After hearing so much about Train Your Brain, the Nintendo DS game that’s been developed to boost your IQ, I was pretty excited on obtaining a copy. The game has probably sold more than a million copies now, and that’s mostly to non-gamers, so it’s certainly an unusual hit ‘game’. Players are supposed to play a number of different mental test activities every day that ‘exercise’ various skills such as memory, arithmetic, language and visual perception skills. The game keeps a record of your scores over time so you can view your progress and IQ, which hopefully improves. Apparently it’s been developed by Touhoku University and they have some empirical evidence that works, which I don’t find hard to believe.
The Nintendo DS, for those who don’t know, is a handheld gaming console with two screens, one of which is a touchscreen. It’s the first mass market touchscreen handheld, and without the touchscreen I suspect the game simply wouldn’t work – using a pen as an input device is a very natural method that is bound to be attractive to non-gamers. It’s also probably the only way you can get people to input text, numbers and drawings without going crazy after a few minutes. Interestingly, you don’t need to press a single hardware button to play the game, which simplifies things a lot.
On starting up Train Your Brain, I was confronted by Japanese text. A lot of Japanese text. Make no mistake – there is scant English in this game, and it’s confined to the occasional title screen. As a result, much of the game is totally impenetrable… but not all of it! I managed to find my way through the tutorial screen and create a new user (each game can support four different users – a nice touch), mostly through bullheadedness and trial and error. When presented with an empty text and not knowing what to do, I simply wrote ‘poo’. This turned out to be the name field, and it was a while before I figured out how to change it.
Once I’d created my user, I embarked on today’s first tests – this button, at least, was helpfully marked out in English (although I don’t know why). I skipped about a dozen pages of exposition, and then started the first ‘game’. It was an arithmetic test; sums were presented on the normal screen, and I had to write the answers on the touchscreen. It sounds terribly dull but was actually quite fun – the novelty of having my handwriting being recognised and my answers being automatically marked was marvellous. I blazed through this test and the game duly put a (hopefully high) mark on a graph. The next test was to do with Japanese language. I don’t know what, exactly, because I can’t read Japanese. I later discovered that it was a variant of the Stroop test, where you had to read out aloud the colours of words.
Yes, the DS has a microphone and can do speech recognition. No, I cannot speak Japanese, so the test was a washout.
About half the tests required some knowledge of Japanese, and I won’t bore you with my depressing attempts at trying to get through them. I think one of them had something to do with memorising phrases and writing them out, though. Anyway, I quickly realised that my best bet was to try only the number-based tests; through trial and error, I found out that there is a dedicated button for such tests, and so I now avoid the language tests consistently.
One of the number tests I liked was a memory test. The game would present a number of empty squares on the normal screen, and then flash up numbers inside them. After they disappeared, the empty squares would appear on the touchscreen, and I had to touch them in ascending numerical order. This was a lot harder than it sounds, especially when the number of empty squares increased from four to nine. As you might imagine, the game is adaptive, so if you’re doing well, it makes things harder, which prevents things from getting boring. It was pretty fun and challenging, and I managed to get fairly good at it after a few tries. I could tell, because it seems to rank you according to methods of transport, so if you’re good, you get a car. If you’re OK, you get a man walking. If you’re great, you get a train, and if you’re rubbish, you get nothing. It took me a while before I realised there were any methods of transport…
Another test actually did depend on some knowledge of Japanese, but I figured it out after a few goes. In this test, the game presented a series of numbers on the normal screen, in different colours, and it would ask you the number of (say) red numbers on the screen. I would then write the answer on the touchscreen. This seems simple, and it was – after I memorised out the Japanese ideograms for different colours, that is. Again, this test was adaptive and things rapidly got more difficult, with the numbers zooming around the screen or rotating or changing in size in a very distracting manner. Occasionally the game would ask how many rotating or moving or size-changing numbers were on the screen, which also mixed things up. I wasn’t able to memorise the characters for those phrases, but I could always tell something weird was up when the question text was longer than normal…
And those are all the tests I could do. Despite my dismal showing of Japanese language skills, I found the game to be fascinating; it is frankly a great idea and much more fun than you might expect. Exercises that would otherwise be deadly boring are suddenly livened up by having a computer do all the drudgery of marking, turning pages and keeping records. Plus, I cannot overstate the novelty of having decent handwriting recognition on a handheld (never mind voice recognition!). Also, the tests are pretty decent as well.
I’ve only played it for a few hours, so I don’t feel well equipped to pass judgement. Also, I can’t read Japanese. Other than not being able to play most of the tests properly, this had the amusing result of me writing ‘poo’ three times in empty input fields after being asked to draw a giraffe, koala and Australia (the only reason I figured it out was because it presented the ‘real’ drawings next to my masterpieces afterwards). Having said that, I’ve already learned some of the colours… maybe it’s numbers next?
I have a few minor complaints: I can imagine the game would get boring eventually, but then again there is an intriguing ‘Download Play’ option which suggests some sort of expansion capabilities. Still, I imagine that the game won’t have as much to offer adults who are already good at IQ tests. Now, kids and the elderly, well, there’s a big market… The game also has a problem recognising my ‘5’s, but I think that’s more of a problem on my part than the game’s.
Finally, where is the English version? Apparently it’s being released in the US some time in 2006, but come on Nintendo, I’m sure you can translate it before I have to learn Japanese!