Based on the Train Your Brain books by Dr. Ryuta Kawashima—runaway best-sellers in Japan—Nintendo's Brain Age and Big Brain Academy make the lofty claim of increasing their audience's IQ, sharpening your grey matter while providing entertainment, all at a discounted shelf price of $20 apiece. The books targeted the senior set—a massive market in Japan—while Nintendo's president, Satoru Iwata, aimed to increase their audience to the coveted "all-ages" market and also expand to include American consumer sensibilities.
Iwata-san introduced Brain Age at the Game Developers Conference this past March at the end of a highly anticipated keynote address. Always a crowd pleaser, he gave an allegory on Nintendo's success, and played to his increasingly ecstatic audience by lauding innovative game play and offering to create a playground for invention with the Nintendo DS. Brain Age, which Iwata collaborated on with Dr. Kawashima, was a prime example: handwriting recognition and math training on a portable platform that was actually fun. The really crazy thing is that, nearly universally, it works. The game spread by runaway word-of-mouth, being difficult to describe but immediately compelling to play, and is living proof of designer Raph Koster's assertion that the definition of "fun," if such a thing can be defined, is sustained challenge. Brain Age and Big Brain Academy provide a distilled, addictive challenge, and reward you by "showing" you that you're smarter by the time you're done playing. (This makes both games deliciously guilt-free purchases—look, Mom, I'm getting smarter!)
Brain Age offers three modes of play: Test Your Brain, Daily Training, and Sudoku. Yes, they threw in a Sudoku puzzle database—and many people are buying this game for the Sudoku alone, with its clean interface and satisfying progression through roughly a hundred puzzles of increasing difficulty. Test Your Brain and Brain Training utilize similar exercises to rate brain success, calculated as a "brain age" that usually starts in the mid-60s and rapidly progresses down toward an optimum age of twenty. Train once a day and you will get a digital "stamp"—which you can later redesign if you so choose—to put on that day's date. Looking back at a full month's worth of stamps is absurdly satisfying. Brain Training exercises start with a basic math game requiring players to draw numbers on the touch screen; the game is played vertically, with screens to the left and right rather than up and down, suggesting a book. Regular daily training unlocks other exercises, such as speed reading, triangle math, and word memory. The keystone of the experience is the speed math training, which is alien at first, but remarkably addictive and easy to master. Play it through a few times and you'll want to demonstrate it to friends—the game makes it easy by providing a Quick Play demonstration mode—who will inevitably ooh and ah at your arithmetic prowess.
Big Brain Academy is Nintendo's American update to Brain Age, combining elements from all three games released for the Japanese market. With updated graphics, more innovative brain training tools, and riotously fun multiplayer levels, Big Brain Academy is sharper and deeper than Brain Age, though players who fell in love with Brain Age's rapid-fire straight math will find that exercise noticeably absent. The game also focuses more on training and standard level advancement than on Brain Age's small-dose daily regimen; whereas the first title provided bite-sized samples of training offered on a daily basis, Big Brain Academy relies on player progression through levels—Easy, Normal, and Hard—in each of its fifteen exercises.
The game "trains" you in five brain "muscle groups": Identify, Think, Compute, Memorize, and Analyze. Different brains excel in different categories; I can lay waste with Memorize, but Thinking is my bugbear. (Welcome to my life!) This second edition of digital brain bending has abandoned handwriting recognition completely, the result of which is a more thorough mental exercise and the elimination of many of the previous game's frustrations. The closest analog to Brain Age's math drills is "Written Math" in the Compute category, where words are printed out on the top screen ("Eight Plus Seven Is") and the player must tap in the answer on a calculator-style number pad below. Easy mode keeps things down to simple arithmetic, whereas hard mode will throw such doozies as "Thirteen Times Seventeen Plus Fourteen Is . . ." (it's 235, and no, I didn't do it in my head either). In addition to avoiding handwriting recognition issues, this method also allows more versatility in each question; the “blank” figure might be at the beginning (“??? Plus Eight is Fifteen”) or the end.
Rather than giving you a "brain age," Big Brain Academy measures your brain's "weight"—600 grams for an average brain, 800 for pretty strong. As of this writing I'm midway through training, and 1223 grams apparently gives me the B- brain of an "investor" (this is up from my initial D+ 733-gram "museum curator" and C 903-gram "FBI profiler" ratings).
My initial response to the Big Brain Academy games was ho-hum. I was still thoroughly addicted to my Brain Age training. I admit that I did not fully appreciate the game until eight of my co-workers invaded my office and started up a multiplayer round. This mode allows up to eight players to go through a brain test, competing on each of the five axes. That day I had the truly rare experience of observing a bunch of twenty- and thirtysomethings yelping, cursing, and cheering as they competed vigorously to tap little cartoon pictures in the right order—ultimately competing over arithmetic and logic. Brain Age itself was fun in multiplayer mode, but limited, as the only competition form was straight arithmetic with handwriting recognition that often failed; Big Brain Academy takes the multiplayer experience to its fullest potential. The moral of the story: if you play this game, try it with your friends. Thanks to the cart's demo mode, it only takes one cartridge to project the shared game to up to eight other players.
So do they make you smarter? Probably not. But they do identifiably keep the mind toned, as Dr. Kawashima and Satoru Iwata observed with brain-electricity-rating equipment used on early test subjects. And they home in well on that so-secret trick of effective game design: giving you a challenge, building your skill in it, and then letting you wallop your friends. Both games are worth a shot, and very possibly worth picking up for parents and grandparents. Most of all, both games crystallize a basic but much overlooked fact that gamers and even psychologists have known for years: a video game can actually be good for you.
New Super Mario Bros. for Nintendo DS
Nintendo's New Super Mario Bros. for the Nintendo DS is their heavily advertised and highly anticipated latest installation in the Mario franchise. It crams nearly a dozen touch screen minigames and hours of platformer gameplay onto a tiny cartridge, and fans of the previous Mario games should enjoy the endless array of cameo appearances of bosses, mechanics, and even block configurations that give a tickle and a grin of nostalgia. Bang-for-buck, few DS titles currently offer as much game time as this.
Wisely, the game's creators have made no pretenses toward story development. Polished 3-D versions of the familiar characters play out a familiar scene: lightning strikes a distant Mushroom castle, Mario hurries to investigate (his motions reminiscent of the wonderful Paper Mario), and Princess Peach is abducted by a spiky Koopa relative of indeterminate origin. Peach's various "eeks" throughout the game serve to further cement my theory that she actually enjoys being carted off by monsters (see the semirecent Super Princess Peach for a counterpoint).
The overall look of the game gives an impression of the original Super Mario Bros. for the NES, with little visual additions such as parallax backgrounds and 3-D-styled sprite enemies. The feel of the controls too goes back to earlier days, though many later mechanics have been added: the wall jump from Super Mario Sunshine, the slide from Super Mario Bros. 3, and the spin-jump attack from Super Mario World, to name a few. I found the basic movement of the character somewhat disorienting; Mario has a sort of scuttling default forward motion that has an uncomfortable "slip" to it, so far as to almost recall the "Moonwalker" cheat from Game Genie days. This physics state appears to owe itself to the game's more dynamic run modes, lending weight when the character gets up a good head of steam (by holding down the dash button and running for a sufficient length) and leans down into a fast run, which also yields a larger jump range. I got used to it eventually, but was never happy about it.
The game's music is varied and terrific. As with the rest of the game, it employs a very effective interplay of themes from all of the previous Mario games. The main body of the game traverses eight worlds reminiscent of those in Super Mario Bros. 3. It is possible to rapidly play through the entire game "story" and rescue the Princess in a very short period of time, but a thorough play-through involving the collection of three large gold coins from each level and the unlocking of several side paths through the worlds adds a layered difficulty element to satisfy the less casual player. The only element that seemed to be missing from the game's main track was boss difficulty. In what may have been an attempt to re-create nostalgia for the original Super Mario Bros. (given that this is, after all, NEW Super Mario Bros., rather than "Super Mario Bros. 4"), the end bosses in each castle are very simple to defeat, particularly if one has the fireball power-up. Another element that many fans have mentioned missing is the ability to fly, a beloved power-up first introduced in Super Mario Bros. 3 with the raccoon suit. I admit that those suits, particularly with the addition of the green boot suit and Tanuki suit, were some of my all-time favorite game elements, but adding yet more complexity to this game's player state diagram—a chart that designers use to map all of the moves players will be able to execute—would have gone too far. The game's balance is achieved through tight control of the player movement experience, enabling physical game areas to be puzzles in and of themselves—and abilities such as flight and rapid swimming tend to break these puzzles quickly. Still, in a game so steeped in nostalgia on other levels, the lack of supersuits was a noticeable absence.
New Super Mario Bros.' stable of minigames is perhaps one of its most impressive "sleeper" features, unexpected and half-hidden in the menus. The designers outdid themselves on these, and some of them would stand well on their own as casual downloadable games. It's unfortunate that the game's primary audience, the nostalgia hardcore set, will tend to have less appreciation for minigames, which cater to a very different demographic typically, because some of these games are very fine. Most are straightforward touch screen experiments, such as the surprisingly satisfying Whack-a-Mole minigame (don't hit Luigi); others miss their mark, to my taste, such as the Balloon Race, which uses the DS's microphone to sense white noise as the player blows air across it—it made me hyperventhilate. But hidden gems such as Puzzle Panel, which had a predecessor in Super Mario 64, are Polarium-scale puzzle games with hours of game time possible all on their own.
Altogether, fans of the Mario series will find this a wonderful ride through many much-loved themes, laced with memorable elements from predecessors: the sinking sand from Super Mario Bros. 2 (originally itself not a Mario title, but part of the canon nonetheless); "stored" power-ups from Mario Kart; music and map navigation from Super Mario Bros. 3. Despite its intricate quilt of elements, however, the game holds together well as a single unit and is extremely balanced. The action moves build on one another rather than conflicting, and the end result is an action-puzzle game that is satisfying, smooth, and addictive.
Erin Hoffman is a writer and game designer living in Troy, NY. She works full time for 1st Playable Productions and herds cats on the weekends. Read more at Gamewatch.org and Gryphonflight.com. She has contributed to Fantasy Readers Wanted—Apply Within, Enchanted Realms II, and The Best Software Writing I: Selected and Introduced by Joel Spolsky.