Ultimate Brain Games
Review by dukebluedevil
"Traditional board games in a well-done portable form"
Ultimate Brain Games
Ultimate Brain Games is a collection of eight classic board games: Backgammon, Four-in-a-Row, Checkers, Chess, Dominos, Sink the Ships, Reversi, and Mah Jong.
Gameplay: Gameplay is the meat and potatoes of this collection of games. The controls are simple but adequate, and fairly instinctive. You will occasionally push the wrong button, causing you to play the wrong piece, but most of the games have an undo feature to take care of that problem. Each of the eight games has a save feature, which is a nice bonus, but usually the games are short enough that the save does not need to be used. Surprisingly, the GBA does a nice job with these games. With one exception, the various game pieces are easy to see, and the small screen is not a hindrance. There are a couple problems however. The biggest problem is the inconsistent artificial intelligence. There are five difficulty modes that can be individually set for each game (Very Easy, Easy, Average, Hard, Extreme). On some games the computer is very difficult to beat, even on Easy, while on others the difficulty cannot be cranked up enough. Here is a synopsis of each game:
Sink the Ships: This is a knockoff of the classic Milton Bradley game “Battleship”. This is the only one of the games where the controls are a little difficult to figure out. Out of the seven games this is probably my least favorite, just because Battleship was never my favorite game. If you are a fan though, it will be an adequate rendition. On the plus side, this game has the best graphics of the bunch.
Mah Jong: This is a pretty standard Mah Jong game, with various tile patterns to choose from, and a beginner’s variation, where all that are on the tiles are large block numbers. This is the only game where the GBA’s small screen hurts the gameplay. Even with a backlit GBASP and glasses on, it can be hard to differentiate the tiles.
Four-in-a-Row: Here’s where the inconsistent AI begins to rear its ugly head. Admittedly, I am no Four-in-a-Row (also known as Connect Four, another classic MB game) expert, but when the computer is very difficult to beat on Easy, something is not right. On Very Easy you can win consistently, but it feels like the computer is throwing the game. Even on Average setting, eking out a draw feels like a victory.
Chess: Another game I’m no world class expert in, Chess is also very difficult at even the low settings. The best part about this game is that there are numerous built in “problems” for you to solve. For example, problem x might be to checkmate the opponent in three moves with a pre-determined set-up. These are a lot better for building your chess skills than getting your hat handed to you by the computer over and over. There is also a mode where you can set up whatever situation you want on the board and play it out from that point.
Checkers: The Checkers game is one that gets the AI just about right. Easy is actually fairly winnable, while at average and above you must play very well in order to win. One mistake at Average or above and the computer will eat you alive, which is how it should be, right?
Reversi: The AI on Reversi is similar to Checkers; easy on the Easy setting and significantly more difficult at higher levels. This and Four-in-a-Row are probably the two simplest games in the collection, so if the AI is good, then there really isn’t much else to worry about.
Backgammon: Backgammon has its own AI problems, but in this case you can’t set the difficulty high enough. Even on Extreme mode I can easily beat the computer 80-90% of the time. Another major problem with this version of Backgammon is that the standard rules are not followed. Some of the simpler violations include: allowing the game to be started with doubles (these are supposed to be re-rolled) and no gammons or backgammons in the scoring (gammons and backgammons happen when you decisively beat your opponent; they are equivalent to “skunks”). There are other more complicated examples, but the point is that these mistakes in the gameplay, combined with the lack of AI, make Backgammon not that enjoyable. I say that even though (or perhaps because) backgammon is my favorite of the eight games in this collection.
Dominos: This is the game that has gotten the most play time so far. The default settings make for the standard game of Dominos, using a set of double six dominos. All the games use that double six set, which is small, but is to the player’s advantage, since we humans can’t quite match up with the computer’s memory. There are options available to switch up the game, such as different scoring formats, and choosing how many points to play to. The AI is quite good, and is challenging even at the average setting.
Graphics: This is not the kind of game where graphics are all that important; the main thing is being able to clearly see what’s going on. There is some variance between the games as far as graphics; some, such as Sink the Ships, have fairly sharp and detailed graphics. In others, such as Mah Jong and Backgammon, the pieces look a bit muddled and fuzzy. This is not the game to use to show off the power of the GBA, but overall the graphic presentation is adequate.
There is a feature where you can create faces to represent you while you’re playing. This feature is done well and allows you to make and save up to three varied faces which will then stare at you as you play. It’s not something you’ll go back to over and over again, but it’s fun to play around with for awhile.
Sounds: There are a dozen or so pieces of music to choose from. You can choose to play only certain ones, play them randomly, or just stick with the defaults. Given the GBA’s severe sound limitations, the sound quality is acceptable. Some of the songs are catchy and go well with the games. Some are slow and even a bit depressing. One downside is that turning them up above even half volume results in a lot of speaker noise from the tiny GBA speaker. For me the sound is decent, but I imagine some people will simply turn the volume down while they play.
Replayabililty: Since these are all open-ended games, there is a huge amount of replay value. Unless you are very experienced at a particular game, you won’t be able to master it, especially with the extreme AI in some of the games. Personally, this cartridge has by far gotten the most playtime on my GBASP.
Buy or Rent: If you’re really into classic board games like I am, you can buy this and be assured of many quality hours of gametime. If you’re just looking for a new GBA game and are thinking about this one, you should probably rent it first to see if it’s right for you.
Overall score: 8/10
Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 08/17/03
Got Your Own Opinion?
You can submit your own review for this game using our Review Submission Form.