An extra Kinect game is lining up for the Japanese launch alongside Sports, Dance Masters and Sonic Free Riders on 20th November. It's a new Brain Age game from Namco Bandai. This strikes me as an unlikely pairing. Kawashima's Brain Training is Japan's most popular DS brand; what's this new iteration doing launching with a new peripheral for (and there's no denying it) Japan's least popular console?
That's not to say it's a bad idea. Basic movement-based puzzles are perfectly suited to Kinect technology. Prof. Kawashima's Body and Brain Exercises doesn't require a lot of precision and it doesn't force you into uncomfortably exaggerated motions. It's easy and fun to play, and none of the exercises take more than a few seconds to familiarise yourself with.
At the Tokyo Game Show, producer Yasuhiro Nishimoto is demonstrating a representative selection of brain-improving mini-games. These come in five flavours: Math(s), Reflexes, Logic, Memory and Physical.
In true brain-training tradition, they're light on the actual thinking but demanding of your memory and reaction times. None of the calculations involved in the maths games are actually difficult, but you have to recognise the answers quickly.
"It was a collaborative effort with Dr Kawashima," says Nishimoto of the game's development process. "Most of the time the development team would come come up with the ideas for the exercises and bring them to Dr Kawashima – he would review them, offer feedback, sometimes he would suggest changing it in a certain way or adding in an element. They would work together as a team."
The first game on show is Math Jock, in which a simple sum appears at the top of the screen above my avatarised self as I stand in front of a set of goalposts. There's a football to my left and one to my right, and I have to kick the one with the right answer on it – or, if they're both wrong, kick neither. The lag is noticeably less of a problem than in any other Kinect game I've yet played. Nishimoto explains that the exercises have been specifically designed to minimise it.
The next exercise sees me sorting chunky, brightly-coloured toy trucks with my arms, raising or lowering them as ramps to guide the vehicles into the right door at the other end of the screen. Again, the lag isn't a problem – the grinning avatar in the middle of the screen responds immediately to my arm movements. A third exercise has me moving my arms around to pop balloons in order from smallest to largest.
"One thing that we wanted to be careful about when making the game was monitoring the movement involved – we didn't want to make it too exaggerated or too tiring for players," says Nishimoto.
"We wanted there to be the right amount of movement so that older players who perhaps don't have as much energy can still enjoy the game and get involved. Besides, specially in Japan, because it's so crowded, we can't have a game makes everyone in adjacent apartments shout at you because you're being too loud."
After a few exercises, an avatarised Dr Kawashima appears to pass judgement on your performance and give you your Brain Age, which can then be tracked on a graph that stores up to six months of play data.
Every day you train, you mark the calendar by holding your hand out to grip an imaginary stamp. You can compare your own Brain Age with anybody else who has a profile stored on the console, but there's no Xbox Live integration at all, so there'll be no global Brain Age leaderboards.
In structure and design, then, it's very similar to the DS Brain Training games, but the presentation has more flavour to it. Avatar Kawashima has a talking lightbulb with legs called Watson for an assistant, who dances around on loading screens and recommends more lighthearted exercises to break up Kawashima's numbers and memorisation. For instance, there's a Pac Man-flavoured mini-game where you have to avoid ghosts with one hand whilst keeping your other hand trained on a piece of fruit.
Group brain-age tests can support 4 people taking turns at exercises – there are two-player and four-player simultaneous games too, but we weren't allowed to see them. Altogether there are 20 separate exercises, which seems a little light, though each has Beginner, Intermediate and Advanced variations that differ significantly from one another.
Strike a Pose, for instance, shows you up to six different poses at once and then gets you to recreate one of them from memory; Beginners just need to worry about arms, but Intermediate and Advanced involve the whole body.
"This particular title was developed with a large range of users in mind – we wanted to create something that would appeal to very young players, and to older players who aren't used to playing games, especially on the 360," Nishimoto says.
"So in order to appeal to these people, we had a large number of focus testers – roughly 100 – play the game. These people had very little – if any – experience with games at all, but they were really enjoying it."
I'm shown pictures of 50-plus Japanese ladies and gentlemen enjoying themselves in focus tests, but it's impossible to ignore that in Japan of all places, these are not people who own Xbox 360s. How does Nishimoto expect to sell the game to them if they don't have the console they'll need to play it on? Do Microsoft and Namco Bandai really believe that brain training is enough to persuade people in this demographic to make a £400-odd investment in a new games machine, a Kinect sensor and the game?
"Well, yes. That's exactly correct. They wouldn't normally have a 360," Nishimoto says. "But we're hoping that with the introduction of Kinect it will open up the market a bit more to non-traditional gamers who haven't played a game like this, but hopefully will show an interest now. We can expand the market a bit."
At least they're making the effort. The relatively high cost involved will probably prevent Xbox 360 and Kinect sales skyrocketing in Japan in the same way as DS sales did when Brain Training first picked up momentum, but you never know. The important thing is that Mind and Body Exercises is looking very playable, much more fun and considerably less contrived than many of the other Kinect games due at launch.
Prof. Kawashima's Body and Brain Exercises will launch alongside Kinect in Japan on 20th November, and in Europe early next year.