We store cookies, you can get more info from our privacy policy.

Braining is Good: A Brief History of Brain Age

by Neal Ronaghan - December 2, 2021, 10:01 am EST
Discuss in talkback!

Just remember: the brain ages are fake and the points don’t matter.

Nintendo in the early 2000s was going through immense change. In 2002, Hiroshi Yamauchi retired as President of the company, a title he held for more than 50 years. In his stead stepped Satoru Iwata, a developer-turned-manager who was born a decade after Yamauchi took over Nintendo. Iwata was handed the reins during a tumultuous time. While the company still had the handheld market cornered with the Game Boy Advance, they were firmly in third place in the home console space. Sony, who came onto the scene in the 1990s amidst the fallout of a doomed relationship with Nintendo, was leading the market with the runaway success of the PlayStation 2. That wasn’t as shocking, but the emergence of the Xbox from industry newcomer Microsoft was potentially more concerning. For as beloved as the GameCube was among a sect of Nintendo fans, it just wasn’t working in the mainstream. For the first time in their video game life, Nintendo faced the very real and present danger of losing their place in the industry, especially after Sega departed from the hardware business after the failure of the Dreamcast.

Now we all know how this ends. Iwata led the charge of the Nintendo DS and Wii, and the company came roaring back only to face even worse losses with the Wii U before finding unprecedented success with the Switch. But there’s a sidebar to that big picture that was arguably instrumental to the mid-2000s turnaround: brain games.

A part of Iwata’s mission as he ran Nintendo was to expand the gaming audience - a central focus of the “blue ocean” strategy that fed into the intuitive touch controls of the DS and the motion controls of the Wii. Iwata’s first console launch was the DS and on the day the handheld launched, he met with Dr. Ryuta Kawashima, the author behind Train Your Brain, a multi-million-selling book all about how regular calculations and mental exercises could improve your smarts. After that meeting, Iwata had Dr. Kawashima’s approval to make a video game based on his ideas.

The Brain Age series launched in Japan in 2005 and the rest of the world starting in 2006. It wasn’t a runaway success in Japan, but positive word of mouth led to worldwide sales of nearly 20 million units, making it one of the best-selling games on the DS. A sequel followed that notched almost 15 million units.

While Brain Age was the headliner, it wasn’t the only brain-centric game from Nintendo at the time. Shortly after the launch of Brain Age, Big Brain Academy launched on DS. Separate from Dr. Kawashima’s concepts, Big Brain Academy was more light-hearted, starring a bizarre-looking creature named Dr. Lobe and in lieu of the purported science-based research from Dr. Kawashima, it worked with a more aloof concept of your “brain mass” being the measure of how smart you are.

Big Brain Academy was followed by a Wii sequel in 2007 that retained a lot of the single-player concepts but expanded to some amusing multiplayer modes. After that, the series went dormant until 2021 when Big Brain Academy: Brain vs. Brain came to Nintendo Switch. Once again, it used a lot of the same material as the older entries, but employed engaging local and online multiplayer to make it more of a party game than Brain Age ever was.

Meanwhile, Brain Age was the more consistent series for a while. When the DSi launched in 2008 with DSiWare, a lot of the modes from Brain Age were split into downloadable games. Beginning in 2012, Brain Age: Concentration Training came out on Nintendo 3DS in most places, and then in 2019, Brain Age came out on Nintendo Switch in everywhere but America. And that’s where things get weird for Dr. Kawashima’s Nintendo series.

The 3DS iteration of Brain Age wound up not coming out in PAL regions until 2017 — after the Switch launched. Why did it get delayed? Naturally, Nintendo never really said. There was some speculation that the devilish design of Dr. Kawashima in the game was part of the reason why it was hung up in some regions. The game eventually did release though, so assumedly that issue was resolved.

The bigger question mark is what happened to the Switch version in North America. Since it never had an American release, I guess I have to refer to it by it’s name in other regions: Dr Kawashima's Brain Training for Nintendo Switch (I vastly prefer Brain Age as a moniker). The Switch edition wasn’t my favorite in the series; while there was a stylus you could get, I don’t think stylus-centric gameplay is ideal for the Switch and using your finger for precision time-based activities is suboptimal. But still, it’s bizarre it never launched in America. To date, Nintendo has never given a reason why. It’s a mystery.

The most likely reason why Brain Age has been MIA in America is the fact that another brain training program, Lumosity, was sued by the Federal Trade Commission in 2016, under the auspices of falsely advertising how their mini-games could help players keep their brain from aging as quickly (as well as preventing dementia and Alzheimer’s). Lumosity was ordered to pay $2 million to settle the issue and it’s likely that Nintendo saw this play out and merely noped out of trying to figure out how Brain Age could work in America in this day and age.

Compounding on that is the stylus that is essentially required for optimal Brain Training play on Switch. In Japan and Europe, the physical release came bundled with a stylus. Meanwhile in America, Nintendo passed on including a stylus with Super Mario Maker 2, a game with a wider appeal at the time of launch. This comes up whenever smaller regions get cooler physical packaging for games, but it’s always worth noting that the cost of shipping larger physical bundles in a region as spread out as North America is far different than doing the same in a smaller region like Japan.

With the launch of Big Brain Academy on Switch, it’s likely the hope for Brain Age for Switch coming to America might be dead, or at best on life support. That's largely in part to Big Brain Academy not making any kind of real world health benefit claim. It's just a lighthearted party game that wrinkles your brain. I appreciate that Nintendo is still letting their DS-era success live on, even if I would eat my hat if an entry in their brain games genre threatened 20 million unit sales again.

Got a news tip? Send it in!