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Nintendo Makes Some Strides

By Mike Musgrove
Sunday, August 23, 2009

As it turns out, I take twice as many steps on the average day as my dog does but a couple thousand fewer than the president recommends.

This is my main takeaway after a few weeks of regularly carrying a pedometer around in my pocket, a device included with a recently released piece of software for the Nintendo DS called Personal Trainer: Walking.

About the size of a key fob, the game's pedometer quietly counts off every step. A tiny light on one side blinks red until you've knocked out a default target count of 3,000 steps each day; hit that modest goal and the light turns to green. If you're more active and want to set your daily goal higher, that's easily done with the software.

Snicker if you will. But recall Nintendo's last big foray into video-game fitness, a title called Wii Fit that came packaged with a balance board on which users can practice yoga and do push-ups. While hard-core gamers rolled their eyes at it, Wii Fit became one of last year's standout hits, outselling blockbusters such as Grand Theft Auto IV despite the Nintendo title's heftier $90 price tag. The company says it has sold 22 million units worldwide.

A gold rush is now on, as models and fitness personalities race to get into the Wii business: Jenny McCarthy, Jillian Michaels and Daisy Fuentes all have lines of new or upcoming Wii titles that incorporate the balance board into Pilates classes and cardio workouts. Gold's Gym has a fitness game for the Wii, too.

Arming kids with pedometers to encourage them to move around could be the next craze. Next month, Nintendo is releasing remakes of some of its old best-selling "Pokemon" games for the DS. The twist with these remakes, which will be released only in Japan for now, is that they'll come with Pokemon-themed pedometers. To unlock some of the stuff in the game, you have to earn it by walking around in, yes, the real world. Based on anecdotal evidence -- my 8-year-old stepson says he wants to learn Japanese so he can play the thing -- I expect it will sell.

Personal Trainer: Walking is certainly kid-friendly, though it's not specifically aimed at children. The title, which lets you use the "Mii" characters that represent you in Wii games, intends to introduce a bit of lighthearted competition into the area of physical activity. Although the $50 software comes with two pedometers, it can track the activities of four people (or pets) if you buy extras.

At the end of each day, you hold down a button on the pedometer and "beam" your activity log into the checkbook-size DS, which keeps a running calendar of your activity. On June 16, I logged 7,530 steps; on July 4, I walked 9,308.

On average, according to the device, I take about 8,000 steps a day. By clipping one to my dog's collar, I learned that he typically makes about 4,000. The President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports recommends that healthy adults get about 10,000 but does not make any specific recommendations for a Belgian Malinois.

Mark Fenton, an author of books espousing the health benefits of walking, says he approves of the Nintendo game.

"I don't tend to be a spokesguy," he said. "Walking is a very simple activity, and it doesn't need a lot of accoutrements to be good."

But, Fenton says, there are plenty of studies that indicate that people who use pedometers walk more -- and, what's more, the pedometer that comes with the DS game is actually pretty good. That's why Personal Trainer: Walking, which he and his daughter use, has his blessing.

"It uses the best of what we know about how to encourage physical activity," he said.

My stepson was fascinated with the game when he saw me beaming my daily step counts into the DS. When I gave him a pedometer of his own, however, he lost it after a day or two of summer camp.

"Walking is a game now?" one of the lad's incredulous campmates asked as they waited for the morning bus to arrive one recent weekday. "Nintendo is genius."

I could call up a few professional video-game industry analysts to get their take, but I expect they'll say pretty much the same.

Back to the Future

"Congratulations, cupcake, you hold the future in your hands."

Thus reads the sassy packaging box for my 10-year-old Dreamcast, a venerable console that its maker once touted as "the ultimate gaming system."

About 10 years ago, on the easy-to-remember date of 9/9/99, Sega launched the Dreamcast. At the time, the device was pretty cutting-edge: It came with a 56k modem so you could play against other gamers online, for example.

Alas, the company failed to make sufficient headway against bigger competitors such as Sony and its PlayStation 2, and Sega exited the game console market in 2001. Bragging about the system's capabilities even as his company left the space, then-president and chief operating officer Peter Moore complained about being the pioneer with the arrows in its back. These days, naturally, every modern game console can go online. Moore is currently the head of Electronic Arts' sports division.

Why am I telling you all this? Because I'm clearing out space in my garage and the Dreamcast's 10th anniversary seems a fitting time to pass the console along (disclaimer: I haven't plugged the thing in for years and don't vouch that it still works).

Drop me an entertaining e-mail in the next week or two explaining why you're the gaming fan who deserves to own a Dreamcast as well as a handful of games, and it could be yours.

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