A modern take on Sweatin' to the Oldies with party-people style, the dance-fitness sensation known as Zumba has become incredibly popular over the last decade, and been perfectly positioned to take advantage of the video-game fitness craze started with Wii Fit. Now, after three successful outings on the Wii, Majesco's bringing the Zumba-boom a new Nintendo console with Zumba Fitness: World Party for the Wii U. It isn't perfect, but with a global repertoire of rhythms and plenty of pulse-pounding aerobic dance, World Party makes a fantastically fun addition to a Wii U workout routine.
Jumping into the game's main World Tour mode, you'll be able to pick from seven different destinations: Brazil, the Caribbean, Europe, Hawai'i, India, Los Angeles, and Puerto Rico. Each area is composed of six different songs to dance through in sequence, with celebrity Zumba instructors to lead you through the choreographed cardio. Depending on how in-sync with the instructor you are - as measured by the Wiimote in the included hip-mounted Zumba belt - you'll earn a "Nice", "Hot", or "Zumba!" rating for each step, which count towards five possible stars for each song. In a time-honoured gaming tradition that PaRappa would be proud of, the better you dance, the more interesting the background becomes: racking up "Zumba" ratings will add dancers, colours, effects, and animations to the already-lively backdrops behind your instructors. Hawai'i's shores see rainbows and lava flows, India's mandala dance-floor blooms with lotus flowers and pyrotechnic palaces, and Europe's castle backdrop goes Van Gogh with a colourful night sky straight out of Soda Jungle.
If you've never Zumba'd before, it's a lot of fun, but it can also be a bit of a challenge to keep up. Unlike Dance Dance Revolution or Just Dance, there aren't step-by-step cues for what's coming up next - you'll just have to watch the instructor and mirror what they do - so on a first run-through of a song you'll most likely find yourself flailing around for a few bars before finding your footing. A small, animated silhouette does pop up on the top-right of the screen to show you the next move, but it's so tiny that it really only works as a reminder once you're already familiar with the steps. It can be bewildering at first, but the routines are composed of distinct parts which repeat through the song. This encourages repeat play, in a good way - every time you play a song you'll get better, and the feeling of accomplishment from finally mastering the moves - or even just improving! - is a wonderful thing.
In terms of aerobics, the songs are broken down into low-, medium-, and high-intensity workouts, with each World Tour destination ostensibly featuring a mix of the three. It's all relative, however; Hawai'i's hulas, reggae rhythms, and mellow mele are predictably placid, L.A.'s pop scene mixes mid-tempo movers and high-energy hits, and Brazil left us absolutely breathless, with capoeira and samba axé twisting our legs and testing our lung capacity. On the whole, World Party feels like an excellent workout if you're looking for calorie-burning cardio - you won't find any of the strength training, yoga lessons, or lifestyle coaching from Wii Fit U or Your Shape Fitness Evolved 2013, but you'll absolutely work up a sweat.
Workout aside, World Party's biggest draw is definitely the outstanding soundtrack. With forty-five tracks, it runs a wonderfully eclectic gamut of musical styles, tempos, and languages: Jorge Ben's seminal samba standard "Mas que Nada" and O-Shen's trilingual, transpacific reggae share the stage with Irish jigs, Russian folk music, Lady Gaga, "Puttin' on the Ritz", and Bollywood hit "Boro Boro". Granted, it's all wrapped up in a "global party culture" presentation, with a simplified interpretation of "World Music" and all the stereotypes and cultural-levelling that that entails - witness the particularly cringe-worthy categorization of "1865 (96° in the Shade)", Third World's classic reggae retelling of the Jamaican Morant Bay rebellion, as "Low-intensity Hawaiian Pop" - but the music really does transcend it. You're sure to end each session with at least one tune stuck in your head for the rest of the day, and the quality and variety of the tracks on offer makes a regular Zumba routine an attractive option for your ears as much as the rest of your body.
Apart from World Tour, there's also a Quick Play mode which lets you dial up any song in the game a la carte, and a Full Class mode, with forty-five preset routines made up of different sets of songs from World Tour. You can pick a class based on a specific amount of time - twenty, forty, or sixty minutes - or by intensity level, so they're a great way to get in a workout that matches your mood and schedule, and a Custom Class option lets you assemble a session of your favourites.
True to its party animal spirit, World Party supports up to four dancers in every mode, provided you've got a Wii Remote for each player. Ideally, everyone would have their own Zumba belt as well - about $10 a pop at the time of writing - but in practice we found placing the remote in a front pocket to work well enough. It's a bit less accurate and less comfortable than using the belt, however, so if you're hoping to host some serious Zumba sessions, it's worth factoring in the cost of extra belts. The same goes for digital dancers planning to pick up World Party on the eShop, of course - no belt download code is included.
Even with the belt, however, World Party's tracking isn't too precise. Since it has to extrapolate from your right hip, there's only so much it can do to deduce your dance moves, and the degree of movement seems to matter much more than timing or direction. That's not necessarily a drawback, however, and the game tells you to focus on the footwork first for a reason: even if you aren't nailing all the moves exactly right, or looking as effortlessly awesome as the instructors while doing it, you'll still be getting a serious workout just by following along as best you can. It's a motivational help too - working out can be tough, and World Party lets you feel good about flailing around, rather than worrying about your arm position at the end of a four-bar phrase. If this were primarily a music or dance game it would be a problem, but in a fitness title the generous grading works just fine.
While you're swinging your hips to the on-screen action, the GamePad cycles somewhat unpredictably between mirroring the TV and displaying a large, simple countdown timer. While we appreciate the timer, we're not so crazy about the fact that it effectively precludes off-screen play, as there's no option to have the GamePad consistently display dance steps. And while it's nice that you can browse through menus without taking your Wii Remote out of the belt after every song, the GamePad controls are touchscreen-only, meaning you'll either need to fumble with the stylus or smudge the screen with sweaty fingers - neither of which seem preferable to whipping out the Remote.
Each time you work through a song in any mode, you'll earn Zumba Miles, which add to your global "level up" gauge, as well as unlocking new songs, bonus videos, "postcards", "souvenirs", and "passport stamps" for each destination. The forty-five bonus videos are something to look forward to, with music videos, interviews with instructors and performers, behind-the-scenes footage, and cursory introductions to the different musical styles, but the other unlockables are underwhelming. While the postcards, stamps, and souvenirs from each location go in your World Scrapbook, for instance, you're unable to zoom in, so they're more like achievements than anything else. Still, they're colourful achievements, and World Party also includes a more traditional set of twenty-six trophies for things like completing a song with 5 stars, achieving 80% accuracy, or playing for five days in a week.
If you're more of a self-starter, you can set up to four fitness goals at a time for each player profile's My Zumba tab, and aim to burn a certain number of calories, Zumba for a specific amount of time, or do a set number of routines in timeframes ranging from one week to a year. Unfortunately, the maximum goals are capped at 1000 calories, 12 hours, and 200 routines - and 1000 calories seems bizarrely small on an annual level. As long as you're planning on checking in on a regular basis, however, adding some goals to your Zumba experience is a helpful way to stay on track with your own fitness targets.
There's also a Weekly Report feature, which tracks your calories burned, time spent Zumba-ing, and routines performed automatically. Like the goals, it's a welcome feature with an odd implementation: the weeks are numbered by their order in the calendar year, rather than sequentially since you started playing. This works out perfectly for New Year's resolutions, to be fair, but we're not sure what the benefit is to starting your progress at "Week 14" simply because you picked up the game in April.
My Zumba also holds the "Learn the Steps" tutorial, which sadly feels like a minor extra instead of the focal point it could be. Rather than walking you through the routines at a reduced pace, it simply shows you two "basic steps" from the main dance styles in the game: merengue, salsa, hip-hop, and so on. While we appreciate that the simple "Cross over leg" might be a fundamental building block of Irish step, it sure doesn't help us any in trying to decipher the magnificent flying kicks of the Beggerman Jig routine in the game.
A few technical issues also threaten to dampen the World Party atmosphere. One annoyance is that there's no "auto-fire" to get you through the menus, so to speak; you'll have to scroll through lists of songs, classes, and videos by continuously clicking the left or right scroll arrows with the 'A' button (or stylus). We also ran into a more serious issue when we tried to pause a World Tour game, only to have the game lock up on us completely. The freeze required a hard reboot and stripped us of the hard-earned Zumba Miles we sweated out in that song - and while it only happened once, the motivation-destroying malfunction was especially unfortunate in a fitness game. There are also some surprising load times in unexpected places; loading a player profile consistently takes around ten seconds, for instance, and saving messages stick around longer than they should.
If you're looking for a fun way to get up and get moving, Zumba Fitness World Party is an excellent choice. It features a fantastic soundtrack with a refreshingly diverse selection of styles and songs, a cheery style, and fun choreography that disguises its intense aerobic workout as irresistibly energetic dance routines. It's not without its problems - weak tutorials, oddly uneven use of the GamePad, and some interface quibbles take a bit of the polish off - but at the end of the day, these are small blemishes on a thoroughly enjoyable experience. Zumba fans will love it, and even those new to the party will have a great time once they learn the steps. World Party is well worth a try for anyone looking to add a fun dose of fitness to their Wii U routine.