I’m not sure if Brain Age: Train Your Brain in Minutes a Day! (2006) counts what we define as a “video game,” but when I got my spankin’ new DS, it was the first DS game I picked up for the system. Now, why in the world did I buy Brain Age, when, by 2006, there was a plethora of DS games (including Super Mario 64 DS) on the market?
The DS was the first handheld gaming device that I ever owned, and I’ll be honest, I felt a little silly with it at first. I was, well…[sigh]…perhaps going through an “I’m-now-in-my-thirties-and-what-the-hell-am-I-doing-with-my-life” crisis. My only point of reference concerning handhelds was the Gameboy; and even though I never had one, I never remember seeing anyone “old” with one. And you’ll notice it took me awhile to come around to the DS – it was released in 2004. I was sorta but not intensely into games then, enjoying small pockets of time with the Gamecube mostly. So, 2006 rolled round, and I had a brand new job and a brand new commute. And I found myself wanting to do something else during those commutes besides reading and/or falling asleep. My husband actually suggested that the DS might be a good thing for me, and that with a game like Brain Age, I’d feel a little less juvenile with it (in my own mind, that is).
Brain Age was…well, what was it? Not a traditional video game by any means, it was more like an electronic engagement tool (huh?), full of math problems, puzzles, and IQ-type tests that were supposed to increase brain activity. It contained the unsettling Prof. Kawashima, an encouraging and, at times, very annoying talking head that introduced the “games” and helped you keep track of your progress. In addition to the math and stuff, it also had Sudoku, which I had heard tons about but never played.
And I can’t think of a single way to amp up this title – no blood, no guns, no saving the world. It was unremarkable, but it was not boring. Really, it wasn’t. And whether it was the game or my own belief in the training exercises, it did actually help me become more focused, especially when played in the morning. We all know there’s something rewarding in challenging oneself. How many times have you, on your own and without an audience, played through the same game to beat your high score/beat it on a harder difficulty? Nobody was there cheering on my ability to answer math problems more quickly on one day than the next, but the in-game graph proved that I was getting better at the game’s many problems. The game didn’t come with any pomp and circumstance, but I was able to create plenty of it in my mind each time I stepped up and won a challenge.
I remember number challenges the most, but the game had lots more to offer. I’ll admit to becoming somewhat addicted to Sudoku for a time, and there were exercises that I was terrible at, like word memorization and recall. I never played any of the voice games. On the train, there were already several people who talked to themselves, and I was not about to become one of them. Beyond that, I, the killjoy, couldn’t stand talking into the game’s mic. (I hated it in an any game – talking, or yes, blowing into it was so goddamn ridiculous. Call me self-conscious, or old.) Oh, and the drawing game. I hated that one t0o. Drawing anything on the ol’ DS was fruitless…and I was, and still am, a terrible artist.
As distracting as the talking head Kawashima could be, he was mostly amiable. He was happy when you did well and sad but still positive when you sucked. When I left the game for an extended time period, he was always glad when I came back (but always wondered where I had gone, the nosey bastard!) My progress with the game varied widely, with really great weeks and really bad weeks; and the game had no shame in showing you how bad (or great) you were doing. When you started the game you had to do a “brain age check” which produced a number between 20 (needs life support, perhaps?) and 80 (a young and vibrant brain!). Mine was pretty dismal starting out, and the goal, of course, was to improve it over the course of the game. I never got up to a magical “80,” but there were days where I got close.
There must have been something genuinely intriguing about the game, because I ended up trading the game in for Brain Age 2. More puzzles, more weird Kawashima, more highs and lows in brain training. The games really are great for commuting, and probably long travel. They do help you stay alert to a certain degree, and probably do help increase certain brain functions with repeated play. As much as I’d like to credit them with helping me become a better person, the Brain Age games were gateway drugs into not only the world of the DS, but also gaming in general. Once I became comfortable with the DS and stopped worrying about my “place” among other working commuters, there was no stopping the addiction. “Real” games followed en masse and with a vengeance, both handheld and console. True exploration began, as with so many things, simply letting go.