Years ago, in an effort to better relate to my then-adolescent nephew, I purchased a used Playstation and a simple game: Shrek’s Treasure Hunt. I grew up in the put-a-quarter-in-it arcade era, with games like Pac-Man, Centipede and Frogger, and while I was never very good at any of them, I could at least figure out what I was supposed to do. Mostly it involved pushing a joy stick around and punching a button to shoot stuff.
Thus I embarked on my Playstation adventure with at least a modest expectation of success. The Shrek game was rated for ages 3 and up – a toddler game. Indeed, the object of the exercise was baby simple: guide Shrek along a forest path and pick up items for his picnic basket along the way.
Unfortunately, my attempt to inhabit the ogre’s hulking form and help him reach his goals was a disaster. No matter what buttons I pushed or how I manipulated the tiny joy stick on the controller, all Shrek did was stand there and twitch like some poor soul afflicted with an advanced case of palsy. Finally I gave up in disgust, leaving Shrek to starve to death with an empty picnic basket, assuming he didn’t die of his neuro-muscular disorder first.
I was reminded of this painful chapter in my past when I obtained a new exercise program for my (dust-covered) Wii system. It’s called “Walk It Out!” and it is supposed to make getting fit F-U-N! Yeah, I’ve heard that one before. The dorky dad in the trailer certainly seems to enjoy it, though (I wonder who that actor is, and whether he lists this credit on his resume.)
Like Shrek’s Treasure Hunt, the concept here is simple: walk around Rhythm Island in time to upbeat music, collecting points for stepping in time (or almost in time; the game is fairly generous) to the beat. You use these points to open up new areas of territory to explore, construct buildings, trees and other environmental features, and unlock additional music. Katrina & the Waves, the Go-Gos and the sort of Japanese techno-pop that you get with Dance! Dance! Revolution feature prominently in the start-up rotation.
I set up my account and selected my Avatar, which turned out to be a fairly butch-looking “feminine” variation on the basic androgynous template. I am guided by a cartoon fitness coach whose name I didn’t bother to learn (I don’t need to know her that well). She speaks in a childlike, “Dora the Explorer” voice, so let’s just call her Coach Dora.
To my credit, almost a week into playing this game I have mastered the most fundamental task: walking. Take THAT, Shrek! But using my accrued points to construct stuff involves “shooting” capsules along the path (I’m having flashbacks to that damned picnic basket). Sadly, simultaneously walking and shooting demands a level of physical dexterity I do not possess, so I am forced to stop moving, then shoot – kind of like the athletes of the biathlon at the Olympics. But you don’t get medals for stopping in Walk It Out. No, sir. You don’t earn any points unless your feet are moving to the beat, and an angry black cloud, like the tornado of debris that surrounds PigPen in the Charlie Brown comics, appears over your head. Moreover, if you miss your target, you LOSE points. What the hell, Coach Cora. This is no way to build morale.
Unlocking anything interesting (like a suspension bridge or a video arcade) requires you to save up a hella lot of points. But if you go too long without shooting at something, Coach Dora pops up like a tiny devil on your shoulder to urge you to “build the island by unlocking capsules!” Since I am programmed to obey orders, I usually cave and squander my points on potted plants and trash bins. As a result, after walking several miles around Rhythm Island, I am still wandering a largely barren landscape. It’s like a post-apocalyptic no-man’s land; I keep expecting zombies to lurch out of the shadows and take me down.
When you’ve reached your goal for the session (or, more likely, have listened to “Walking on Sunshine” as many times as you can tolerate), Coach Dora will review your progress with you. You get medals for exceeding the previous session’s distance walked, calories you burned and the number of “Greats!” and “Perfects!” you compiled for stepping on the beat. She then shows you how many few elements of the island you’ve uncovered so far. She always ends with the same cheerful, if bewilderingly contradictory advice: “You did great! Just don’t push yourself too hard, okay? Try to do better next time!”
I live in fear of disappointing Dora – I’m pretty sure her eyes glow red and she starts speaking in James Earl Jones’ voice if you fail to do great, so I am pushing myself too hard and trying to do better next time. If you don’t hear from me again, it’s because I will have walked off the cliffs of Rhythm Island in despair.