Review by clarkisdark

"Make a brain. Play a game."

Nobody likes growing old. It is something we begin to dread as soon as the first scar or wrinkle appears on our faces, and we worry about it for the rest of our lives. At 22, I already feel like I've passed my prime and am on my way downhill. My hair is receding. My back always hurts. I keep forgetting where I put things or even how to talk. So a video game that promises to keep my brain young and healthy is definitely inviting. Even if research says nothing will stop the degeneration of one's brain, I'd like to think that by playing my DS for 20 minutes a day, I'm doing something right.

First and foremost, Brain Age is not really a game. The series of tasks present are game-like, but doing math problems and counting syllables in sentences are not very relevant to conventional gaming. In fact, memorizing a list of words isn't fun. Seriously, nobody does this in their free time (or at least, nobody admits they do this in their free time). But Brain Age, based on the findings of a Japanese neuroscientist, can get away with this. The game is designed to gauge your "brain age" by having you complete a series of tests, where speed and accuracy determine your age between 20 and 90 (the younger, the better). So a rapid succession of multiplication and addition is actually kind of fun. While not every game is a winner (i.e. reading boring passages aloud), some are very fun and challenging. I especially like a game where you have to quickly memorize the order of numbers from low to high, then tap the corresponding blank boxes. Brain Age also includes a whole bunch of Sudoku puzzles and some funny random events like being asked to draw a kangaroo from memory.

The nice thing about all this is that it makes you feel very smart. The first time you get a brain age of 20, you will feel like you can do anything. Of course, the more you practice the different games, the better you become at them. And that raises some questions. Are you really getting smarter, or are you just getting used to what the game wants you to do? You may actually be getting dumber overall and just getting better at connecting dots and recognizing colors. I guess thinking you are smart is better than nothing, though. How many games can actually pull that off, anyway?

The quirkiest thing about Brain Age is how it wants you to hold the DS on its side-- like a book. But holding the DS like this is actually very comfortable. I imagine other developers will start orienting their games like this, too. My only complaint is the left/right handed dilemma. The game will let you change which way you want to hold the DS, but the main menu always defaults to the right-handed setup. Only when you enter a left-handed save file will the display flip around. Lame!

But I have to admit, this game does some impressive things with the hardware. Many games require you to write your answers on the touch screen. For the most part, the DS does an amazing job recognizing numbers and letters. Occasionally, though, Brain Age gets confused and mistakes a 7 as a 1 or a 24 as a 36 (yeah, that doesn't make much sense). The voice recognition is worse, and you'll have to yell, "Blue!" several times before the game realizes you're not saying, "Black." It's a little irritating to have your brain age fluctuate dramatically simply because the game mistakes some of your answers.

Lasting Appeal:
A slip in your brain age shows up on your permanent record, too. The game keeps track of everything you do and charts your progress in each area on a graph. But the name of the game is "Minutes a Day," and that's all you get with Brain Age. The game will only remember your first attempt at a brain check or training game a day, so all subsequent practices are just that-- practice. You'll have to wait until 12:00 AM to actually beat your scores. This setup works in that it keeps you coming back every day to train, but I hate it, because I always want to keep playing. If it's not going to remember my scores, though, then what's the point? But under these conditions, Brain Age is something you could hang onto forever. Set aside 15 minutes every morning, and you'll be well on your way to having a young, healthy brain. Ideally, anyway.

It is difficult to review Brain Age, because every pro I can think of is also a con. The game's recognition of your handwriting and voice is actually very impressive but doesn't always work correctly. The graphs are nice to weigh your daily progression, but the way they're set up limits how much time you need to play every day. Most importantly, Brain Age makes you feel smart, but it leaves you questioning if it really is making you smart or if you've just grown wise to the game's eventually limited scope. Whatever. Brain Age is still a unique idea for a handheld game, and at $20, every DS collection could use this mental workout alongside the polar opposites: Mario Kart and Tetris.

+ Makes you feel smarter
-- But are you getting smarter?
+ Daily progression keeps you coming back
-- But only for a few "minutes a day"
+ Impressive writing/voice recognition
-- That doesn't always work properly

Score: 7/10

Reviewer's Rating:   3.5 - Good

Originally Posted: 05/03/06

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