Okay technically I’m not an actual boxer, but I have trained in martial arts for most of my life. I’ve been teaching self-defence, karate, and Chinese internal arts for years now, and though my technique is not up to par with my friends who have studied pugilism professionally (e.g. despite my best efforts, I’m apparently still telegraphing with some kind of miniscule change in posture or tempo), it’s fair to say that I am an accomplished and efficient fighter.
So during this strange time of physical distancing, I was looking for a new way of getting some exercise while my dojo is closed over the next few months. Enter Fitness Boxing.
When Wii Fit (and Wii Fit U) came out, I played them pretty obsessively. I did the fitness tests every day for years, spending hundreds of hours logging exercises and activities (not to mention the Wii Fit Meter I wore at all times). Between $300 for Ring Fit Adventure, and the free demo of Fitness Boxing, it was an easy choice. After playing for about two hours across two days, I took the leap and paid the comparatively reasonable $70 to download the full version (though none of my progress carried over), and I’m still figuring out how I feel about it.
In terms of technical advice, I was surprised to find the game was mostly spot on. The trainers gave excellent instruction in terms of common mistakes and efficient ways to throw punches, and at first this was so well-timed that I thought the game was actually picking up every movement of my hands. However, the more I played, the more I realised they were just spouting advice almost randomly, regardless of what I was actually doing. While initially I appreciated the reminders to keep my guard up or to keep my elbows at 90 degrees, eventually I started getting annoyed by the instruction. Switching to the Japanese voices made this much more bearable (“Ichi, ni, ichi, ni, mae, ushiro, mae, ushiro!“), and I had a lot more patience for them after that.
Regarding tracking, there were a few times where the joycons didn’t register any movement at all (particularly for ducks and steps – I’ll provide a guide at the bottom for this review for what motions the game will register as correct). Worse, they often turned themselves off mid-punch, which lead to some frustrating combo breakers in an otherwise perfect level. At its worst, I found myself checking whether they’d disconnected maybe a dozen times per exercise because they failed to register a punch, or gave the little “I’m shutting down now” vibration. Furthermore the game seemed to only really register the fact that the joycons made a quick movement, and didn’t actually track things like direction or curvature. This meant that as long as the timing was correct, it logged every technique as “Perfect!” no matter what kind of punch I threw.
One of the smaller problems I have with the idea of boxing for fitness is the rhythm element of the game. Not to brag, but I’m great at rhythm games – for context, I placed first at a Guitar Hero tournament, and won an iPod from a rigged game of Stacker at Timezone. So the idea of bouncing back and forth in time to the music sounded fun, but not sensible martial training. In combat, it’s important for a fighter to be able to establish and then break rhythm at will. In contrast, throwing every punch on the beat felt plain wrong to me. This was especially heinous when the move was just twisting your hips to “wind up” for a punch – talk about telegraphing!
But what really annoyed me is that this forward-back bounce is established at the start of every exercise and stance change, yet the trainers don’t always follow it. I did my head in trying to figure out intelligent ways of punching while shifting my weight backwards – e.g. I’d throw the straight as I lunged my back foot away, or perform a slip while leaning back to do an uppercut. These are more complicated interpretations of the techniques that are wholly inappropriate for beginners, and which I was only able to do thanks to decades of practicing different ways of moving. Eventually I realised that the trainers have their weight forward for every punch no matter how long the combination, but they never explicitly mentioned that in the instructions so it took me many hours to figure out (even though I was looking for an answer!).
Returning to our technical analysis of the drills, one of the biggest problems I had from a practical fighting perspective is that the exercises seemed to frequently choose unintelligible times for particular techniques. Quick boxing lesson: jabs and straights are “long-range” attacks, and hooks and uppercuts are “short-range” attacks. Sometimes the game would start a combination by using a short-range uppercut, which is a disastrously strategy for closing the gap to an opponent. Worse still, sometimes it would require me to use the reverse hand while moving backwards. This is utter madness for a retreat – to use your farthest weapon to hit someone who is rushing towards you. Furthermore, the trainer would mix short and long-range techniques together in the same combination, but without the requisite shuffles forward and back to close/create distance. This meant that half of the strikes would be either too close or too far to land cleanly if I weren’t just punching the air. (I often compensated for this by adding my own leg movements so I could get some worthwhile training in, because while there were very few exercises that included stepping or shuffling as part of the drill, they were rare and only came quite late in the piece.)
Having said that, the game does get better as you unlock the intermediate and advance lessons (which you frustratingly can’t access until you’ve beaten all the previous levels). To be fair they’re all quite basic, but after so many atrocities my bar is very low. For instance, one of the good combinations went thus:
Starting in orthodox (left foot forward): Jab, pause, jab, duck left, left uppercut, pause, jab, straight, duck right, right uppercut.
One thing I do like about the game is that, unlike most boxing, it switches stance halfway through each exercise. Balancing out the body and becoming equally proficient with both hands is a wonderful practice for health and utility.
It’s also worth commenting that there are only 20 songs, and I while you can “randomize” which ones are used during the Daily Workout, you can’t actually select them. In fact, despite completing all the exercises more than once, I still haven’t heard the 20th song because the randomiser is weird. With the demo only giving me access to three of them, I got sick of them pretty quickly.
So after all this criticism, why do I like the game? Because it’s still stonking great fun. I don’t need someone to teach me how to box – if I wanted to exercise, I could do a boxing routine by myself. But the thing is, I find it really hard to motivate myself when I’m exercising alone, and having something to focus on and inspire me brings out the best in me. What I love about Fitness Boxing is that it gamifies the experience, keeping me hooked and distracting me from fatigue and discomfort by focussing on the fun. Having a cute trainer certainly helps too, though there is something distinctly creepy about the way they pose and giggle when you pick different outfits for them. (Patriarchy and the gratifaction of the male gaze is gross.)
Furthermore, it scratches that “just one more” completionist itch in me, or at least it did for a while. At first I played every day to get that sweet, sweet Daily Workout stamp. After a few weeks though, it became less and less interesting (I guess as I unlocked all the moves, and the best ones like the slips and weaves were rarely utilised). So would I recommend this? Yes. For the first time in many years, I looked forward to exercising at home despite the hot weather, and that is why I think it was worth the $70.
Now, a guide if you’re having trouble with the game registering your movements!
Jabs, straights, hooks, uppercuts (face and body): As I’ve said, all the punches are just about making a sudden movement in any direction, so if those aren’t registering it might a joycon issue. Try disconnecting and reconnecting and seeing if that helps.
Ducks, duck left/right, duck and weave: Hold the joycons vertically (L and R button pointing to the ceiling), then move them down toward the ground sharply. This is of course disastrously bad practice – you literally drop your guard as you duck – but it’s the only reliable way that I found to register the movement.
Shuffle forwards/back: Tilt the joycons 45 degrees back (so the L + R buttons are pointing at your face). Jerk them away from your face for a shuffle forwards, or towards your face for a shuffle back.
Blocks and leans: Same as above: tilt the joycons 45 degrees and move them sharply towards you. (For the blocks, you can make an “answering the phone” motion and cover your ear with the joycon, which is a common block in boxing.)