When the Nintendo DS launched in the fall of 2004, many people predicted that its period of popularity would be brief. The Playstation Portable was coming, and it would give people what they really wanted: pretty graphics, high storage capacity, integrated media functions, and the hip Playstation brand. The DS, it was claimed, was not only underpowered, but saddled with the unhip Nintendo brand, with its associations of nineteen-eighties nostalgia and eight-year-olds playing Pokemon. The DS touchscreen and microphone were dismissed as mere gimmicks, useful only for minigames and the occasional forced gameplay mechanic.

The PSP launch did little to dispel this perception; despite its higher price (by almost $100 US) it began to outsell the DS, and, for a few months, things looked good for Sony. It looked as though the PSP might supplant the DS as heir apparent to the Game Boy Advance's handheld dominance, in the same way that the original Playstation supplanted both the Nintendo 64 and Sega Saturn.

In May of 2005, Nintendo released an unusual little DS game in Japan, with the improbably long title of "Professor Ryuta Kawashima of Tohoku University's Center for Collaborative Research on Future Technology Presents: Train Your Brain - DS Training for Adults". Based on the research of (and popular book written by) Dr. Ryuta Kawashima, it contained a series of short mental exercises intended to be done on a daily basis. The target for this was not the usual standby market for video games, the coveted 18-25 year old male, nor was it Nintendo's usual fallback market of children and young teenagers. Rather, the game was targeted at adults, in the "mature and patient" sense rather than the "loves guns and gore" sense.

This game fully leveraged the DS's unique characteristics to provide an intuitive interface for people unfamiliar with video game controllers. While button-pressing is only natural to people who have played a reasonable amount of video games, everyone can communicate by speaking, writing, or clicking. As such, the traditional button-pressing interface was replaced with a point-and-click type interface on the DS touch screen, and the exercises themselves are conducted using handwriting and speech recognition. This was made possible only because of the DS's 'gimmicky' special input devices.

DS Training for Adults, along with Nintendogs and Animal Crossing: Wild World, opened up a vast new market for the DS in Japan. These games were all intended to be played a little bit every day, rather than in long, protracted sessions, and were based on concepts familiar to people who have never played video games. As a result, they were welcoming to people whose prior image of video games involved gamers going into their rooms and playing for hours on end, and whose busy schedules left no room for games requiring such time investments.

The DS thus began to outsell the PSP in Japan by large margins. By January 2006, the DS had sold out all over Japan, the first system in the twenty-year-plus history of Nintendo's video game business to do so. The DS Lite was released in Japan in February, and has to this day been selling as fast as Nintendo can make it.

DS Training for Adults was translated into English and released in North America on April 17, 2006 under the name Brain Age: Train Your Brain in Minutes a Day!. On June 19, it was also released in Europe with the title Dr. Kawashima's Brain Training: How Old Is Your Brain?. Both the North American and European editions added a set of 100 Sudoku puzzles to the game as an additional feature, prominently advertised on the box.

Brain Age: The Review

Brain Age is an unusual game, underscored in the initial impression by its unconventional use of the DS screens. Relieved of the necessity of using the buttons, the game uses the DS screens in a portrait orientation, requiring the system to be held vertically, like a book. The graphics are minimal, with the only 3D being an oddly faceted representation of Dr. Kawashima's head. The game has two main modes, the Brain Age Test, and Training, plus the 'bonus' Sudoku mode. The Brain Age Test can be done once per day and rates your performance in the exercises by giving you a 'Brain Age', with lower ages being better (the minimum is 20). Training exercises are used to practice for the Brain Age Test and to unlock other Training exercises. While this is all there is to it, actually doing well on the exercises requires both wit and practice.

Handwriting and Speech Recognition

My handwriting is scribbly and strange, but the handwriting recognition performed admirably with no training necessary. Most of the handwriting recognition sections only accept numbers, not letters, simplifying the problem considerably. 4's are sometimes confused with 9's and vice versa, and likewise with 7's and 1's, and any mistake while doing 20 simple math problems in 30 seconds is annoying, but given the inherent difficulty of handwriting recognition it is surprisingly usable. On the other hand, one of the Brain Age tests requires the entering of four-letter words through the handwriting recognition, a task frustrating enough to inspire the player to utter additional four-letter words.

The speech recognition does bode poorly for the prospect of voice recognition as a standard computer interface, but I'm sure you knew that already. The Brain Age speech recognition has the advantage of only needing to distinguish the words 'black', 'red', 'yellow', and 'blue', and the disadvantage of only getting three of those right reliably. Long-term Brain Age players have figured out whatever positioning is required for the game to correctly hear the word 'blue', but new players are invariably tripped up by it. A second part of the game with speech recognition takes numbers between 0 and 9, with surprisingly fewer errors.


The exercises and tests are reasonably well-balanced between numerical, verbal, and memory tests. One common exercise involves solving simple arithmetic problems at high speed, with both voice and handwriting input. The intriguing Triangle Math exercise combines arithmetic and memory for great results. Verbal tests include speedreading and syllable counting. Several of the exercises have Hard modes available to increase the difficulty after one masters the Normal mode. Initially, only three exercises are available, but doing the exercises over multiple days unlocks more exercises. The game provides a calendar which it stamps on every day you do at least one exercise, and the number of stamps acts to unlock the additional exercises.

A couple exercises suffer from the need to speak very quickly to do well, which can be a difficult thing to do, especially without practice. In addition to the speedreading exercise mentioned above, which for a good score requires speaking in excess of seven syllables per second, there is a speed counting test for counting from 1 to 120 as fast as you can. Good rhythm and breathing are required along with numerical aptitude to count to 120 in less than 45 seconds, which may be needed to get a Brain Age of 20. Overall, though, outside of the difficult handwriting and speech recognition, none of the exercises are unreasonably difficult.


In addition to charts of performance over time, Brain Age provides a few other exercises outside of the main Training and Test sections. These exercises usually appear when you first start Brain Age for the day, and must be completed before proceeding either to the training exercises or to a Sudoku puzzle. Often, Dr. Kawashima's avatar will ask you to draw a series of recognizable objects from memory on the touch screen, and then compare your drawing to a professional rendering (that certainly wasn't made using the DS's slippery touchscreen). Other times, the Doctor will ask a question about basic life events, and re-ask that question later as a memory problem, comparing the input from one time to the other. These exercises are diverting, but repetitive, and unfortunately are not skippable without resetting the DS.

The 100 included Sudoku puzzles fall into a range of difficulty from very simple to reasonably complicated. The game includes tutorials on various solving techniques used in the puzzles, which is helpful for the Sudoku newbie. The puzzles themselves are solved using an intuitive touchscreen-based engine using the game's handwriting recognition; the grid is displayed on the touchscreen and a square can be 'zoomed-in' for writing with a tap. Optionally, the game can check all answers for correctness, but in this mode five mistakes can cause the puzzle to be lost, and the final time is incremented a whopping twenty minutes per mistake. Overall the Sudoku engine is a worthwhile addition to a game is already bargain-priced and packed with value, and compares favourably to that in Nintendo's standalone game Sudoku Gridmaster.

Multiplayer and Sound

Each Brain Age card has space for four save files, the intent being that people would share the Brain Age card and compete to get the best exercise scores and Brain Ages. To this end, the file selection screen displays each player's most recent Brain Age score. This also extends to comparing people's drawings in the drawing exercise.

In addition to this 'implicit' multiplayer, the game supports a direct wireless multiplayer mode called Calculation Battle In this mode, the two to sixteen players compete in real-time to solve 30 problems the fastest. The game can also download the 'Quick Play' mode to another DS, which includes one training exercise, one Brain Age test, and one Sudoku puzzle, as a promotional measure.

Brain Age has a simple music soundtrack that, though catchy, is purely functional and not a masterpiece of game music. In the same way, the sound effects are useful for notifications but otherwise are fairly unremarkable, although the 'end of exercise' fanfare sticks in the mind after the tension of the exercises.


Brain Age is an intriguing title; it is unlike any other previous game, and it makes speed calculation to beat a record surprisingly fun. While I was initially enthusiastic about training my brain, I found that after unlocking all of the exercises and reaching a Brain Age of 20 that my gamer's attention wandered elsewhere and I lost the daily discipline I had at the start. Nevertheless, the experience of unlocking and the availability of 100 portable Sudoku puzzles justified Brain Age's budget price of $20 US ($25 CDN). There is a good reason why nearly every DS owner has a copy of Brain Age, and hopefully it foreshadows more innovative concepts from Nintendo, both for the DS and the upcoming Wii.

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