It seems that with the exception of occasional titles from Ubisoft, pretty much all game publishers have all but abandoned the Kinect for not just fitness gaming, but motion gaming altogether.
As someone who’s been following the evolution of fitness gaming since 2009. this is a crying shame, especially given the amazing potential that Kinect technology offers. Interest in using video games for exercise peaked in around 2011 with the Wii. When I was reviewing games back then it was hard keeping up with the handful of excellent games and the many, many terrible ones. But even among the best of the games, it was clear that the Wii’s motion control technology was far from perfect.
Video game historians will pontificate endlessly about why motion gaming apparently came to an abrupt end. To me, the answer is simple. While companies like Sony and Microsoft saw the Wii’s success and scrambled to bring hardware like the Playstation Move and the Xbox Kinect to market, game publishers didn’t get the memo. No one ever developed the “killer app” that made full use of the technology’s capabilities. Instead, they churned out terrible games that only expedited the demise of motion controls on consoles by spitting out games that were clunky, gimmicky, and exercises in frustration, if you’re pardon the pun.
And yet there was one company that I’ve followed for years that “got it”. Virtual Air Guitar came out with a game in 2011 for the PS3–even before the Playstation Move was created–that used the PS3 camera to do something that had never been done before, putting your actual video image into the game itself. The game got pilloried in the video game press, but I saw something really special in that first effort. They had pushed the PS3’s technology beyond what it was designed to do and built a game that was years ahead of its time. They had a follow-up effort for the Xbox 360, which I reviewed on this site.
With the advent of the Xbox One and the Kinect 2, technology has finally caught up. What I admire about Virtual Air Guitar is that they kept on going, despite the lack of imagination of the gaming media and gamers in general. In 2014 they released their first title for the Xbox One, Boom Ball. Earlier this year, they released their second title, Squid Hero. And now, they’re launching their third, Beatsplosion.
In a lot of ways, Beatsplosion reminds me of an early rhythm game for the Wii called Helix. Helix was a game that featured a soundtrack of techno music with an intense beat, and had you move your arms to the beat. It was simple in its execution, but extremely entertaining, highly accurate (for the Wii), and a great workout.
Beatsplosion likewise has a simple premise, but takes it to a whole new level. In each round you’re a stick figure with boxing gloves gliding forward on a virtual hoverboard. You “surf” through a first-person world hitting “crystals” that are floating in the air, swiping at objects, or dodging to get out of the way of walls. Every now and then you’ll see a “Bonus” ball floating in front of you, which you need to just punch the living daylights out of as fast as you can.
The scenes themselves are a bit trippy, but in a neat way. The “world” is made up of a simple, beautiful color palette, decorated only by animated shapes and symbols continuously floating in the background and the targets or obstacles that come flying at you. You can figure out the speed you’re “surfing” through the world by how quickly the floor pattern is moving, as well as the speed of “streaks” coming at you. Your own position on screen is displayed by your own live, silhouetted video image, surrounded by an animated “atom” symbol in the middle and the aforementioned stick figure hands with boxing gloves on them.
There’s a continuous soundtrack of music that’s playing in the background that has kind of mellow, new age vibe about it, with a distinct driving beat. The music isn’t just superfluous; if you punch, swipe, and sway to the beat it definitely helps your timing and concentration.
Each round lasts exactly three minutes. At the end of each round you’ll be scored on different aspects: your Strength (how hard you swipe or hit, something the Kinect can measure), your Timing (how well timed your strikes are), and your Obstacles (how well you get out of the way of obstacles). Your three scores will make up a average rating of 0-100 percent.
There are six levels corresponding to martial arts belt colors (White, Yellow, Green, Purple, Red, Black Belt) and within each of these levels is a varying number of “worlds” to conquer. You can choose “Easy” or “Expert” difficulty within each level.
You’ll collect “Crystals” along the way by punching the crystals in the game, and you’ll have a multiplier based on your level, your level’s difficulty, and the number of the “world” you’re on within each level. You’ll need to collect a certain number of crystals to progress to different levels.
At the lowest level (White Belt), the tempo is about 130 beats per minute, making for a fairly easy workout. The “Easy” level is quite simple–there are three different levels to choose with regular, basic patterns to follow–the most complex it’ll get, for example, are regular patterns of “ducking and hitting” or “punching two crystal columns in a row”. There are three “worlds” to conquer, which you’ll do in a breeze.
The “Expert” level for White Belt has six worlds. While the tempo is about the same, the game becomes just a little bit more challenging. For example, in certain levels how hard you hit starts to count more, meaning that just swiping at a target isn’t enough–you need to really wind up and throw a punch. Similarly, targets are farther apart, so you’ll find yourself throwing hooks instead of jabs. After you play each round a few times, you’ll find yourself starting to develop patterns for how you move your body and swing your arms. As you progress to different levels the tempo speeds up a bit and the patterns become much more varied, with targets of different sizes that you need to move around more to reach (either by shuffling your body from side to side or by reaching your hands up or down).
Now I’m sure as I’m describing this game some of you out there are rolling your eyes and wondering what the point of it is, while others are starting to get it. Here’s the point. The whole time you’ve been playing you’ve been getting an aerobic workout, just as effective or more so than watching an exercise video and watching men and women in spandex showing you how to punch, kick, and punch.
One of the reasons I’m not that enthusiastic about exercise videos, even including Microsoft’s Xbox Fitness, is that they get so repetitive and redundant. There’s only so much I can take of the same voice shouting at me over and over again, or watching videos of the same chiseled bodies reminding me how so not closer to them I am than when I began.
The brilliance of Beatsplosion is in its simplicity. The colors, shapes, music, and challenges in each level are so subtly different that you never feel like you’re getting the same workout twice. And it’s wildly addictive–there’s a chart on the top of the screen that shows you how many minutes you’ve been playing each day of the week. I find myself putting in 20 minutes easily each day, and even though I’m sweating and my heart is pounding after each session, I always seem to want more.
The motion controls, unsurprisingly, are incredibly precise. If you move just a tiny bit, your on-screen figure moves too with incredible responsiveness. Likewise, your on-screen boxing gloves are precise as well.
Speaking of precision, something very, very basic that I’ve very rarely seen any game developer get right is the menu controls. With most Kinect games it’s annoying, for example, if I’m playing the game and decide to sit down and type for a little while–the Kinect would pick up my every move and end up doing things I didn’t want it to do (in one case, the game even went so far as to make an in-game purchase and charge my credit card!)
Not so with Virtual Air Guitar. As I’m writing this, my body is still in direct view of the Kinect, but the game is smart enough to know that I don’t want to control it–and it’ll wait for me to reach out with my hand and make a menu selection before it’ll do anything. Just this attention to detail alone is a sign to me that Virtual Air Guitar really, really gets it.
There’s really not much I can say as a negative to this game. The one thing that you may find tough is acclimating yourself to your figure on the two-dimensional screen. There’s only so much visual information that can be conveyed through two dimensions, so you may find yourself a little frustrated at times when you fail to land punches because you couldn’t really figure out what was going on spatially (this is where relying on the beat comes in handy). This is a game that would be fantastic in 3D, and absolutely amazing in Virtual Reality (I am hoping beyond hope that Virtual Air Guitar will be developing for the Playstation VR or whatever VR solution Microsoft eventually ends up adopting).
Another thing I’ve learned from years of exergaming is not to go too crazy. The dodging is okay, but swinging your arms without any resistance is a recipe for tendinitis or epicondylitis (tennis elbow, golfer’s elbow). Preventing it is easy–just be sure to take lots of breaks, or use hand weights or some other kind of resistance when punching–this will give your brain a chance to tell your body to ease it up a bit, and you can gain some muscle strength and a deeper aerobic workout to boot. 5 of 5 stars.