The Best Exercise Games for the Xbox Kinect

Review of Jillian Michaels Fitness Adventure for Kinect

Posted by steve on November - 19 - 2011 with 0 Comment

Jillian Michaels Fitness Adventure

Jillian’s first entry into the world of Kinect gaming is a good game if your conditions are absolutely, absolutely perfect. But for those of us for whom it is not, it carries over too many issues from the ill-fated Wii versions.

Fans of Jillian Michaels have been dreaming for years of a game where Jillian could truly act as your “virtual trainer”. That’s why over 600,000 of us snapped up her first Wii game in 2009. Unfortunately, that game was marred by poor motion controls. Ironically, despite some improvements due to being on the Kinect, the first Jillian Michaels game on the Kinect seems suffers from the same.

Rating by steve: 3.5 stars

Jillian Michaels Fitness Adventure is Jillian Michael’s first entry into Kinect gaming. I’ll start off by saying that I’m a fan of Jillian Michaels. Her straightforward, non-nonsense style has helped millions of people through her videos and her work on The Biggest Loser.

I wish I could say I was a fan of the people who developed her video games. Back in 2009, Majesco released Jillian Michaels Fitness Ultimatum for the Wii. Over 600,000 of us bought a copy. I’d say over 599,000 of us were disappointed. The game was clunky and committed the cardinal sin of motion games–it didn’t detect motion.

The 2010 version was slightly better, but still suffered from poor motion detection and a horrific user interface. By the 2011 game, it felt like they just weren’t trying anymore. They turned the reins over to shovelware game manufacturer D3 Publisher, who put out a bizarre adventure game where you, as Jillian, had to infiltrate a greedy corporation. Interesting concept, but poor execution again.

Now that the Jillian brand is back in Majesco’s hands, I made a conscious effort to forget the past and approach this game with fresh eyes. While the game has some aspects that are terrific and even innovative, unfortunately I also see some of the same old habits coming up.

The first thing I noticed when I started up the game is that you need room. A lot of room. While other games like Kinect Sports and Dance Central can still work (if not optimally) when you’re 7-8 feet from the TV, Jillian Michaels is completely unusable unless you have a minimum of 10 feet (not counting room to do backward kicks), plus a very clear view of the floor, plus plenty of room from side to side. I spent 20 minutes moving furniture around until I could get it to work to some degree.

You’re greeted by Jillian and you “wave” to begin. You’re then taught how to navigate the menus. If you’ve read my reviews, you’ll know that a pet peeve of mine is how every Kinect game developer seems to come up with their own navigation scheme (that’d be like every Windows developer coming up with a new way to Print or Open a file). The navigation on this game is not one of the better ones I’ve seen. You raise and lower your hands to select a menu option, and “swipe” to select it. While that doesn’t sound bad in itself, you do it all without a cursor. So you’re on your tiptoes to select the highest menu options, and crouching down to select the lower ones. I found myself having to swipe and swipe at times just to get it to recognize a selection (I found that doing a slow, purposeful swipe tends to work best). Thankfully, they give the option of using the Xbox controller to navigate, which I did happily.

In the next part, they “scan” you. This part is actually pretty cool–they take your video image and essentially turn you into an animated version of yourself, which will be used throughout the game instead of just a silhouette or a cartoon avatar. I first say this technology with the game Kung Fu Live on the PS3 (coming soon to the Kinect as Kung Fu High Impact), and I loved it.

Next, you choose whether to play as a Guest or to sign in to your Xbox Live account. You start out by recording your personal details, including your sex, age, height, and weight. The default is set to a 20 year old who’s 5 foot 7 and 181 pounds. I, of course, am much higher in all these areas, so I have to go through the painful process of clicking and clicking until we get to where my numbers are. As soon as you enter your weight your BMI is calculated automatically.

You then get to the main menu, where you hear a jungle beat playing and a “Tomb Raider” look and feel. The menu options are simple: Fitness Training, Fitness Adventure, Stats, and Options.

Under Fitness Training, you have two options; Single Exercise and Circuits.

Single Exercises are the building blocks for the whole game. Under this menu option you can scroll to view each of the 67 individual exercises that you’ll do during the game. Most of them are pretty familiar calisthenics moves such as crunches, push-ups, jumping jacks, lunges, squats, and so on. As you scroll through each exercise (which definitely requires the Xbox controller to maintain sanity), you’ll see a small animation of Jillian doing the moves. When you select an exercise, you have the option of beginner (10 reps), intermediate (20 reps) or expert (30 rep) levels.

After that, you’ll see a large animated image of Jillian in the middle of the screen, who will show you a quick 5-second demo (which in some cases is quite useless as one rep itself can take 4-5 seconds). Then you jump right into doing your reps.

As you do the reps, you’ll see your animated image on in the lower corner. I really like this, as it lets you compare your exact form and technique to Jillian’s.

The Kinect will detect your moves; if it thinks you’re doing them right you’ll glow green, if it thinks you’re not doing them right it’ll glow red, and if it thinks you’re doing them but could be doing them better you’ll glow yellow.

Sounds great, but practically speaking, I found that at least 25% of the time I was getting reds and yellows when I shouldn’t have (with a LOT of moving of furniture, repositioning of the Kinect sensor, and natural lighting I was finally able to reduce this to 10%). Granted, in some cases it was because of my form. But there were cases where I’m sure I was doing the exercise correctly, but the system insisted I wasn’t. And forget about any exercises that involved the floor, like crunches or obliques–the Kinect would completely fail on those. To sum up the game’s use of Kinect motion detection, when it worked it was fantastic, but when it didn’t work it was terribly aggravating.

The entire exercise can last anywhere from 10 seconds to a minute, depending on the exercise and the number of reps you do. As such, this section of the game is not a “workout” per se, but more a way to learn each individual move. Another unintended way to use this section is to try to figure out the idiosyncrasies of the system–if you’re doing a move correctly for a particular exercise but the system insists you aren’t, in this section you can try to troubleshoot the system to figure out why (in general, if you rotate your body or exaggerate your moves or clear away more furniture, eventually you’ll find a combination that the system will accept).

The second option, Circuit Training, basically takes a string of individual exercises and puts them in a routine. There are a number of pre-set routines, including:

Total Body Training Easy
Total Body Training Medium
Cardio Craze
Cardio Shred
Fat Burner
Best of

In addition, there are empty slots where you can create your own routines by stringing together up to 12 different Individual Exercises at 10, 20, or 30 reps each.

For each circuit, you can preview the exercises in the circuit, do a warm-up (which basically consist of lower impact Individual Exercises like stretches), or jump right into the circuit. I do like how they split up warm-ups from the routine–many exercise games will force you to do the warm-ups every time. Although some of the warm-ups are a little suspect (my first warm-up was “jumping jacks”, which I’m not sure if a great warmup if I haven’t even stretched yet).

I tried the “Best Of” circuit and was totally wiped out after 33 minutes. The exercises were definitely intense, but there were a few annoyances. First, the system wasn’t picking up all my moves, and in some cases it lost track of my body altogether, forcing me to “wave” to get it to recognize me again. Second, there was absolutely no indication of how long the circuit was or what percentage of it I had completed and have left to go–so by 2/3 of the way in I was cursing at Jillian telling her to stop already.

At the end of the circuit, you’ll see a summary of the exercises you did, calories burned, time, and “accuracy”. In another usability snafu, the font size is so tiny you need a magnifying glass to see it.

The other main section of the game is “Fitness Adventure”. The obvious inspiration for this part of the game was Tomb Raider, where you have a first-person view of running along a path. The graphics are actually pretty good, with a lot of detail of the lush jungle setting.

There are 58 levels to get through; when you select them you’ll see the specific “Individual Exercise” that you perform in each of them.

To start your run through the jungle, you run in place, which I thought was a nice touch. You can reach your hands out to collect green “bonus medallions” which will reduce your overall time (accidentally collecting red medallions will increase your time). There’s no visual feedback at all whether I was successful or not in collecting them, but there is an audible “bling”.

As the game progresses, you’ll hit different obstacles where you’ll employ “Individual Exercises” to get through. For example, to pass a series of giant pipe that’s lying on the road you need to do “Squat Jumps” to simulate jumping over the pipes. You’ll see Jillian’s animated image to the left and yours to the right of the bottom of the screen so you can match her moves.

Cute idea, but this is where the spotty motion detection really hurts. While spotty motion detection is an annoyance while doing the circuit exercises, here if the system cannot pick up your moves you’re completely stuck. I suppose this helped me get more of a workout–in some cases I ended up doing about 10 squat thrusts before the system decided I’d done one it approved of. But of course, the game is a lot more fun when it works right.

I did get it to work mostly in the above workout by adjusting my room lighting (working out in the daytime when there’s natural lighting helps) and completely clearing away 10 feet in front of me and 10 feet to the sides of me. But there were still parts where it wouldn’t pick me up. And like I said, anytime the workout involved floor exercises, more often than not the whole thing just gave up.

I should say that your mileage may vary. I live in an apartment, so my limited lighting and space may have had an impact. (On the other hand, I am able to play other Kinect games perfectly). Bottom line, I’d recommend renting a copy or borrowing it from a friend first to make sure it works in your environment before forking over $30-40 for it.

To sum up, the game has some fantastic workouts that are among the most intense for any system. Fans of Jillian will appreciate her voice narration and her techniques. And there are certain features which are truly innovative, such as the way your animated image is displayed.

But in many ways, they carried over far too many bad habits from the Wii versions–poor user interfaces, spotty motion detection, and a questionable adventure mode. I am still waiting for someone to create a “real” adventure exercise games where you engage in things like real hand-to-hand combat and real obstacle courses instead of these contrived “do 10 reps of this exercise to proceed” games. I was hoping this would be it, but it’s not.

Bottom line, it’s a good game if you can get your motion detection to work, or if you appreciate Jillian’s style so much you’re willing to put up with it not working. But a word of advice to Majesco and Jillian Michaels: next time TEST your software, taking in mind that hundreds of thousands of your users may not have the idyllic conditions of your test lab. And once and for all, please hire someone with some shred of user interface design skills.