Steroids for your noggin'.
Nintendo's strategy to attract new players into the fold with so-called "non-games" has yielded some pretty varied results so far. Animal Crossing has a broad fan base worldwide, while Electroplankton is about as niche as it gets, and unfortunately for yours truly, neither of them have gained much favor in the Castaneda household. I was beginning to think that non-games simply weren't up my alley when Brain Age arrived on my doorstep, and that's when my opinion completely changed.
The history behind the game is simple: it's a collaboration between renowned Japanese neurologist Ryuta Kawashima and Nintendo, designed to stir your brain's efficiency by putting it through daily training exercises, from doing twenty arithmetic problems to reading aloud to a head count mini-game where you're supposed to keep track of how many people are inside a small house. Easy to knock out in a short period of time, the title is clearly marketed toward adults who simply need a mental wake-up in the morning. (Kawashima actually recommends that the game is played in the early hours of the day.)
Once you've completed your exercise(s) for the day, you'll get your stamp, and depending on how many stamps you've got, you'll unlock more content, from extra difficulties to a brand new challenge. You'll eventually need twenty stamps to gain access to all nine tests. In addition to your daily training, the game will ask you random questions and then quiz you on what your answer was a few days later, commanding that you better your memory skills. Also, quick, demo-like versions of the game are on-hand, if you want to just steam through in a few minutes. Also, you can compete with your friends, to see who can complete the math-oriented challenge the fastest via local wireless. Obviously, Brain Age's daily training isn't meant to be played for multiple hours in a day, as there isn't enough content to sustain that kind of play schedule, but for those who want more entertainment, the quick-play mode, multiplayer, and Sudoku puzzles are included to keep you busy.
Something that'll immediately set Brain Age apart from other titles is its complete reliance on the touch screen and microphone. The way you play it is by placing your DS on its left side (or right side of you're a lefty), and then using your stylus to write down your answers (or use the mic to voice them when appropriate). It's very intuitive, and despite some concerns that I've heard about the accuracy, I haven't had much trouble with the game understanding my handwriting, although voice recognition isn't as precise as I'd like; having to repeat an answer isn't uncommon.
As the box art suggests, the basis of completing all of these mental hurdles is to lower your brain age, which you'll receive as soon as you boot up the game and create your account. Through three short tests that test your mind's agility, you are shown your score, with 20-years-old as the goal. Personally, I was in the 50's when I started, but I've been able to improve into the low 30's as I've continued playing.
Believe it or not, the product's pretty serious about getting your head in shape, and I've definitely seen the results. I actually feel quicker and more precise in my thoughts, and the various graphs that the game has on hand to show progress proves it. You may not be the next Stephen Hawking after putting a month's time into this game, but you'll definitely be able to balance your checkbook or do your homework a little faster.
As far as presentation goes, Brain Age is pretty bare-bones, but it gets the job done. The polygonal, disembodied head of Ryuta Kawashima acts as your personal coach, and his quips are actually pretty amusing. Challenges are stripped down to just include what's necessary, and there's not much to fault, in that sense. The sound consists of elevator-like music, and for the most part, it's a forgettable aspect of the game. I wish they'd give Kawashima a voice; it would likely lend some more humor to the already-quirky package.
At the end of the day, Nintendo has made me a believer in this whole non-game idea, and it's actually gotten me excited about future iterations of the franchise. Big Brain Academy comes out in June, and I have a feeling I'll be first in line for it. Edutainment may sound lame, but it's well-executed here, and you'd be doing yourself a favor to at least try it out; you may end up hooked.