It’s difficult to overstate the importance of the original Dr Kawashima’s Brain Training (or Brain Age, if you’re based in North America). Even though these days many credit the Wii with bringing gaming to non-gamers via the likes of Wii Sports, it’s crucial to remember that Brain Training was doing it first, shifting countless DS handhelds to middle-aged and elderly customers who wouldn’t otherwise know the difference between Kirby and Kid Rock.
That was nearly a decade and a half ago, now, and the gaming landscape has changed dramatically. Anyone and everyone is gaming now, partly because we all own phones that contain access to an endless supply of both casual and complex games quite literally at our fingertips. Is there a place for a new Brain Training game into today’s gaming environment, then? Nintendo certainly seems to think so, but this new Switch version doesn’t really do much to push the original concept beyond what the DS originals did.
Much like its predecessors, the main gimmick in Brain Training on Switch is the ability to test your ‘Brain Age’, which essentially takes the whole “you’re only as young as you feel” concept and applies it to your mind. You’re given three exercises to carry out, each focusing on a different element of your brain – self-control, processing speed and short-term memory – and the average result is then presented to you as your ‘brain age’, which ideally you want to be as low as possible.
The three exercises in your daily Brain Age test are chosen at random. Some of these are back again from previous games in the series, whereas others are new additions. Not all of the returning exercises are necessarily welcome, mind you: we’re always happy to take part in Calculations and work our way through a series of maths problems, but we don’t imagine there’s a person alive who asked for the return of the exercise where you have to memorise a grid of 25 numbers then fill in the empty grid.
Outside of the Brain Age mode, there’s also a Daily Training section where you can keep your brain warmed up with a series of different mini-games. At first, you only start with one or two of these, but each day you complete one you’ll be awarded a stamp, and the more stamps you collect the more extra games you’ll unlock. If you play the game on a daily basis, you’re looking at around two and a half weeks before everything is available (or about an hour if you cheat and simply move the Switch’s system date forward).
Much like with the Brain Age tests, the Training exercises are a mixture of old and new. Returning favourites include the Dr Mario spin-off Germ Buster, the piano-based Masterpiece Recital (which now includes chords thanks to the multi-touch screen), and the ever-welcome return of Sudoku. New exercises, meanwhile, include the entertaining Dual Task, where you have to touch the highest number on the bottom screen while keeping an eye on the top screen where a chap is trying to jump over some hurdles. Then there’s Photographic Memory, where you’re shown a photo and then have to pick it out from a group while also trying to memorise a new one.
Some of the classic mini-games are understandably missing for technical reasons. After all, it’s ever so slightly less feasible to do the voice-recognition exercises – like the ones that require you to shout out the answers to Rock, Paper, Scissors scenarios – when the Switch doesn’t have a microphone. That isn’t to say the Switch’s own gimmicks and gizmos don’t make an appearance, however.
Step forward the right Joy-Con and its IR camera, along with its underused ability to recognise hand gestures. Instead of shouting out “rock”, “paper” or “scissors” this time, you’re holding your hand up to the IR camera and performing the gesture. Similarly, another game shows you a series of different hand gestures and asks you to replicate them in rapid fashion.
These are a fun new twist on proceedings when they work, but therein lies the problem: they don’t always. On occasion, the camera will read a gesture wrong, or ask you to move your hand out of the way (for calibration purposes) without realising you already have. It’s usually something you can resolve within a few seconds, but given that the Brain Training games revolve around you performing quick exercise drills as quickly and accurately as possible, wasting a few seconds trying to get the game to recognise your gesture can make a big impact on your score.
The same goes for some of the other mini-games that require you to write numbers or letters using the Switch’s touch screen. By and large, the game will recognise your scrawlings pretty accurately, but there’ll always be the odd occasion where it doesn’t and you’re held up having to erase your entry and try writing it again, by which point you already know the results screen is going to say you’re about as smart as a bar of chocolate.
Ultimately, for all the success of the original game, Nintendo’s hope that lightning will strike again may be a little misplaced. Brain Training on Switch isn’t quite the irresistible proposal its predecessor proved to be; for starters, the Switch is significantly more expensive than the DS was back in the day, so you’re far less likely to get non-gamers to drop all that money on what, to them, was a fad 13 years ago (it’s also worth pointing out that, at the time of writing, the DS originals can be picked up for literal pennies either online or in your local charity shop).
Even more importantly, consider this: it’s hard to believe, but the original Brain Training launched in the west a full year before the original iPhone did. It arrived in the world at a time where there were no smartphones and the idea of a touchscreen was still an incredible novelty. A DS with Brain Training wasn’t just useful; it was a trendy, futuristic thing to own. These days if you head to the Google Play Store or the iOS App Store and type in ‘brain training’ you’ll see more icons than you would at a Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony. Brain Training apps are ten a penny these days (sometimes literally) and so even at its budget price, this is a much harder sell than it was 14 years ago.
It’s difficult to determine who Brain Training’s audience is. The casual audience who would have happily bought a cheap DS for the original won’t buy the far more expensive Switch, and existing Switch owners can find a slew of other brain games that may not be better, but are certainly cheaper. What’s here is entertaining enough, but you’re likely to have lost interest within a month; if ever there was a series that Nintendo should have turned into a mobile game instead, it’s this one.