It's a no-brainer: dance-fitness craze Zumba is good exercise. Try not working up a sweat mimicking the up-tempo jigging of a Zumba instructor, successfully or otherwise, and so much the better if you enjoy the cheesy tunes. But what makes Zumba a vigorous aerobic workout also makes it an imperfect match for the Kinect in this game. More often than not, the quick steps and booty wiggling on which Zumba Fitness: Join the Party is based defy detection by the Kinect sensor. Alongside iffy detection, there's a clumsy menu interface to contend with, plus a lack of specific in-game dance instruction, even in the training mode. The jazzy neon visuals count in the game's favour, and there's a goodly number of authentic Zumba workouts, but between the accuracy issues and uninspired game-like elements (that is, a basic point-scoring system), there's not much to recommend this over a DVD of Zumba classes.
The game is based on 30 routines, each 20 or 45 minutes long, split among beginner, intermediate, and expert difficulties. The routines are composed of four- or five-minute segments set to Latin music, such that a set might contain samba, merengue, and cumbia, with some calypso-inspired grooves and belly dancing thrown in for good measure. Some are newly devised for the game, but most will be familiar to Zumba disciples, and they are led by Zumba grandmasters Tanya, Beto, and Gina. You mirror one of these instructors through a routine, and their neon-hued figures change colour according to how well the Kinect thinks you're doing, in theory turning like traffic lights from green (spot on) to red (way off). In practice, the detection is only consistently capable with simple steps. At higher tempos and with more complicated grooving, the system often comes up short; from time to time it registers as green a move entirely unlike the one onscreen, though more often it comes off as frustratingly over-finicky, ruling as red decent approximations of onscreen actions.
In the absence of reliable detection, Zumba Fitness can at least count the sheer quantity of routines as a positive, and these are good exercise because they require long spells of energetic movement. They are also good fun because they feel like perky dance sessions rather than robotic, repetitive aerobic drills. But these qualities would equally belong to a Zumba class or a set of DVDs. What's more, either of the latter two might offer more specific dance instructions. Here, vocal or text instruction is minimal, even in the Learn the Steps training mode. In the training mode, lessons are divided into small sets of moves in a particular dance style. In the basic calypso tutorial, for example, your instructor builds from a slow, simplified version of a staple calypso step, gradually adding speed, energy, arm movements, and general pizzazz as you go. The nonspecific comments and encouragement he or she shouts ("Just have fun!" or "You're doing fine!") are coupled with slightly less vague text feedback ("Nice leg moves!" or "Nice hip motion!"). In the absence of step-specific instructions, though, it's trickier than it should be for Zumba newbies to mimic the instructor. Similarly, in a full dance routine, it would be useful for the next move to be called out or otherwise indicated onscreen.
As you pull off more successful moves in a routine, you fill a points bar through numbered stages. As you progress through stages, you are rewarded with additions to the instructor's backdrop: more silhouetted backup dancers, for instance, and, in the nightclub venue, a fancier light show. The other, less glamorous venues--a factory, a rooftop, a stadium--are unlocked as you complete routines. You can also pick the colour of your silhouette, as seen by the Kinect camera and shown onscreen--though it's there more for decoration than visual feedback, only partially displayed and placed in the background.
Selecting items in the main menu is a less-than-slick experience with the Kinect (and there's no option to use the Xbox 360 controller instead). There's a button on a slider at the bottom of the screen; to operate it, you must hover and hold over the button to grab it, swipe left or right to scroll through the menu options, and then hover and hold again over the item you want to select. It's too much work for a menu based on motion control, and the job is not made more fun by the too-short loop of Zumba music endlessly repeated in the menu screen.
Local multiplayer lets two players dance side-by-side or compete in Zumba Attack mode, in which each player is given a bar to fill by busting successful moves. Two teams of two can also compete by taking turns. If the movement recognition were more competent, the local multiplayer modes would be a fun addition for social, competitive workouts. But again, the Kinect functionality falls short of what's needed to make it a significant, interactive upgrade on an exercise video. Online, up to eight players can work out together--again, in theory. The reality is less impressive; on multiple occasions the game failed to place us in a match with anyone, whether with us as host or with us searching for a quick match or a custom match. With three million copies of the game sold, albeit across all platforms, it's hard to imagine there's not a single Xbox-based Zumba player out there looking for a match.
The workout calendar is functional if basic, prescribing a weekly schedule of routines according to your selection of workout course. These range from gentle programs composed of occasional beginner routines, to the full-on "Zumba glow," for a calendar packed with daily expert classes. Though you can also customise a program with your choice of routines, the calendar is still a fairly shallow stab at making a full fitness regime from a set of fun dance routines, and it lacks, for instance, the tracking of calories burned.
Where other dance games have created better experiences by tailoring their choreography for motion control, Zumba's moves were already established and embraced globally (12 million people taking weekly classes, claims the official site) before this game came along. It's a shame those moves couldn't have been worked into a better fitness game; flaky detection and the awkward menu interface in particular give it a cheap feel that no amount of perky Latin rhythms and neon window dressing can offset.