Version tested: DS
Say hello, bonjour and hola to the latest batch of DS titles designed to offer self-improvement as well as entertainment. According to Ubisoft, the My Coach series "allows players to improve themselves and learn in an interactive and stimulating way, while having fun at the same time".
In short: they're a bit like Brain Training. Except My Word Coach is focused on improving your English language skills, while My French Coach and My Spanish Coach offer lessons in talking foreign. Or talking normally if you are French / Spanish.
Having given all three titles a try, I'd say Ubisoft's use of the term "fun" is a bit optimistic. Perhaps if they played My Word Coach some more, they'd understand words like "moderately entertaining" and "not as boring as books" are more appropriate.
However, the My Coach titles are certainly worth checking out if you'd like to ameliorate your French or Spanish skills, or are too thick to know what ameliorate means. Here's why.
My Word Coach
You might know what your Brain Age is, but what about your Expression Potential? Yes, it's another made-up unit of measurement, this time invented by Ubisoft. Apparently EP is "the measure of your ability to express yourself", which boils down to how many fancy words you know.
There are 16,800 words of varying fanciness to master in My Word Coach. As with Brain Training you learn by playing mini-games for around 15 minutes per day. Regular practice is required to unlock more mini-games and higher difficulty levels.
When you first boot up MWC you're presented with a list of words and asked if you know what each one means. This is so your current vocabulary skills can be assessed and you can start your lessons at the appropriate level. You could always cheat, if you're the kind of person who gets a thrill from hoodwinking educational software, but you'd only be letting yourself down. Also some of the words are deliberately made-up, so there's no point.
According to the results of my test I started out at 'University Graduate' level. I found this pleasing, what with actually being a university graduate. However, the initial challenges were too easy, suggesting either My Word Coach doesn't have a very high opinion of university graduates or I am spectacularly clever. Seeing as I spent my three years at university drinking and playing Tomb Raider, the former option seems more likely.
The dullest mini-game is Missing Letter, where you fill in the blank ("INVIG_RATE", "_ENCHMARK" etc.). It's like Hangman without the thrilling sense of drama. At least the handwriting recognition works well, certainly better than in Maths Training, and being able to check the definitions of words at the end of the test is useful.
Split Decision is a bit more interesting. You're presented with a word and must pick the correct definition from a choice of two. However, it didn't take me three years at university to learn the correct definition of "Aloof" is "Describes an unfriendly person who refuses to take part in things" and not "A long thin white loaf of bread, of a type which originally came from France".
The other mini-games are variations on the same theme. In Word Shuffle, you use the stylus to place words in the right slots according to their definitions. In Safecracker, you use the stylus to turn a dial and spell out words. In Pasta Letters, you use the stylus to rearrange alphabet spaghetti into words. In a pointless twist, you must occasionally blow into the microphone or tap the screen to stop the letters sinking into the tomato sauce.
Block Letters feels most like a game rather than a learning exercise, and is therefore the most fun. You hold the DS like a book and the left screen displays a list of words on a chalkboard. On the right, alphabet blocks drop down from the top of the screen. You tap them to spell out the words and they explode when you're successful. If enough blocks pile up to reach the top of the screen, it's game over.
It's a bit like literary Tetris, in other words. However, it's not fast-paced enough and once again, the difficulty level is too low. Plus there's a time limit of only a few minutes. It would have been better to have Block Letters included on the cartridge as a standalone bonus game, complete with multiple levels.
The point is, the most fun mini-game in My Word Coach isn't all that much fun. But it's still better than reading a dictionary for 15 minutes a day, as are all the other mini-games - even if they do get repetitive quickly. True, it all feels more like doing homework than playing a game. But the incentive to keep going is you do find yourself learning new words. If that appeals, My Word Coach offers a stylishly presented, relatively entertaining way of doing it.