There are some things you're just not supposed to run with: scissors, bulls and the Game Boy Advance.
But check that last one. I recently discovered a video game that could be played solely by sound. For a person like me, who tries to ensure every waking moment can be a potential game-playing moment, this was a fantastic discovery. It meant I'd found a game I might be able to play during one of my few routines that usually doesn't permit gaming: jogging.
The game is "Sound Voyager," an offbeat little Game Boy Advance title released by Nintendo last year in Japan. The game's graphics are devolved down to the Atari 2600 era: All they show is a field of blinking lights. To play the game, you plug headphones into the GBA and enter the Sound Catcher mode. When the game starts, you hear a faint, looping sound in the distance. It might be the tap of some notes of a beat, maybe a looping jingle, maybe some repeating high-tech sound. You only hear one sound at first. As it repeats, it gets louder. It sounds like it is approaching. The sound will be off to the left or right. To play the game, you use the GBA shoulder buttons to shift yourself toward the sound, left or right. If you intercept the sound before it passes, it gets locked at a single volume and a new sound approaches from afar. This keeps happening until you've built a song. In another mode you're not building a song but dodging oncoming traffic, by sound of course.
There are few visual cues in the game. The idea is to play while not looking. Or with your eyes closed. Or, I was certain, while running. So on a recent weekend I took it for a four-mile run in Brooklyn, New York's Prospect Park.
I tested "Sound Voyager" before I ever took it running. I'd played it on my couch at home and felt like some gaming pioneer, exploring what might possibly be the first equivalent of a sort of video game radio. I offered it to friends. Some loved it. Some loathed it. Some said it reminded them of getting called to the nurse's office in grade school for a hearing test.
At around 11:30 on a crisp Saturday morning, I got dressed for my run and trotted out to the park, harmonica-size Game Boy Micro in hand. Because the Micro is so small, it can be played one-handed with pinky and forefinger tapping the right buttons as if they were part of a guitar fret. It's not like I had to hold the thing out in front of me while running like I was texting someone on a two-way. The "Sound Voyager" music is all essentially techno, which is pretty useful music for a run.
So I played as I ran. It wasn't too hard. I couldn't hear some of the riffs coming at me. I missed a few of them. But just when I started thinking that my mobility might be interfering with my gaming skills, I'd make an intercept and play on.
By the time I built my song, I had passed, on my left, a field where people fly kites. I had passed, on my right, a band shell where Maceo Parker and Yo La Tengo played last summer. I had probably passed some hot dog vendors and people pushing strollers. I was to the right of some baseball fields when the song was complete, but I hadn't noticed passing any of that stuff. The game had taken my attention elsewhere. When I occasionally run to music, the sounds buzzing in my ears serve as a distraction or a meditation, but in either case I still see stuff. It turns out that when you're playing a video game and running, the outside world sort of goes away. Just ask any girlfriend who is trying to tell her boyfriend something while he's playing the PS2, I guess.
A third of the way into my run, the game switched to Sound Drive, the mode that had me dodging the sounds of oncoming cars. I was running on pavement, so this was a bit unnerving. As each sound passed me in the game, my eyes involuntarily darted toward each invisible near-miss. If someone watched my face, they might think I was watching ghosts dash past. I started to get confused as to what I was hearing in the game and what was real. The footsteps behind me, for example, were real. A runner passed me. The sound of a breaking windshield was not real. I had crashed.
There are lots of philosophies about working out, but I'm not sure any recommend experiencing failure while you're in the middle of doing something. Thankfully, the legs don't always listen to the rest of the body. My stride never broke.
At the bottom of a hill, I saw people riding horses on a dirt path just to the left of my running road. I passed the park's lake, and the person who passed me built on his lead. The next Sound Drive kicked it. Curiously, it was based on the sounds of horses — running at me. Did "Sound Voyager" somehow know where I was?
By the time I finished Sound Drive 2, I was four levels into the game and more than halfway through my run. I hadn't been singled out as a lunatic gamer just yet. I thought about that as a man skateboarded toward me with a plastic bag of groceries in each hand. I've been passed by people on unicycles, and my girlfriend once saw a dreadlocked man running with a dreadlocked dog. So who's going to question the guy running with a Game Boy?
As further proof that "Sound Voyager" truly did possess psychic ability, my approach to the final, brutal incline of my run was matched with a particularly energetic tune. The game was giving me a power song to push me on my way. Unfortunately, that power song ended too soon. I was too good at the game at that point and built the song too quickly. The game was shuffling on to the next mode, going to silence just as I was tiring and needing a boost.
And I heard a karate yell and chop. I glanced down. I was on Sound Drive 3, and psychic little "Sound Voyager" was playing a lap-ending joke: No more cars. No more horses. It was sending runners at me — runners who karate-chopped me if I didn't get out of the way. I dodged them in the game. I dodged them in real life. I reached the top. Run over, game mission complete.
I cooled off on the walk home. My first Gaming While Jogging experiment was a success. Shall we make way for a new fitness trend? Maybe not. "Sound Voyager" is not set for a U.S. release.