A Boxer’s Review of Fitness Boxing (2019, Nintendo Switch)

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 somewhat lacking to my friends who have studied pugilism professionally (e.g. they can tell when I’m about to jab, even though they can’t pinpoint what about my posture or body is telegraphing my intentions), it’s fair to say that I am an accomplished and efficient fighter.

Well thanks Lyn, now that you think so maybe I'll try teaching some time.

Well thanks Lyn, now that you think so maybe I’ll try teaching some time.

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 (contrasted with the $140 price tag for the game cartridge off ebay), and I’m still figuring out how I feel about it.

In terms of technical advice, I was surprised to find the game was 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 enjoyable (“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 joycon didn’t register any movement at all, or worse turned itself off mid-punch, which lead to some frustrating combo breakers in an otherwise perfect level. Furthermore the game seems to only really log the fact that the joycons have made a quick movement, and doesn’t actually track things like direction or curvature. This means that as long as the timing is correct, it registers every technique as “Perfect!” no matter what kind of punch you throw, or what direction it’s in. Annoyingly, the game also instructed me to wind-up before hooks and uppercuts, and it would often register the wind-up as an early punch and then penalise me for getting the poor timing. I’ve learned to wind up a full beat in advance, or to make the wind up and punch all one short, snapping movement on the beat.

Speaking of snapping punches, one problem that I’m encountering is that, without a target to hit, I’ve gotten a little too enthusiastic and strained my elbows by locking them out repeatedly. I’m comfortable enough with boxing to keep a loose grip on the joycon while the rest of my body tenses, but in my excitement I occasionally hyperextend my arms and it can cause damage to the joints through repetition. I guess in a way it’s a testimony to how much enthusiasm the game draws out of me as I do my best to hit faster and harder.

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 martial arts, it’s important for a fighter to be able to establish and then break rhythm at will, and throwing every punch on the beat just feels plain wrong to me.

I think the biggest problem I had with the game was that it 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 the melee range. Furthermore, the trainer would mix short and long-range techniques together in the same combination, but without the requisite leg movements to close/create distance. This meant that, because the game focuses on bouncing backwards and forwards on the spot, half of the strikes would be either too close or too far to land cleanly if they were actually being used against an opponent or bag. I would sometimes get around this by adding my own intentional lunges and turns, but that’s above and beyond the instructions the game provides.

Worse still, sometimes the game would require me to use the reverse hand while moving backwards. This is utter madness, but after a little while I was able to justify this timing by making it a deliberately defensive movement (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. The whole game becomes a lot easier if you just stay neutral or lean forwards the whole time, but then why would they start each lesson by establishing the back-and-forth rhythm?

But Xin, why don’t you just copy the trainers?” I hear you ask. Well fam, I would, except they don’t seem to follow their own pre-established rhythms. In moments when they should be moving backwards, they seem to be bouncing on the spot. At times when they should be advancing, they’re winding up for an uppercut. Sometimes their weight changes are obvious, but I could swear that at other times it’s imperceptible and they just just lean forwards the whole time to make the combinations work.

I’m hoping that as I work my way out of the beginner lessons and into the intermediate/advanced lessons the combinations become more sensible, but watch this space.

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. With the demo only giving me access to three of them, I got sick of them pretty quickly. (Me, who has had Still Alive stuck in my head for something like 200 hours in a row and *still* couldn’t get enough of it.)

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. The brillance of 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. Jumping on for a Daily Workout to tick off every day, plus the unlockable lessons and outfits brings a wonderful sense of progression to the whole sweaty ordeal. I find for the first time in many years that I look forward to exercising at home, and that is why I think it was worth the $70.

All up, an excellent way to get me moving martially, and keeping me engaged far longer than if I were training alone.

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