Version tested: DS
Nintendo's quest to make us all better people continues apace. The game giant has been all about self-improvement lately, and whether you're training your brain, getting more exercise, cooking exotic dishes or reading classic novels, you're well on your way to becoming more like the perfect specimens of humankind that feature in Nintendo's press shots - all crisply-ironed clothes, immaculate complexions, gleaming teeth, rictus grins and undimmed love of multiplayer party games.
The latest attempt to enrich our dull and meaningless lives is DS title Art Academy, or, to give it its full title, Art Academy: Learn painting and drawing techniques with step-by-step training. Now, as a concept, Brain Training makes sense; it's a way of keeping your mind more active on a daily basis. Sight Training's bold claims of "improved visual acuity" may have been less scientifically sound, but it's a reasonable idea in theory. But Art Training? Surely the whole idea of art is about self-expression? What can Nintendo teach us that we can't learn by picking up a pencil or paintbrush?
As it happens, quite a bit. I studied Art at GCSE and A-level, and through a combination of a restrictive curriculum during my high school years and a little too much freedom at college, I didn't actually learn an awful lot about composition or technique. Here, I did. Via a series of impressively thorough lessons, you'll be taught everything from basic outline sketching to use of lighting and colour, and creating the illusion of form. You'll even hear the odd mention of specific artists and the styles they used. Art Academy's educational value is surprisingly high.
Your host for these lessons is a bearded cartoon painter called Vince (only Nintendo could name a tutor after a manic-depressive artist with one ear and turn him into a cute and genial guide). He'll patiently explain each step of the process, starting off with simple exercises to acclimatise you to the pencils and brushes - drawing a circle, daubing thick lines, painting a simple tree - before graduating to still life paintings in black-and-white, then in colour.
You'll learn to build up paintings by using quickly sketched guidelines, blocking out the colour and then finally adding detail. As obvious as all this may seem, these lessons were occasionally quite revelatory to me. (Also, I was always warned against cross-hatch shading at school, but here Vince positively encourages it to add texture to an otherwise flat image. In your face, Mrs Lancaster.)
A row of icons lines the top of the touchscreen. These take you through to your drawing tools, such as a grid which makes objects on the upper screen easier to directly copy from or a magnifying glass which allows you to add finer detail to your miniature masterpiece. You have a choice of three pencils and whether to hold the pencil as if perpendicular to the page, or at an angle best suited to thicker lines or shading. An eraser can rub out erroneous scribbles or add highlights to a more detailed drawing.
If you're merely sketching an outline to be completed in colour, you can then choose to move on to your paintbox. Curiously, there's no way of going back; while some artists like to add depth to shadows with the help of a softer pencil, you've no opportunity to do so here. Once you've agreed to leave your pencils behind, your artist's palette will be displayed, with ten simple colours that can be blended with others in 16 free trays. There are six different brush sizes - three round, three flat - and you can choose the amount of paint and water that's on your brush.
None of this is merely for show, as every choice here subtly affects how your painting turns out. Use a large flat brush with plenty of paint and water for a basic colour wash, or a dry, small one with just a dab of paint to lightly buff the surface of the canvas, adding texture to your piece. After a bit of experimentation, you'll happen across techniques that work best for you: I find a circular motion with a wet brush is great for clouds and trees. The pressure and speed of your brushstrokes makes a difference, too. A brush dragged slowly across the page will leave a markedly different impression than quicker, more aggressive strokes.
You'll grow in confidence as you progress through the lessons, with Vince talking you through colour blending, tints and shades, more advanced techniques and even throwing in a bit of simple art history. After each lesson where every part of the process is explained in detail, you unlock a "mini-lesson" where you're pretty much left to your own devices, as Vince shows you - and this is important - his interpretation of the subject in question, before briefly touching upon the techniques he used to paint it. Crucially, there's no right or wrong way of doing things - just your way.
Those who regularly visit the DSiWare store will be aware that Art Academy has essentially been released before, in two parts: First and Second Semester, each costing 800 points (about £7.20). In truth, your extra £5.59 doesn't get you much more besides a cartridge, a box and some instructions, but there are a few more mini-lessons to work your way through and an image library with pictures in a number of different categories - landscapes, fruit, marine animals - for inspiration.
Annoyingly, it also loses a significant feature of the DSiWare titles. In those, you could save images to the internal memory, which could then be copied to an SD card, ready to print out, and yielding surprisingly good results with a decent inkjet and a piece of A4. Viewing them in a gallery on the small screen just isn't the same.
Those with an older DS model may feel even more short-changed as they miss out on some DSi-exclusive features. Chief among these is the ability to take photos which can be used as subjects. You can import images already in the DSi memory (though not from an SD card), then choose to view them through various filters which highlight outlines, areas of light and shadow or blocks of colour; again, this helps beginners to learn the process of building an image up piece by piece.
Oddly enough, it's the smaller DSi rather than the XL which seems to be the best choice for budding Picassos. The larger screen of the newer model theoretically gives more room for manoeuvre, but with no increase in resolution, it's sometimes frustratingly tricky to get fine detail to look right.
Though it's more a problem with the hardware than the software, it's only fair to observe that Art Academy isn't particularly well-suited to an intricate approach. Perfectionist tendencies have to be ignored in favour of something a little more impressionistic, while portraiture should only be attempted by the extremely patient. Pencil drawings tend to fare better, though you're always more likely to create a Monet than a Dürer.
Colour mixing can also be a little finicky; while you can move a pin around your reference image to pick out a particular hue, you then have to blend paint until it reaches the right point on the colour wheel, rather than selecting it from the wheel itself. It's clearly intended to get players used to the art of blending tones, but a shortcut for those without the time to prod paint tubes repeatedly until the right colour is found would have been welcome. And, inevitably, it's simply not as rewarding as the real thing. It's undeniably cheaper than a full set of oils and expensive paper, and significantly less messy, but the results are never going to look as good.
However, Art Academy's potential to encourage latent talent or simply inspire a new hobby shouldn't go unnoticed. Limited by the medium it may be, but if it ignites a creative spark in just one fledgling artist then the thought and effort that's evidently gone into this surprisingly accomplished little package will have been worth it.
7 / 10