It pays to be a coward. My first experience of Brain Training was, appropriately enough, at the London Science Museum. Nintendo gathered us there to tell us about things like BT, Trauma Centre, Phoenix Wright and how brilliant they all were and how broadly the DS was going to appeal. So I sat in the audience, and when they cast around for people to go up on stage and actually undergo some actual brain training, I didn't so much avoid their gaze as roll my eyes back like Storm out of X-Men. Despite the commotion I made falling off my chair, three other worthy show-offs were picked, got up, and promptly failed to do sums like 3x7 for about ten minutes. Man. But you know what? When I started Brain Training in private, I wasn't much better.
It's easy to say that this is just me. Particularly since we already know, conversely, that Ellie Gibson's a genius. With the brains of a diplomat and the hat of a cowboy. But it's funny how stupid we all lazily are. Professor Kawashima, an actual Japanese brain expert, helped along with plenty of enthusiasm from Nintendo boss Satoru Iwata, lands headfirst (disembodied-head-first at that) on DS and it's his aim not only to prove this to us, but also to help us get back to where we should be.
As you'd expect from a Nintendo game, Brain Training is a simple idea very well executed - it just so happens that this one actually smartens you up. When you start off by scrawling your signature atop a game profile and inputting your date-of-birth, you're given various tests to compute your initial brain age. Chosen from a range of about a dozen - some of which remain locked for the first few days - these tests have you doing quick sums, saying the colour a word's written in, ordering numbers low to high and memorising words, among other things. From this the game computes your brain age. To begin with, mine was 80. Which is the worst possible.
Cheerily presented, Prof. Kawashima's explanation of where my brain's at, how brains work and his regular tips on how best to wake your brain up and keep it sharp are simple to understand and nicely presented - as are all the tasks you take on. The first thing to note is the way the game's played - with the DS flipped on its side like a book, as though you're reading from one page and scrawling answers on the other. It fits very nicely - and there's an option for lefties like me, something the Prof. can't let go without remarking how lefties think compared to all you RUBBISH righties.
Explanations of how the training tasks work are quick and clear - whether it's doing sums, reading aloud as quickly as possible, counting syllables or counting little stick-people running into and out of a house. Most tasks involve scribbling answers with the stylus - and handwriting recognition, while sometimes less than perfect, is generally very good. Given that I'm barely literate and my pen hand judders more than Michael Fish's integrity in a hurricane, you can trust that.
Every day you play, the Prof. records your first score for each task you try, appending graphs and all, and gives you a stamp to show you played on that date. You're also allowed to calculate your brain age once a day. As the range of tasks increases, those that involve speaking aloud will increase in frequency - so handily the game checks first whether you can speak or whether you're in a noisy area or surrounded by people who will deck you if you talk to your wacky game device i.e. in Lewisham.
Voice recognition is fairly decent, although I did have a lot of trouble convincing the thing I was saying the word "blue" whenever I tried it, but it's not always a problem as for tasks like reading and counting aloud, the game isn't actually listening. These ones work on the basis of trust - you read or count as fast as you can, then hit "Done" to record the result. Cheating's possible, then, but cheating Brain Training's a bit like paying for food you know you're not going to eat.
To a certain extent anyway. One of the most enjoyable bits of Brain Training is that, since the daily training and brain measuring only takes a few minutes, it's perfectly plausible to get a work-mate, girlfriend or parent to join in (they were right - it'll appeal to every group) even if you only see them for a short time, and since the game plots your graphs against each other and so on, you might cheat here. But then if you do that you're no friend of mine.
As you'll have read by now, the Western version of Brain Training also comes with 100 sudoku puzzles as an added incentive. You've probably already played sudoku. A simple game about putting numbers in the right order on a 9x9 grid, it's on the back-page of virtually every newspaper and Carol Vorderman won't shut up about it. If you haven't though, this is a nice introduction, with some good starter puzzles, clear explanation of the rules (not that they're very complicated - along vertical and horizontal lines, there must be only one of each number; within a 3x3 grid, there must only be one of each number), and a steadily inclining difficulty level over the hundred.
What the DS offers is the chance to zoom in on a particular square to scrawl possible numbers, while viewing the entire grid on the opposite screen. There can only be eight options max, but being able to write numbers at their logical number-pad positions is very helpful in narrowing things down. There's even a way to delete a single digit from a group - just draw a little zero over the top. And with rigid number positioning the annotation routine helps immensely in quickly figuring things out - being able to spy the grid's single nine option in a box you've annotated removes a lot of the toil.
It's not the only helping hand the DS offers. Sudoku is a game where a crucial mistake can hold you up for ages; helpfully, there's an option here to be notified when you screw up, and this is cleverly off-set by a limit of five mistakes, so it doesn't allow you to cheat so much as take a chance guessing the odd 50-50 if you're stuck.
Sudoku's actually offered as a separate option to regular brain training, though Kawashima reports that it could help to activate my prefrontal cortex, which is nice of him. As with the training tasks, you're also timed and told you're rubbish. Despite the helpful shortcuts the DS provides, sudoku might not be for you - a friend o' mine remarked that he got bored because it was more of a routine than a challenge - but since it's not a crucial part of the whole we can probably just call it an added bonus for those who want it. So what of the whole?
Bizarrely, despite not really being a game, Brain Training's a really enjoyable game. Part of that's Nintendo's typically merry presentation, which summons a smile as Kawashima cracks your cranium, but part of it's the sense of enjoyment you get from improvement in each area, and the fun of comparing the results against your friends'. It's not just graphs either. Every so often when you boot it up you're asked to draw things from memory - the Mona Lisa, a dog, that sort of thing - and you can compare these with your fellow trainees (while those of you without friends who resemble Mona Lisa can compare them with your fellow trainees').
Over time, you'll make it to brain age 20 - the best. The game keeps opening new ways to train as you continue, so there's incentive to persist - not least because your brain age can go back up as well as down.
The big question, though, is does it actually work? Am I cleverer because I've been training my brain? Well, speaking as a doctor (my colleagues at Caduceus claim I have the Healing Touch, you know), it's not hard to believe practice improves mental sharpness. Things like playing chess are known to help those with degenerative brain diseases retain their faculties for longer, and I can remember 19 words in a list of 30 when I could only recall ten just a few days ago.
Given the hype, you might dismiss Kawashima as some sort of Atkins for brains. In the game, he's more like a lively science teacher; likable, and at the very least he's taught me, once and for all, that six sevens are 42. Plus, whether it works or not, you'll have fun playing it; lots of fun; and that, more than anything, is why you should buy it, and watch out for Big Brain Academy, due out later in the year, which'll tell you whether you're more diplomatic than Ellie "shouts at cats" Gibson or not. Frankly, I rather suspect you are.
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