Dr Kawashima’s Brain Training for Nintendo Switch Review
Dr Kawashima’s Brain Training is a different kind of game, so we’ve done a different kind of review in the form of a diary. Whether you remember playing Brain Training on the DS or have never played it before, here’s our review.
Ah, Dr Kawashima, my old friend. I played a lot of the original Brain Training for Nintendo DS back when I was a child who probably didn’t necessarily need to. Firing up Dr Kawashima’s Brain Training for Nintendo Switch for the first time brought all those memories rushing back – the cute polygonal rendition of the titular doctor, the hours spent blasting through sudoku. Then I was harshly reminded that the halcyon days of my childhood were long behind me as I quickly stumbled through a rock-paper-scissors exercise (using the Switch IR camera, personally my first experience with it – it seems to definitely be picky about having the right lighting conditions) and got told the ol’ thinker was running about as well as a sad elderly gentleman. “64? That’s your age +39, isn’t it?” Cool.
It was 2006 when we first met our favourite medically inclined disembodied head, with that maiden outing making some waves in the games industry for being “not really a game”. It was released at a lower price point and largely it was a science-backed smorgasbord of mathematical or analytical thinking problems, designed to be played every day, filled with basic addition and multiplication problems, reading aloud, the aforementioned sudoku. Not much has changed for the Switch – we’re looking at the same sort of thing here. All this allegedly helps executive function (aka doing daily tasks) and improves focus, reaction times, all that jazz. Cool stuff indeed, but since yonder mid-2000s we’ve seen the rise of the smartphone and approximately eight billion apps, many free, that claim to do the exact same thing. We’ll see as the days pass if Dr Kawashima can still differentiate himself, and see if it can help my brain recover from its mathematically dormant state.
What’s very interesting is Nintendo’s system for keeping you engaged with their… shall we say less pure entertainment products. Wii Fit had it, the original Brain Training had it – each day you return and complete your regular check-in, you’ll be able to place a stamp on a calendar and mark it off, followed by an encouraging bit of praise from your sentient Wii Balance Board or Japanese neuroscientist mentor. Here on the Switch, that’s achieved by either completing a single Training exercise (I got five stamps poking around on Day 1) or calculating your Brain Age by completing a three activity challenge. Having such an easy goal combined with strong reinforcement and encouragement is a great way to game psychology and keep you returning. There’s something inherently more charming about Nintendo’s presentation style as well – it might just be the lack of advertising compared to similar apps on smartphones, but there’s a lot of personality and Nintendo pedigree baked into the aesthetic of this game that, if you’re into how Nintendo have done this in the past, won’t leave you disappointed.
Today I got to train my brain a few different ways: I read a news article aloud to myself twice, completed some quick maths problems, and played an odd (and surprisingly difficult) Tetris puzzle hybrid called Germ Buster, tasking me with taking falling coloured pills and matching them with similarly coloured germs, four-in-a-row style, to clear the board. This was apparently designed to relax your brain rather than activate it, and while stressful it was certainly more fun than cerebral. I also got to poke around the Quick Play mode – this has a few more IR camera-based hand games, asking you to hand gesture the answers to some basic addition or emulate hand shapes in sequence, as well as some little multiplayer counting and memory games. These aren’t making their way to an eSports circuit anytime soon but as an entertaining distraction in Brain Training’s cute style they fit the bill. Definitely a warning to Switch Lite owners though – there’s a lot of IR content sprinkled through the game, and while you can opt-out of doing them it just means you can’t access everything.
Oh, and after memorising some numbers on a grid and counting to 120 apparently as bad as humanly possible, which I didn’t even know was a task I could do with any real quality grade, my Brain Age is now 57. Improvement, I guess?
Snuck in for a little lunch break noggin enhancing today. Interestingly, my bespectacled doctor pal keeps complaining about it being cold, which it certainly isn’t here, but that’s the Northern Hemisphere Development Effect which I definitely remember from the first game. Each day I’m getting a new training unlocked, which is nice – there’s a lot of variety to these. Today I nabbed a training that requires me to play a simple melody on sheet music with a touchscreen piano, which is a lot of fun – you’re only scored on if you press the correct note, plus the music automatically stops to allow you to press it. It’s not a rhythm game per se, and it doesn’t sound nice to listen to, but like everything else here it’s designed to be a two-minute entertaining distraction. I’m definitely seeing myself get better at the other exercises too, which you’d expect seeing as I’m doing them every single day, but the easy-to-read progress graphs are helpful and Dr Floating Head gives me some great encouragement when I improve.
I think after a few days the flaws in some of the tracking are becoming apparent, though. Handwriting recognition sure isn’t perfect and for some reason, the way I write the number 5 makes the game very unhappy. I’m also a little frustrated at the Brain Age calculations. For example, in the count to 120 Exercise, the instructions say to not slur your numbers but count to 120 as fast as possible. I feel like I’m going pretty fast and pretty accurately, I’m not tripping up and I’m enunciating each number, but apparently I have the aptitude of an 80-year-old. The game doesn’t record you counting, and just makes an assessment based on when you hit the button. I don’t have any real basis to disagree with it though, and I know that ultimately the purpose is not to be the best but to improve myself. For graded tasks though, it can be a little annoying, and I know that my Brain Age will seem to fluctuate when in fact I’m just getting tasks in the test that I specifically might be better or worse at. That said, today seemed to be a good set, and I’m getting closer and closer to my actual age.
I did my Brain Age test right after waking up from a nap and it was a little worse than the day before, which feels about right? I broke records on some tests and bombed out on one I was great at the day before. Then I dived in for some training. There are not many games that will actively stop you from playing them, but after completing the test and a couple of exercises, you literally get kicked out to the menu screen and told that you’ve done enough for today. The optimist in me says that it’s because this is meant to be a self-improvement tool and you shouldn’t treat it like a regular game, but I’ve definitely got a cynical streak that says obviously there is a finite amount of content, and since this is meant to be a daily thing the game can’t have you just 360-noscope every sudoku puzzle right off the bat. I think, also, it could be a burnout thing – obviously, while it’s fun-in-inverted-commas to improve at calculations and beat your records, there’s only so much actual enjoyment you’ll get out of repeatedly doing quick mental mathematics. Your mileage can definitely vary, so I think keeping that daily training short and sweet is ultimately the way to go. It’s tough to say ‘hey, this might be worth buying but don’t play it too much’ as a critic but this really is, at the end of the day, much more a tool than a piece of digital entertainment.
On a less video-game-existentialism note, the sudoku here is capital H Hard. Even on the basic difficulty (and I consider myself good at sudoku) by puzzle 5 I am getting absolutely lost. There are about 60 different grids to sudoku in both the basic and intermediate difficulties, and I’m not even close to unlocking the hard mode – the game handily gives you a percentage complete on the sudoku so you don’t overdo it and burn through all the puzzles to leave yourself sudoku-less. This was the same on the Nintendo DS, although I can’t help but wonder why there isn’t an internet-provided Daily Sudoku mode to have constantly rotating puzzles and really give that extra push to play every day. I’m going to have to assume someone at Nintendo has some thoughts on this.
My final test before the end of this little diary – I’m 31 today, apparently. That’s definitely a marked improvement from Day 1 and I’m seeing improvements in a lot of exercises – especially in that rhythm game from Day 3, which has gone from disjointed noise to something that actually sounds ok sometimes.
So we’re reaching the end of this diary review hybrid I’ve put together and I guess we have to ask the tough questions like ‘should I buy this?’ If you’ve scrolled right to the bottom you will have noticed that we haven’t given this game a score, and that’s for a few reasons. First, Nintendo asked us not to, which at first we were a little confused about. But playing this for a few days and considering how everything comes together, it began to make sense. First, my review can’t possibly cover everything in the game – there’s still so much for me to unlock and, like Animal Crossing, I am physically prevented from accessing a lot of the game until a specific amount of time has passed which is far beyond a typical review period. Second, this game is more of a tool – you could argue that video games, at their core, are just mathematics and situational awareness, but none trim it down to as core a level as Brain Training, and make you focus on it quite as hard.
What it all boils down to is a charming and very Nintendo way to activate your prefrontal cortex (or so the educated floating head keeps telling me). Brain Training is just… brain training. If you decide to give it a shot, you might find yourself motivated to better yourself and drawn in by the friendly and approachable presentation. If you’re of an inclination to want to keep your mind active, I can happily say that this is a lot more interesting than any mobile app I’ve ever tried. If you want a traditional video game though, if you want to play a few hours a day, if you want graphics or story or unique gameplay mechanics, none of that’s here. But that’s fine because that’s not what this is.
No Score – As part of the embargo conditions, Nintendo required us not to give a score to Brain Training.
Dr Kawashima’s Brain Training For Nintendo Switch launches on the 3rd of January 2020.
+ Effortlessly charming presentation
+ Great stat tracking and motivation
+ Promotes health through active thinking and habit building
- No long play sessions
- Not a traditional video game - sometimes you just do maths
- Often misreads inputs