Four Going On Forty
The words "education" and "entertainment" usually don't belong together. So when we call Oregon Trail, Reading Rabbit, and Math Blaster "edutainment" software, heads start to turn; even more so for Brain Age: Train Your Brain in Minutes a Day!, since (besides its long name) it targets more than children. Brain Age dreams of DS lovers walking down the street playing mental exercises that supposedly improve your practical intelligence. Supervisor and prominent Japanese neuroscientist, Dr. Ryuta Kawashima, wants his game to make mental training simple and fun, two adjectives not associated with exercises steeped in academia and psychoanalysis. For a game that only requires basic math, reading, and writing, Brain Age takes a lot of complicated risk, to rather odd results.
Dr. Kawashima's extremely polygonal head guides you through the game, but like an overeager professor, the game begins by force-feeding facts that try to "show that brain training works" but also prevent you from having fun. Flipping screen after screen will lead you to believe that your brain age determines your intelligence. The game takes every opportunity to remind you that your results in training programs are determined by monitoring the activity of your prefrontal cortex. The six-page introduction in the game manual is littered with colored diagrams of the brain's anatomy, functional magnetic resonance imaging, and near-infrared spectroscopy. This pretentiousness sucks some of the joy out of the game, especially when the scientific evidence is not entirely convincing.
Brain Age uses mini-games, like addition and counting, that generally provoke quick reactions to simple operations, but the provided comparisons to other games aren't fair. The introduction shows you four labeled brain diagrams displaying how much Brain C performing simple math problems quickly or Brain D processing words when a book is read aloud has more red-glowing activity than Brain B solving a difficult math problem or Brain A sitting in idle thought. Is that it? What about high-impact fighting games or resource managements in a real-time strategy game? Don't they require quick reactions as well? Furthermore, if your performance is based on the activity of your prefrontal cortex, which is in the front of the brain, why show diagrams of the entire brain? Finally, basing an entity as broad as "brain age" on just academic smarts fails to recognize different kinds of intelligence. Physical and emotional intelligence may not be as readily testable, but it should have been noted that brain age doesn't encompass the breadth of all intelligence.
If you overlook this overgeneralization, however, Brain Age has a nostalgic charm that is quite disarming. Beyond the scientific mumbo-jumbo and analytical wordplay, you will find mini-games that rekindle what made learning so fun:
* Before mathematics became an onslaught of theoretical algebraic functions and variable conic sections, we scribbled big numbers and squiggled plus signs and symbols we thought were x's (Calculations x 20, Calculations x 100, Triangle Math).
* Before we deciphered lines of Shakespeare, we sputtered and stumbled over long words (Reading Aloud and Syllable Count).
* We glanced at the clock to see how much time was left until recess (Time Lapse).
* We pointed at people and counted with our fingers (Head Count, Number Cruncher).
* We shouted out numbers and the names of colors (Voice Calculation, Speed Counting, Stroop Test).
* We flipped cards with letters and numerals. (Word Memory, Low to High).
* And we connected dots (Connect Maze).
After a mini-game, you are rewarded in a happy yet quirky way. Did you finish the game as fast as a man, a bicycle, a train, a jet, or a rocket? Juvenile, yes. But it's this juvenile spirit that makes this game more than just some derivation of an IQ test.
As Brain Age takes seemingly childish games and, in Nintendo fashion, gives them an unexpected spotlight, it also highlights the power of DS, using the stylus and microphone exclusively. Just on first impression, playing Brain Age with a directional pad and the standard buttons would be silly. Imagine having to spin digit wheels to answer your multiplication tables; every calculation would be an exercise of tedium. Instead, you either speak the answer or write it on the touch screen, and with speed being the name of the game, both writing and voice recognition are properly swift.
Unfortunately, as you fight your way to earn rocket speeds, the game's shortcomings don't get any harder to see. There's no clear system for recognition, no manual that tells you what the game is looking for in penmanship. Frequently, your 1's are confused for 7's, your 4's are looped into 9's, and the word "blue" doesn't like to register. Worse yet, the game actually recommends you to have your friends and family take a quick brain age check - with the Stroop Test. So expect to hear them blare "blue" at the screen ad nauseum. Making these problems even more irritating, the penalties for a wrong answer are severe: a 5-second penalty for an incorrect calculation and a 20-second penalty in Syllable Count. And if you choose to be notified of an incorrect answer in a basic-level Sudoku puzzle, one unlucky error between a "4" and a "9" will you get a 20-minute penalty, the same amount of time it takes to finish the darn thing.
More frustrating is that the game forces its worth. The whole point of Brain Age is to, well, check your brain age, by having the game monitor your performance in three games. You might struggle near the beginning, but you will probably reach the highest brain age of 20 within a few tries, except that you are only allowed to record your brain age once a day. Since the game is based on elementary skills, you probably won't have any trouble earning at least train speed on every game, so why force us to wait? Even starker than how standardized tests are in some measure about test-taking skills, your initial struggle comes more from learning the game rather than any lack of intelligence on your part. Sure, there's always a learning curve, but for a game that (supposedly) assesses your brain age, you would expect the game to test your natural ability sooner.
Moreover, you can't unlock all of the mini-games when you want to. The game requires you to collect time stamps, which you painfully earn one day at a time. That Brain Age wants you to train your brain every day is understandable - it's in the title - but it should have depended on the strength of its training games to make you come back for more, instead of forcing a daily regimen down your throat.
Truly, the scant multiplayer says it all. The "Calculations x 30 Battle" is quite fun, but that's all there is. Brain Age has so many training programs at its disposal that having just one multiplayer game is ridiculous. It just makes it more obvious that the game spreads itself across several days, because there's just not much there. Brain Age should be praised for showing us that educational software can be entertaining for everyone and for getting you to learn on purpose. Learning can be fun. But after a week of solving problem after problem, you will soon forget about your brain age and activate your prefrontal cortex for bigger and better games.