I know, it sounds like homework, but the surprising thing is how much fun this is. Some of that is down to the character of Dr Kawashima, his polygonal face expressing disappointment if you failed to train yesterday, delight when your results start picking up, and commiserating when your performance takes a downturn. And some of it down to the way the game charts your progress in graphs and high score charts, making you feel good when your arithmetic starts improving, or you achieve a personal best in Low to High. Better still, the game rewards progress and perseverance with new exercises and hard versions of existing ones. One minute you’re struggling with the nightmare that is Headcount – a hellish effort where you try to count how many people are in a small house while they are constantly entering and leaving – the next you’ve got your teeth sunk into the hard version, where the gits start flooding down the chimney, too. Don’t even get me started on Triangle Maths….
Yet the really great thing about Brain Training is how much fun it is to share. Get two or three people training on the same cartridge, and you’re soon battling for high scores, comparing graphs and grabbing bragging rites on the lowest brain age. Suddenly, it matters that your mate or partner has hit 20, while you’re still struggling around the 25 to 30 mark. And to make this even better, the game throws in draw from memory challenges. Ostensibly, these are to activate your prefrontal lobe, but we all know why Dr Kawashima really put them in: they’re a superb opportunity to snigger at your rivals’ artistic skills. ‘Call that an armadillo? It looks more like a slug on roller-skates’. The game even thoughtfully provides you with a chance for direct comparison in a gallery. I’ve taken the humiliation pretty well, all things considered – as if having a brain age of 80 wasn’t bad enough, I also have the draughtsmanship of a five year old!
The graphics are purely functional; the audio mostly consists of a range of beeps and alarms, a little background music and the odd smattering of applause, yet somehow the whole presentation feels welcoming and – for want of a better word – jolly. And the game actually manages some impressive technical accomplishments. For a game that relies on text and speech recognition it suffers from surprisingly few errors, and that’s without any sort of calibration. It can’t handle my wife’s Ks or my Is, and the spoken word ‘blue’ can be a sticking point, but it’s coped with a range of spoken accents and handwriting, including mine which used to make grown English teachers quiver with disgust. How many generations of Pocket PC did it take before Microsoft could say the same?