“Brain Age: Concentration Training” Tests Your Brain, and Patience

I’ve been a longtime fan of Brain Age. Mixed in among the standard-issue kill-everything-you-see/race/sports types of games that dominate gaming, Brain Age on the Nintendo DS always provided something unique, fun, and mentally stimulating.

Doing math problems, counting syllables, recognizing patterns, and memorizing stuff was far more enjoyable than anyone would have expected in Brain Age: Train Your Brain in Minutes a Day, the game that kicked off the series seven years ago.

Based on the research of neuroscientist Ryuta Kawashima, the exercises are designed to improve brain function—or at least give players the illusion that they’re getting smarter.

Nintendo developed several sequels and spinoffs for the DS after that first game, and now a Nintendo 3DS-exclusive entry is here with Brain Age: Concentration Training, released as a download and physical media this past weekend for $30. Some improvements in gameplay are readily apparent. Handwriting recognition is significantly better. You play the game by holding the 3DS upright, rather than sideways like a book, and it works so well I wonder why previous Brain Age games used the wacky book-like layout at all.

But Concentration Training misses most of the charm of the originals. The goofy version of Kawashima in the DS games has been replaced with one far more serious and prone to lecturing the player—while repetitively and unconvincingly touting the supposed cognitive benefits of the game. The fact that Kawashima now speaks aloud, instead of letting the player read what he’s saying, makes him seem all the more overbearing.

The need to concentrate is nothing new in Brain Age, but this one really earns the name thanks to mini-games that force you to remember stuff so it can be recalled and regurgitated later. The main portion of the game is divided into eight “devilish” exercises, with Kawashima wearing devil’s horns to emphasize their evilness. Let’s take a look at each one:

Devilish Calculations: The game starts with simple addition and subtraction problems—a staple of earlier Brain Age games—but with a twist: instead of solving the problem on the screen right now, you provide the answer to an earlier problem. This forces you to do math on a current problem in your head while writing down the answer to a previous one.

Like all the “devilish” exercises, getting a good score ups the difficulty level for the next round (in this case, you need to get 85 percent of the problems correct). At higher levels, math problems are displayed more rapidly; instead of writing the answer to the previous problem, you write the answer from two problems ago, or three, etc.

This mini-game is fun and yes, perhaps it is devilish. Once I got to the “three-back” stage it became pretty frustrating.

Devilish Pairs: Remember that card-matching game in Super Mario Bros. 3, where you’d get the item on the cards if you could find a matching pair? That’s exactly what Devilish Pairs is, except the cards require you to match numbers instead of items. If you turn the same card over twice without matching it to another, it counts as a miss. You start with just eight cards, a number that expands by two each time you score 85 percent or higher.

I found this to be the most fun of all eight exercises, despite (or perhaps because of) its simplicity.

Devilish Mice: Cats and mice are on a grid, constantly changing positions. When they’re finally done, you have to identify the squares with the mice. It’s like Three-card-monte, except with a minimum of 12 cards.

Devilish Reading: A sentence is shown on the screen, and you read it aloud while memorizing an underlined word. After reading multiple sentences, you write down the words you’ve memorized. Yes, it’s just as boring as it sounds. Also, you don’t have to speak the actual words in the sentence—any gobbledygook will do as long as the 3DS’ microphone can hear you.

Devilish Shapes: The rules of this one are exactly the same as Devilish Calculations except, instead of math problems, you’re shown a shape to remember and then pick from a set of three choices. Like Calculations, the hard part is memorizing the shape currently on the screen while recalling the shape from two or three rounds before. It’s fun for a few minutes, but quickly grows tiring.

Devilish Blocks: A group of blocks are shown on-screen, and one disappears. Then another group of blocks is shown, with one of those disappearing too. The sets of blocks reappear in turn, and in each set you have to pick the one that disappeared.

Devilish Cups: Balls numbered 1 through 3 (or higher) are covered by cups, and the cups switch positions a bunch of times while you try to remember the balls’ positions. This one is also just as tedious as it sounds.

Devilish Listening: This one is exactly the same as Devilish Calculations, with one crucial difference: instead of the math problems being displayed on-screen, Kawashima reads them to you. Kawashima tells you this is the hardest mini-game in Concentration Training, but I actually found it easier (and more fun) than Devilish Calculations. Having the problems read to you removes the need to keep switching your eyes between the two screens, and helped me concentrate.

Beyond those eight core exercises, there are some odds and ends to fill up your time. Most of these seem like throwaways—they even include Klondike and Spider solitaire, as if you couldn’t play those on your phone, tablet, or literally any other computing device for free.

Unlike previous Brain Age games, there is no daily test to determine your brain’s “age.” Yes, Kawashima annoyingly told me after completing my first exercise that “your first result is about what I’d expect from someone in his or her mid-50s,” but that was the last I ever heard of a brain age in my simulated 10 days of play. (I say simulated, because in order to play all the mini-games, I had to keep manually adjusting the date in the 3DS’s settings. Brain Age only gives you new content once every day or so.)

There is a player score, but it only goes in one direction. You start with an F, and you keep adding points with each day of training, moving up to E, D, C, etc. Since your rating never goes down, it’s hard to see what the point is.

Besides all that, Kawashima is constantly telling you how amazing the game you’re playing is. The first time you turn it on, there’s a lecture about how smartphones, tablets, and laptops are distracting us from daily life (true enough), with the moral of the story being that Concentration Training will save us all from brain rot.

Every couple of days or so, Kawashima wants you to watch a “seminar” in which he expounds on the importance of “working memory,” and how improving it can make us more clever, better at sports, better at housework, etc. He’ll tell you about working memory every chance he gets, as if you’ve never heard about it before. What, did he think I wasn’t concentrating yesterday?

You’ll hear words of wisdom like “eat breakfast!” and “count all the brushstrokes when you brush your teeth!” You can fast-forward through all this nonsense, and you can skip the “seminars,” but he’s always spewing platitudes at you while you try to play the game. That’s aggravating, to say the least.

As you can tell, this game wasn’t the greatest, but all is not lost. The original Brain Age is still fun, and if you have either a Nintendo DSi or 3DS, there are downloadable Express versions which expand upon individual aspects of the original game. One Express title that covers math goes for $8; another on arts and letters is $8; and a Sudoku game is $5. While these titles are a few years old, I think they provide the best value, letting you pick your favorite aspects of Brain Age while saving some money.

My Brain Age playing of late has boiled down to very occasional trips into math and Sudoku, and I don’t expect Concentration Training to change that. Most Brain Age games are still well worth playing—even if this latest one isn’t.


Image: Nintendo