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Mom always says that videogames rot your brain. Hell, some say that Grand Theft Auto trains kids to kill.
So Nintendos claim that its new portable offering, Brain Age: Train Your Brain in Minutes a Day!, actually makes players smarter has been received with a mix of curiosity, cynicism, and outright guffaws. Whats next -- ice-cream sundaes fortified with the recommended daily allowance of vitamins?
Still, with ads for the game in Timemagazine and on the Discovery Channel, its clear that Nintendo is aiming squarely at adults, hoping that Brain Age will become as big a cultural phenomenon here as it is in Japan, where the brain game genre has reached Tamagotchi-like proportions.
Platform: Nintendo DS
ESRB Rating: E (for Everyone)
Score: 8 (out of 10)
Brain Age is the, ahem, brainchild of Dr. Ryuta Kawashima, a Japanese neuroscientist. Kawashima argues that simple intellectual exercises can improve memory and other brain functions. Its not totally far-fetched; research has demonstrated that Alzheimers patients see improvement from doing crossword puzzles. Maybe all of us could benefit from mental calisthenics.
Brain Age begins by measuring your IQ -- or the games version of it, anyway. Based on your speed and accuracy in solving a few simple puzzles, the game calculates your brain age, with 20 being the best and 80 the worst. (Never mind that most 20-year-olds expend considerable mental energy just tapping the keg.)
After establishing your baseline, the game offers a path to improvement. The tasks include everything from solving a series of math problems to reading a passage from Robinson Crusoe into a microphone to looking at two clock faces and assessing how much time has passed. If it sounds like school, youre not far off. But who knew math could be so much fun?
Brain Age has a broad pick-up-and-play appeal. An entire session lasts no more than 5 or 10 minutes -- perfect for handheld gaming. And though the games claim to make you smarter may smell a little dubious, even nongamers will be curious about where Brain Age will rank them mentally.
Thats not to say that there arent a few brain farts. While the games voice and handwriting recognition isnt terrible, its definitely Brain Ages biggest headache. The game has trouble recognizing the word blue, which really mangles a task that involves verbally identifying colors. And when it comes to writing words, even the neatest grade-school penmanship frequently stumps the computer. Its one thing to feel stupid because you dont remember your times tables; its another to be told youre senile because you write your Gs funny.
Glitches aside, after a few weeks of play youll see your brain age improve dramatically. Because the game tracks your performance -- graphs and charts show off your ever-increasing genius -- theres a real sense of progress. And upping your IQ feels like far more of an accomplishment than, say, rescuing Princess Peach or destroying Mother Brain.
But are you actually getting smarter -- or just better at playing the videogame? To put it another way: Just because you can frag your friends in Halo doesnt mean youre ready to fight in Iraq. And whatever improvements Brain Age offers could surely be gained from similar but more productive tasks -- like balancing your checkbook.
Marketing hype aside, in the end it doesnt really matter whether Brain Age makes you smarter. Its a lot of fun, and thats accomplishment enough for any videogame.