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.
My French Coach and My Spanish Coach
Might as well tackle these two together as - apart from the obvious difference - they're basically the same. My French Coach and My Spanish Coach have been developed with assistance from language teachers. Each title presents you with nearly 10,000 words and 400 phrases to learn. There are mini-games to unlock and lessons that teach you not only vocabulary but how to conjugate verbs and construct sentences.
It's all presented rather stylishly, with clean, crisp visuals and not a beret or sombrero in sight. There is jolly accordion music and jolly fiesta music to contend with, but it's all so jolly you won't mind. Most importantly, both titles make excellent use of the DS's unique features.
During lessons, for example, your coach will explain new words on the top screen. You can touch the bottom screen to hear how they're pronounced. You can also test your pronunciation by speaking into the DS's microphone then playing back the recording. There's an option to play it back simultaneously with a recording of a native speaker so you can determine just how rubbish your accent is.
It's entirely up to you to gauge this, however - none of the mini-games test you on your speaking skills. Only one of them tests your listening ability. My French Coach and My Spanish Coach are only really good for practicing reading, arguably the easiest language skill anyway.
Still, both titles do a good job of teaching you new words and evaluating how well you're learning them. There are eight mini-games this time, including Wordsearch and Flash Cards, which are self-explanatory. More complex are Bridge Builder, where you use foreign words like building blocks to translate phrases, and Fill-in-the-Blank, which involves completing sentences with the correct verb. The most game-like offering is Hit-A-Word; it's Whack-A-Mole, except you must only hit the moles with the right words displayed underneath them.
As with My Word Coach the games get repetitive, but the reward comes from learning new stuff. Unlike with My Word Coach you aren't restricted to 15 minutes of play per day. You can keep playing mini-games to earn "mastery points" and thereby unlock new lessons for as long as you wish.
Both titles have the word 'BEGINNER' stamped on the box but account for different levels within that category. I was able to test them out from two perspectives. I studied French at GCSE and can still remember how to say I played tennis at the weekend while wearing a hat then I ate a hamburger and it rained. My French Coach gauged this from the initial test I took, so I was allowed to skip the first dozen lessons. This seemed about right, and I quickly found myself learning new stuff as well as brushing up on things I'd forgotten.
My knowledge of Spanish extends to the lyrics of La Isla Bonita and the Gipsy Kings' version of Hotel California. This is why I once got on the wrong bus, didn't realise for 12 hours and had to spend a night in a "hotel" in a tiny Peruvian village wondering how the bloodstains got quite so far up the walls. My Spanish Coach accurately assessed this, viciously described me as being at 'Toddler' level and set about teaching me how to say "I".
Yo didn't find starting as an absolute beginner to be a problem. The pace with which new words are introduced is just right. There's also a good balance between new verbs and new vocabulary, so you feel like you're learning about how the language is structured and not just endless lists of nouns.
So My French Coach and My Spanish Coach are useful learning tools whether you've got a basic knowledge of the language or none at all. They're not going to make you fluent, and the emphasis is definitely on developing your reading skills. But then Sony's ridiculous Talkman thing for PSP attempted to test speaking and listening, and look how that turned out.
The titles would certainly be handy on holiday, especially when you consider the extra features included such as a dictionary and phrasebook. I'd also suggest they'd make good revision aides. I've certainly had more fun with My French Coach than with the hateful Tricolore books and stupid Martine and her endless parade of stupid cousins who play endless games of tennis and make parties every Friday night because apparently there is nothing else to do in stupid La Rochelle which I will never be able to visit and enjoy because of Tricolore.
Don't buy My French Coach or My Spanish Coach expecting to have as much fun as you would with something like Zoo Keeper. Nor should you expect the teaching to be as effective as proper lessons. But as tools for improving your language skills, whether you're starting from scratch or have some basic knowledge, they're great.