Saturday, January 26, 2008


Big Brain Academy

Maybe I've been too hard on Big Brain Academy in the past. But when you're riding on the coattails of the Brain Age phenomenon, you set yourself up for some high expectations.

Lately, however, Big Brain Academy has started to grow on me. While Dr. Kawashima takes his mental fitness seriously -- scolding you for slacking off and limiting your sessions to minutes a day -- Professor Lobe gives you a mental playground that you can fool around with at your leisure. It may or may not give your frontal lobe the stimulation that it so richly craves, but it'll give you the quick, low-impact fun that you need every now and then.

The DS game has fifteen activities that can be engaged in one of two ways. You can go after each activity individually and set your own difficulty level, or you can go for the Test, which chooses five activities for you (one from each of the game's five categories) and adds your scores together to arrive at your completely unscientific "brain weight".

Each activity is presented as a series of problems. You get sixty seconds to solve as many of them as you can, as accurately as you can. The better you do, the more difficult they become. The worse you do, the easier the game gets, allowing you to make a comeback. Several of the activities are a lot of fun outside of the context of the test. My favorites include a tanagrams puzzle, a puzzle where you have to decide the heaviest character on the screen based on a series of diagrams that show you their relative weights, and a puzzle where you have to figure out which square on a grid a dog will finish on if he follows the directions shown on the top screen.

My only real beef with the game is that the challenges are only available in sixty-second bursts. It seems like an activity ends just when it's starting to get interesting. There's no mode where you could, say, race to see how quickly you can finish sixty puzzles.

For twenty bucks, the game does what it needs to.

Wii Degree

I probably never would have bought Big Brain Academy at the full fifty dollars if it wasn't dictated by the Wii bundle I ended up buying through the online Walmart store. But since I have it, I'm not about to get rid of it. (Sadly, I couldn't say the same thing about Super Paper Mario.)

The neat thing about Big Brain Academy: Wii Degree is that it's an additional step removed from its Brain Age inspiration, which means it has more of a feeling of coming of its own as its own kind of game. There are fifteen brand new activities, with five more to unlock. The game has a slightly different structure. First of all, instead of trying to see how many activities you can complete in a time limit, the object is to see how quickly you can complete a set number of problems. Secondly, instead of basing your performance in a category on a single activity in the Test mode, the game shuffles up the available activities and bases your score on a more even assessment of how well you can do in all activities across the category.

The minigames are fun, and slightly more imaginative than in the first game. Where the first game would ask you to simply do an arithmetic expression and key in the answer, Wii Degree gives you a mallet and tasks you with knocking out all of the numbers on the screen that don't contribute toward a target sum. Where the first game would have you remember a sequence of noises and play them back, Wii Degree asks you to play them back in reverse.

The games aren't blockbusters, but they do their job well -- keeping you completely compelled for half an hour at a time. There are hooks to these games. You won't find much meat, but you'll be pulled back for more time and again.


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