One retailer just laughs. Another tells me to come back Tuesday morning, when they may be getting a new shipment. “But come early,” cautions the clerk at Vancouver’s EB Games, a downtown video game store. “They’ll be gone within an hour.” It’s the same story across North America, Britain and Australia, where, in curious defiance of retail’s sweeping slump, Nintendo’s Wii Fit—a home-workout program disguised as a game—is racking up sensational sales.
Funnily enough, critics, gamers and industry insiders were initially cool to the Wii Fit, which was first announced in July 2007 by Shigeru Miyamoto, the Walt Disney of the gaming world, whose credits include Mario, Zelda and Donkey Kong. Consumers, however, thought differently. It sold over a million copies in its first month on Japanese shelves—roughly one for every 127 people in Japan—and went on to become the fastest-selling game ever in Britain, where it debuted in April, 2008.
The global shortage has even created an inflated resale market for the $89 game (which requires a $250 basic console). A month ago, on Vancouver’s Craigslist, unopened Wii Fits were selling for $100 to $120; they now go for $150 to $180. On Amazon.ca, they command as much as $280—more than three times the retail price. While Nintendo says they can’t produce the Wii Fit fast enough, some experts suggest the company is intentionally withholding supply, following the lead of Apple Computers and every trendy restaurant in Vancouver. “Somewhat paradoxically, shortages make Nintendo even more desirable in the eyes of consumers,” boosting demand and generating free publicity, write Harvard’s Adam Brandenburger and Yale’s Barry Nalebuff in Co-opetition, a book about business strategy.
Unlike Dance Dance Revolution, whose health benefits were a happy coincidence, the Wii Fit is the first video game to market itself as a fitness product. And, as it did with the Wii—which, two years ago, turned gaming on its head by creating an accessible, relatively inexpensive entertainment experience— the Japanese company is again reaching beyond its traditional, basement-dwelling male fan base, attracting boomers, casual gamers and moms. The Wii Fit, which weighs users every time they step onto the white balance board, offers yoga, aerobics, strength and balance training, with routines ranging from tightrope-walking and slalom skiing to running in place as “Mii,” your onscreen avatar, jogs through a cartoon forest. (Watch for Mario’s cameo during the Island Run.)
At its core, of course, it’s a game: high scores elicit joyful squeals from cartoon penguins and unlock new exercises, yoga poses and additional reps, explains Vancouver management consultant Andrew Medd, 32, a fan. “So often, ‘fun’ and ‘gym’ don’t go together,” says Nathan Mellalieu, who installed a Wii workout station in a corner of Studeo 55, his exclusive Vancouver gym, after watching his 5- and 6-year-old niece and nephew giggle their way through a Wii workout.
But the Wii Fit’s not just about fun. Medd has lost 50 lb. since July, using Wii Fit in combination with Weight Watchers. Engaged to be married in May, he hops onto his Wii Fit for 35 minutes to an hour every morning. “If you’re self-conscious in any way,” he says, “it’s a great alternative to the gym.” Medd has had to buy an entirely new wardrobe, and will run a 10-km race this spring. Canadian rehabilitation clinics, meanwhile, have even begun using the Wii as a treatment tool for patients recovering from strokes, brain and physical injuries, which some call “Wiihab.” Others are buying it for the yoga component, which is both cheaper and more convenient than taking classes.
No other gaming company has kept pace with Nintendo’s jaw-dropping Wii Fit sales. But the industry appears to be bucking worldwide retail gloom. Overall, industry sales are up 22 per cent over last year, topping $16 billion, according to industry analyst the NPD Group. It may seem counterintuitive that a $300 gaming console—a luxury item if ever there was one—is recording a spike in sales in the midst of an economic meltdown. But people need an escape, as they did during the Great Depression, when millions packed movie theatres, explains Mike Hickey, an analyst who tracks the video game industry for Colorado-based Janco Partners. “People need to forget about their problems. Clearly gaming is now an avenue for that.”