get your chakras and meridian channels opened. The good clearly outweighs the bad, though, and bagging the 12-week program in favor of playing through the various mini-games is the way to go. Heck, just the games in the disk's Combat section alone make Kinetic worth picking up.

While there are a bunch of these martial arts-based Combat mini-games, essentially, they're all variations on a theme: You're staring at an on-screen mirror image of yourself while all sorts of projectiles and targets fly around you. Your job is to take them out with punches, kicks and well-timed combinations of both. The in-game physics are amazing. Hitting targets with faster, more powerful strikes will destroy them quicker. This focus on explosive movement means that you're forced to move with intention and precision. You're not allowed to get away with random flailing -- the motion-sensitive equivalent of button mashing. It's a game -- and a workout -- that will get your heart rate up, burn a load of calories, and help develop agility and coordination. More importantly, it's insanely fun. Score it on eBay, brand new, for less than 25 bucks.

Exercise can be a drag -- a half-hour on the treadmill can be worse than being forced to play all existing versions of The Golden Compass -- but it doesn't have to be. With the same console that you've been using to level up the strength, stamina and agility stats of your favorite role-playing game "Chosen One," you can be leveling up your own stats -- and having a world of fun doing it.