To anyone who's ever watched Michael Phelps' legendary dolphin kick, his picture-perfect dives or his power strokes and thought, "I can do better," soon you'll be able to give it a go — without even getting wet.
The first details emerged Wednesday of a video game, two years in the making, called "Michael Phelps — Push the Limit." The sports simulation game for Xbox 360, what looks to be the first action game involving swimming, promises to give players a realistic sense of what it takes to be an elite swimmer, if not beat one.
"It brings alive what it's like to be someone like Michael Phelps, swimming at the absolute most competitive point in the swimming world," said Peter Matiss, vice president of marketing at 505 Games, the small Los Angeles-based company that's publishing it. "In the best moments, you really feel like you're in the game."
Plans for the game were announced in 2008, a few months after Phelps' record-breaking Olympic run in Beijing.
At the time, game makers were releasing few details about what the product would involve, leading gamers to speculate. Adam Sessler, host of the TV show "X-Play" on the G4 network, told The Baltimore Sun, "There's no way to simulate what's impressive about swimming in a video game."
Matiss said while that might have been the case only a few years ago, the advent of motion-based technology has changed that. With the Phelps game, players aren't connected to anything at all. With cameras and infrared sensors, the Kinect system detects the movement of a player standing before the TV set in his home.
When the player reaches down to touch his toes and then springs upright — that's a dive. When he plows his arms backward through the air, that's the backstroke — and if he's not following Phelps' recommendations for technique, that's a bad backstroke and his time will suffer.
"Michael Phelps is an inspirational person for so many people, we wanted to bring that sense of competition and the sense that even a millisecond can make a difference," Matiss said.
Video game analyst Scott Steinberg says though the gaming world has yet to see a serious swimming game and maintains a fair degree of skepticism about the concept, the Phelps game has the potential to cleverly blend celebrity with cutting-edge technology.
"I wouldn't be surprised if they can pull off a reasonable facsimile of swimming," said Steinberg, who leads the Seattle-based video game consulting firm TechSaavy. "The question is whether people will flock to it en masse, since it's been a while since Phelps' victory. But he remains a household name and an icon in sports and the best-recognized face of swiming. Pairing his star power with Kinect capability makes sense."
One of the notable features of the $49.99 game, Matiss says, is a player's ability to choose where to swim. People can swim through mountain ranges, a penthouse apartment, an 80,000-seat arena or a Japanese dojo. He says even the regular pool option is cooler-looking than your average neighborhood club.
To build excitement for the June release, the company has posted an online trailer, which was shot at Loyola University Maryland.
In the trailer, with its percussive soundtrack, Phelps offers something of a throw down.
"In my world, it takes a lifetime of dedication to win," he says. "No one's trained harder than I have. I've broken 39 world records. You think you can beat me?"
"Ready, Phelps?" asks someone who apparently does — a young skateboarder with thick eyebrows and tousled hair, who could be a less-fit Phelps.
Phelps sniffs in amusement. Then they battle — a splashy affair where the computerized water looks reasonably wet and stats flash onto the screen to keep the challenger up to speed on the distance he's "swum," his heart rate and the quality of his strokes.
When it's over, Phelps pumps his first in victory and the frustrated skateboarder is in his living room, his T-shirt soaked with sweat, looking like he might want to consider dialing 911.
Matiss says the game can indeed be a workout.
"I've done it, and I can absolutely say you feel it," he said. "On our product development team, there are folks who claim they've bulked while playing the game. I've never seen them with their shirts off, so I can't vouch for that."
At 505 Games, plans for a sequel are already in the works. The hope is that if Phelps performs as well at the 2012 games as he did in Beijing, fans will be ready for more.