I'm now reaching the halfway point in my highly subjective, personal top-ten list of NES games based on how influential they were to me, one at a time and in no particular order.
So far, I've identified four of the games on the list.
- Hello Kitty World
- Tecmo Super Bowl
- Apple Town Monogatari: Little Computer People
Let's add another game to the list, shall we? The number 6 spot belongs to NES fitness game Dance Aerobics.
Like many NES games, Dance Aerobics saw its initial release on the Famicom in Japan. Family Trainer Aerobics Studio (ファミリートレーナーエアロビスタジオ) debuted in 1987 as part of the "Family Trainer" series developed by Human Entertainment and published by Bandai.
In Dance Aerobics, you are led through a series of aerobic exercises by a fitness trainer decked out in a leotard and legwarmers. You are meant to follow along with her in real life, mirroring her moves with precision timing. Make too many mistakes, and you lose.
The key piece of technology that made all of this possible is the NES Power Pad, a vinyl mat controller containing a flexible circuit board and a grid of 12 buttons. It was designed for use in a few other games, notably Track and Field. If you've ever seen a DDR dance mat, the Power Pad not a far cry from that.
In fact, Dance Aerobics is most certainly the predecessor to Dance Dance Revolution and, later, to dance and fitness games like Wii Sports and Just Dance.
In addition to the main workout mode, Dance Aerobics contains other mini-games that riff on Electronic Simon, Twister, and that floor piano from Big.
Dance Aerobics is great for a number of reasons. For one, I always find it interesting to think about those video games that seemed to come out of nowhere—as DDR did in 1998—and to consider their lesser-known inspirations. Dance Aerobics, truly ahead of its time with a similar mechanic to that of DDR, predates it by about 10 years.
Dance Aerobics occupies an interesting space in the NES library. It is a game that can be won or lost, yet it also belongs alongside home-console "productivity software": word processors, electronic planners, fortune tellers, coloring books, and brain trainers. It's a game that's useful, ostensibly. Get in shape while having fun!
Dance Aerobics was one of the only NES games with advertising that conceived of the game as being playable by both girls and boys. Most NES ads in the US featured boys at the controls; in fact, I can only think of four advertisements in which girls or women are shown actually playing a game. One of these is the Power Pad print ad shown below, via Vintage Computing and Gaming. As far as I know, this is also the only print ad to show an African-American kid playing an NES game. (Though if you know of another, please let me know in the comments! It's disappointing to think that this is really the only example. Come on, Nintendo of America!)
What else can be said of Dance Aerobics? Its soundtrack is great: a real underrated gem. I've spent a lot of time listening to that title theme and/or having it stuck in my head. I even made a remix of it last year. There are some great DPCM voice samples in the game as well. "Come on, let's go!"
Dance Aerobics was one of the biggest inspirations for the first NES game that I released in 2012: TRACK+FEEL II. TRACK+FEEL II is a glitch-art dance game that uses the Power Pad controller in addition to a standard controller to produce generative music and visualizations.
While I was writing the game, I played a lot of Dance Aerobics to study the Power Pad as an interface and to think about how to best write code for it. There are some things you have to think about with the Power Pad that don't apply to the standard controller. For example, the player needs to stand on the mat, meaning two buttons—though not always the same two buttons—will always be pressed.
If you haven't played Dance Aerobics and have an NES and a Power Pad, you should definitely give the game a try. It's unique and quite difficult, too! Thanks for the inspiration, Dance Aerobics!
Bonus: The generative-music-visualizer video game genre, to which TRACK+FEEL II belongs, was founded in 1976 by the Atari Video Music.
Bonus 2: While NES print and TV ads didn't always feature the most diverse casts, there were a few exceptions to this rule. One of my favorites is this TV spot for Capcom's DuckTales. A-woo-oo.
Posted December 19 at 4:09 AM while sitting by the fire.