Sunday, May 20, 2007


Brain Age: Train Your Brain in Minutes a Day!

Like many American gamers, I've had a long-standing, deeply painful envy of Japanese gamers. They get all the cool stuff. The cooler something is, the less likely it'll ever see the light of day in America. Sure, we were lucky enough to get Samba de Amigo, but we ran out of maracas awfully quick and we never got version 2000. We got stiffed on the Dreamcast version of Shenmue II. It took years for Pokemon to make the leap. Pokemon! The game series that practically saved Nintendo's ass in the late nineties came to America a good, what, three years after its inception?! And Gyakuten Saiban, better known to westerners as Phoenix Wright, Ace Attorney. That was a Game Boy Advance game for years in Japan. And they wouldn't even think of releasing Ouendan in America without a severe paint job. And Animal Crossing? Yeah, that was a Nintendo 64 game in Japan. And Nintendo actually had the guts to release Cubivore under their own name. And don't get me started about how many more Famicom Mini releases there were.

I could go on, but you get my point. From America, the Japanese video game market looks like a crazy party overflowing with forbidden treats and delights. Staring across the Pacific Ocean, I pray (often in vain) to see even a small sliver of that magic on my native shore. Importing is always an option, but... well, I'm a lazy, lazy man. I don't know that I want to learn an entire language just to play a video game.

And that's why I was crushed -- crushed -- when I found out about Doctor Kawashima's experiment in cerebrel development through video games. It was a brilliant idea -- a video game filled with exercises that were shown to strengthen the performance of your brain. But everything about it screamed Japan-only, from the lengthy text that accompanied the Reading Aloud exercise to the ever so delicious natural handwriting interface. Deriving the intended benefit from this software would require more than just a menu translation FAQ -- an importer would be required to read, write, and speak Japanese.

So imagine my shock -- and unending delight -- when the game was announced for America.

Better than Carmen Sandiego

Educational video games are traditionally created with good intentions at best and lazy cynicism at worst.

None of them work.

It's sad, but it's true. The function of a game is not to teach, but to practice and apply what you already know. As much as I loved me some Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego, the only thing I came away from it with was a kick-ass set of encyclopedia browsing skills. I retained the information I found just long enough to make the next time jump. It's more wholesome than Grand Theft Auto, but you might as well try to teach your kids calculus by sitting them in front of Super Mario Brothers.

So Brain Age takes a different tactic. The objective isn't to teach you anything new, but to make your brain work in a very specific way. If the work of Dr. Ryuta Kawashima can be trusted, the exercises in Brain Age will strengthen the parts of your brain dedicated to memory and critical thinking.

Is the science behind it sound? Well, the instruction manual has pictures of brains with parts colored red, that's good enough for me.

And that's the first point Brain Age has in its favor. Whether it works or not, there's clearly some sort of basis to it.

Making Math Problems Fun and Addictive

So really, this game is nothing more than a collection of mental exercises, mostly having to do with reading, memory, and simple arithmetic. What makes this so engaging?

First of all, you have to hold your DS sideways to play it. I mean, come on, any video game that requires you to do something unusual to play it is already going to have your attention, right? That's why everyone wanted to play those arcade games with the giant cockpit controls, why everyone was gaga over that one XBox mech game. Turning your game system sideways seems like small potatoes in comparison, but how many games let you do it? And maybe it's just me, but there's just something about the screens that looks different, like the screens were designed to be seen from a certain angle, and the light catches your eye differently when you see it from this new angle.


Second of all is the input. Natural handwriting and natural voice. The recognition system isn't perfect, of course, but it's much, much better than some of the earlier efforts it has been my displeasure to try and manipulate. There's just something unbelievably cool about playing a game by talking and writing. Yes, it really is the small things that make it worthwhile sometimes. I find myself craving a session with this game just for the sheer joy of seeing a computer recognize when I write the number four.

The presentation is perfect for the subject matter. It's formal without being sterile, minimalist yet friendly. The vast majority of the visuals in the game are simple text, yet the game is undeniably pleasant and comfortable to look at. Doctor Kawashima's stylized 3D head is the perfect guide for the software -- surreal and fun, but not cartoony. The music is understated and calming. This isn't a game that's trying to catch the eyes of the little kids with exploding cartoon colors and zany soundtracks. It's software that adults won't feel embarassed to play with, yet it never feels dull or tedious.

And, of course, there's the graphs. The game tracks your progress day after day (using the DS's built-in clock, naturally) and records the first score you earn at every activity. Every time you finish an activity, you're shown the graph so you can track your progress week by week or month by month. So while you may be picking up Brain Age just to give your brain its daily stimulation, there's an undeniable feeling of satisfaction for cracking your high scores, watching your graph data climb, filling up your calendar with daily completion stamps, unlocking new activities and difficulty levels, and showing Kawashima that you have the brain of a sexy, sexy 22 year old.

(Almost) The Best Sudoku Ever

Although it will never unseat Picross as my favorite logic game of all time, Sudoku is a pretty good game in its own right. Brain Age has a version of Sudoku included as a side game, and it works marvelously. The pen functions -- zooming in and out of the puzzle, filling in boxes and making pencil marks -- are fluid, intuitive, and perfect. There are three difficulty levels, and the Advanced puzzles are delicious.

There's only one small problem.

There are only 100 Sudoku puzzles included. That's a mighty number and everything, but once you've played them all, you can't reset your progress without also destroying your Daily Training data. I mean... I don't mind replaying the puzzles, it's not like I'll remember the solutions or anything. It'd just be nice if there were some sort of mechanism to have them appear in some sort of random order, the better to keep from accidentally replaying the same puzzle too often.

Often Imitated, Never Duplicated

I am thankful, every time I slot this game into my DS, that Brain Age found its way into my grubby little hands in a format that I can understand and interact with. It's such a rare and precious joy to see such a niche game that requires so much localization work actually make the leap into foreign markets. But one thing bothers me.

The proliferation of "me too!" brain training games.

I mean, yes, I love the idea. I'd like to see it grow as a genre. But on the other hand, none of these bandwagon jumpers seem to realize why the original is such a success on so many levels. Even Nintendo themselves have released Big Brain Academy, a comparatively cheapy and uninspired effort. And then you get games like Point Blank DS tacking on a "brain massage" mode.

There are two recurring problems with these so-called brain games:

1) Many of them (particularly Big Brain Academy) lack the scientific basis for their activities. Hooray for puzzle games and everything, but it's dishonest to market them as brain-boosting software if you don't have any proof to your assertions. Brain Age had a neuroscientist working intimately with its creation and testing the effectiveness of the activities in a laboratory setting. What do you have?

2) They don't have the same heart. They try too hard to make things look goofy and fun, and they end up looking stupid.

I have to confess one thing though. I never keep up with my brain training. I'll play every day for a month at most, and then I'll drop it. There aren't enough hours in a day, unfortunately, and even a half an hour for brain training can be too much for me to manage.

But I've come back again and again. The promise of self-improvement and the thrill of scribbling through arithmetic problems has kept me intrigued enough to keep the game in my library. And I'm sure it will stay there for a very, very long time.


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