Some thoughts on dancing games (and exercise)

I have always liked music. When I was younger I played and sang more, and I recall even liking to dance. Nowadays, I mostly stay away from all; some because I don’t know the songs, but mostly out of irrational embarrassment. Coupled with fairly stationary studies and work, and rarely even taking a walk, let alone climbing or hiking (even though I quite like to), I’ve grown weaker – and flabbier – than I like.

My main issues with dance are that I don’t know what to do (and yes, rationally I figure it is not that important as long as I keep up the flow… but that does not stop me feeling lost, which breaks my stride), and even when I do have an idea, I may be too uncoordinated to pull it off. Rhythm isn’t a problem; my problem with DDR-style games, of which I mostly played Stepmania (I even instigated a bulk purchase of mats once), is only to read the abstract symbols ahead far enough. And rarely to stay in place over the mat.

Technology caught up.

I recently purchased an Xbox 360 console, bundled with a Kinect sensor. That sensor, in my view, is a threshold passing step for motion gaming; it went from guessing where the player is to measuring it. Along with the storage capacity, a new generation of dance games has shown up, and I have acquired a bunch of them. They help me exercise in privacy, actually make it fun (a critical component), and if I’m lucky maybe some of the moves I practice will actually come to use someday.

The games I have so far, in order of purchase, are: Dance Central 2, Zumba Fitness Rush, Dance Central and Just Dance 3.

Dance Central 2

This was the first game I got, and while it is a mixed bag, I think it was a good pick. The game features 3D animated characters dancing motion captured moves, and with that comes the flexibility to show different angles, repeat moves, or change speed, used to great effect in the training (“break it down”) function. It also allows multiple sets of choreography for every song, and indeed there are three levels to each; players can dance to the same song each on their level. When I started out, I tried hard twice and ended up sticking to easy mode for weeks. In my experience, there is no harm in that; the moves repeat more and come at half the pace in the harder modes, but they did a good job preparing me. I now play regularly at medium. The downsides to the system are a slight lack of fluidity, as the mannequins have no idea what move comes next, and every move has a cue card – thorough, to be sure, but slightly cluttered. It’s easy to train to sightread rather than think of the routine, and trying to imitate twitches that originated from transitions that just aren’t there is a bit silly. Lastly, a lot of the music is some sort of modern hiphop that does not sound good to me. That’s clearly a matter of tastes, but I went looking for another game to get more fitting music and steps.

I eventually got the prior version too, but have actually not put the disc in. I used it as a cheap song pack. The DC1 songs have gaps in the choreography which you are expected to fill in yourself; this is still unsettling to me, but I guess it is another thing to train at.

Zumba Fitness Rush

I should have realized what I was getting into with this title, but it did surprise me on some points. First off, it does a good job imitating a gym class; there’s a crowd there that know every step, which you don’t, and there is no way to adapt the pacing. To throw more confusion in, it does not seem to score me on managing the dance steps, but on physical effort spent. Add on that it rarely repeats a move much, and I felt both rushed and lost; it did not help when I did manage to dance a few bars well, as the game suddenly rewarded me with a flashing screen that obscured what came next. Add a lack of cues, five times the intensity of DC2 on easy, and no indication what sort of routine comes with each song (I found one that was basically only stretching!), and I felt I was quite over my head. The practice mode did not help much, as it does only basic steps. I expect to have fun with this title later, but not until I get better.

Just Dance 3

Here is a chronologically confusing title. The first two are not available for xbox, but Wii, although there is a version (“greatest hits”) with songs mixed from all three. And there are spinoffs like the horrid kids version and Random Artist: The Experience. Anyhow, this title went all the way to full motion video (albeit filtered to a very abstract aesthetic), making it akin to a DVD with scoring. However, it frankly beats the snot out of the other titles on song selection (51 included, others to download, and I have had it playing for hours and only three songs so far were not to my taste) and flow (with a shuffle mode that automatically plays another song with a ten second pause). The easy mode seems rather drastic, however, as it simply ignores lower body motion including turns. Another advantage of JD3 is support for four players, and routines that actually involve interaction between dancers. The worst I see in this game is there is no migration feature like the Dance Central series; instead individual songs from earlier games are also up as (expensive) DLC. I did notice some censorship of lyrics, but they did not mess with the song itself unlike another title I suffered; besides, the other games mentioned here lack lyrics entirely.

So, what abut the fitness angle? Both the Dance Central and Zumba games feature a calorie counter and prepared playlists. Just Dance, on the other hand, has a “sweat” mode which is as inscrutable as its scoring, and refers to the same playlists as usual. It might make up for its lack of specific statistics and plans by sheer fun factor, as I kept returning to it during the evening rather than doing one long session. Time will tell, as I only got it today. My kinect based training has been going on for weeks, though, and I do get results. Nothing telling weight wise, but better endurance for both dance and stairs. My rule is to train at least once every three days, and though I have slipped up, I feel it is attainable.

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