Nintendo loves doing things differently. Whether it’s a hybrid console, cardboard cut-outs or games that aren’t quite games – the Japanese giant is often ready to play outside the box. While the ‘Dr Kawashima’ series has been around since 2005, Nintendo continues to show faith in its fringe IPs this time creating a ‘new’ game for their current system; The Switch has, after all, shown some fantastic promise as a home for titles to reinvent themselves.
However, this time around the new title perhaps feels just a little too familiar. A few new exercises take advantage of Switch-specific technologies like the IR-camera, but they fall a little flat execution and reinforce the idea that this series worked best on the smaller DS and 3DS systems. That being said Brain Training does not really feel like a game, but rather a kind of fitness app that promotes cognitive health. And judged within that framework its presence on the Switch not only continues to boost Nintendo’s focus on a healthier lifestyle but in an age of seemingly declining mental involvement, it might just provide the daily 15-minute boost we could all use.
The Brain Training game concept started some time ago when a Nintendo Director became interested in introducing an all-ages title aimed at people that don’t usually play video games. At about the same time, the CFO was using a popular book entitled Train Your Brain. A short time after that, Iwata met with the author of the book, a certain ‘Professor Kawashima’, and the rest, as they say, is history*. The series appeared on the DS, and then later on the 3DS and soon gathered popularity, not only as a fun personal brain exercise game but also in some medical circles as a creative way to possibly help with diseases like Alzheimer’s. Although the actual proven medical benefits are often disputed.
The Switch, with its portability, touchscreen and widespread adoption seems like a perfect space for the series to re-emerge…
Nintendo, understandably, steers clear of any link to the medical capabilities of the title. However, the goal of using games like this to reach those that don’t usually play video games has remained. The Switch, with its portability, touchscreen and widespread adoption seemed like a perfect space for the series to re-emerge and after an initial launch in Japan, Dr Kawashima’s Brain Training for Nintendo Switch soon came to the rest of world including our own sunny shores early this year.
While I was familiar with the series, I had never owned actually a game myself. However, as a big fan of Nintendo’s alternative-styled games and particularly after my grandfather was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s last year I became very interested in what Brain Training could offer. Almost all games are played with the Switch in ‘Portrait’ mode. The Switch is a little bigger than your standard handheld but I still found it pretty comfortable to hold upwards. Rather strangely though – this is the first Switch game that I have owned that really seemed to be taxing the system. And it was not unusual to hear my Switch’s internal fans working extra hard. I’m not sure why this was the case, because there’s nothing in the graphics or processing departments that I would think would be overworking the system more than many of the games I already own. I do wonder then if it had something to do with the orientation of the Switch itself.
While the IR-games were quite ingenious in design – they felt clunky and unresponsive in reality.
Upon starting the game, the style and initial games on offer will feel very familiar. Sudoku, number memory games and simple multiplication is the bread and butter of the series and are back as you could probably have guessed. Each day you can test your mental mettle in the basic ‘Training’ mode. Here cognitive mini-games are slowly unlocked based on how many days in a row you train your brain. The goal is to ‘activate your prefrontal cortex’. Rather than long sessions of draining mental gymnastics, short bursts of activity are encouraged.
For the purposes of the review, I managed 21 consecutive days of such exercise with each session lasting between 10 and 20 minutes. After the 21 days, I had unlocked 13 activities. Other than the basic number games mentioned above, the mini-activities ranged from a Dr Mario-style match puzzle game meant to help your mind relax, a reading activity, a word scramble game (that I was depressingly bad at), a few image-based memory exercises, some new games using the IR-camera, and my personal favourite – a mini-piano game called Masterpiece Recital where you must follow a well-known piece of classical music and hit the right note at just the right time. I found the variety of games in this mode quite enjoyable, however, didn’t quite understand why they had chosen to time-lock some of them. Also, while the IR-games were quite ingenious in design – they felt clunky and unresponsive in reality.
You’ll feel like your brain has seemingly become a weird mixture of dust and yoghurt…
The physical edition of the game comes with a rather great (if a little boring-looking) stylus. I loved having it especially after missing out on the Super Mario Maker 2 edition. In general, the handwriting recognition worked very well. Unfortunately, I am apparently unable to write a ‘6’ in any intelligible way and it often took ages for the game to recognize my frantic scribbles of several sixes. As most activities are based on how quickly you complete them – this often skewed my results downward quite substantially. There is also no quick restart button on any of the activities. And while I understand that this is probably to avoid ‘cheating’ when capturing your completion times – it’s mostly a pain when the reason you wanted to restart was the game’s own apparent hexaphobia.
One of the main features of Dr Kawashima games is the infamous Brain Age Check. In this mode, once a day, you attempt three tests (apparently chosen at random) that are meant to measure three main skills: Self-Control, Processing-Speed and Short-Term Memory. Based on the results of these three tests you are awarded a Brain Age. As per his research – 20 is the ultimate Brain Age and hence your target. Mess up any one of the tests and instead, you’ll not only receive a Brain Age that is so old you’ll feel like your brain has seemingly become a weird mixture of dust and yoghurt, but you’ll also have a polygonal 3D image of Kawashima’s floating, disembodied head telling you to do better while quoting a 2013 study published in a very scientific journal by Kawashima, Expertface and SmartyLoo et al.
It’s kind of the trademark Brain Training activity and there’s nothing quite like the feeling of hitting the mythical 20-Year-Old Brain Age. Unfortunately, in my time with it, the same 6 or so games kept popping up and while some I was completely hopeless at – some I could manage with some ease (even within the same category). So depending on the combination of games my Brain Age varied wildly from 20-odd at my best, to somewhere in the (hides-face) sixty range at my worst. It didn’t really feel like I was getting any better no matter how much I practised and it was the selection of games that made all the difference. I’m a fan of the mode but wish more varied activities would be used.
The Quick Play two-player ‘fastest-finger-first’ counting games and are quite fun but feel too short and too limited in number to make any real impact.
Dr Kawashima’s Brain Training also includes a much-hyped Quick Play mode. Here three mini-games can be played by two players using the Joy-Cons. They’re mostly ‘fastest-finger-first’ counting games and are quite fun but feel too short and too limited in number to make any real impact. The flag game is one of the only exceptions where a memory game is tied to Joy-Con technology (specifically orientation and movement tracking). However, as the IR-games mentioned above, it seems like almost all the Switch-specific exercises don’t quite work as well as hoped. Where the IR-camera seems to capture handshapes that were not actually made (I’m a SA Sign Language user so manipulating my hands and fingers quickly is actually something I’m quite used to) the flag game is poorly explained and also a perhaps also a little imprecise in tracking movement.
This Quick Mode is also the only mode that is available to play on your TV. So, for the most part, this is basically a handheld only Switch game. I think that’s not a problem but it may be good to know if you were hoping for a truly hybrid console experience. The game also had a greyed-out Brain Training Wolrd Championship mode. Unfortunately, even though it’s already been out for some time, this option was still not playable for the review.
Reviewing Brain Training as you would a video game is a little like reviewing a Taebo exercise tape as you would a movie. It doesn’t quite feel right.
Reviewing Brain Training as you would a video game is a little like reviewing a Taebo exercise tape as you would a movie. It doesn’t quite feel right. Is it a game? No, not really. It’s probably better viewed as a kind of memory fitness ‘app’ on your Switch; Something to keep your brain fresh. However, as someone that feels that my brain needs a little more productive stimulus, I’m all for a little more regular brain exercise every day and enjoyed my three weeks with the game. And while it’s clearly not the best version in the series and has some frustrating missteps, I still think it’s the type of title worth having in your Switch library especially if you don’t own any of the previous editions.
* Source: Gamasutra