Release Date: January 13, 2009
It would seem as though the folks at Nintendo have taken it upon themselves to solve the world's educational problems by simply using the DS and an avalanche of software. The company has released an untold number of brain-building games over the past several years, and various third-party companies have been happy to supply even more. Now the big dog is back in the game with the release of Personal Trainer: Math, the latest in the Touch Generation series. Unfortunately, the title is not only boring and monotonous, but it also commits the cardinal sin of educational gaming: It doesn't teach you a thing.
The driving force behind Personal Trainer: Math is Hideo Kageyama and his self-named Kageyama Method. This principle uses both basic math skills and a 100-Cell method to ostensibly teach users how to sharpen their math skills and utilize them more efficiently. Unfortunately, unlike almost all educational methods, it's nearly impossible to measure the success of the Kageyama Method without tests involving massive samples held over several months or years utilizing control groups and all the other things that make an experiment legit. Instead, we must take Professor Kageyama at his word and assume that by participating in his simple and seemingly pointless exercises, we're getting better at math.
Starting up the game, players will immediately see that there's not a whole lot to do here, and the game takes a no-nonsense approach to the business of learning. The main menu consists of three options: Daily Test, Kageyama Method and Practice Exercises. The practice exercises are pretty self-explanatory; simply jump into any of the game's various challenges and answer a set number of questions as quickly and accurately as possible. The game touts this mode as a way to improve on your areas of weakness or to revisit any challenges you've found to be particularly enjoyable. If you happen to be a real math nut, then this is likely the mode you'll choose in order to hone your various numerical manipulation reflexes.
Those who choose to dabble in the Kageyama Method will be given a row and column of numbers and told to add, subtract or multiply them and fill in each cell with the correct answer. This game is as much about speed as it is accuracy, so players are given a target time and encouraged to "go, go, go" and get to the end. Once it's all over, the game tallies up your correct answers, checks your score against the target time and … that's it. There's no sense of accomplishment here; you get a few words of encouragement from the digital Professor Kageyama, and then you're returned to the main menu.
The other mode of play is the Daily Test, which runs you through a series of three exercises in order to determine your mathematical skills. Things start off incredibly simply, with players being tasked to determine the number of items on flash cards or add simple single-digit numbers. Every five days, assuming you do well on the exercises and keep up a good pace, players are promoted a level, where new challenges await. As you progress through the ranks, the game will start throwing tougher problems your way, and more advanced concepts begin to come your way, like multiplication tables, ladder calculation and division marathons.
The main problem with this mode is that in order to reach these more substantial problems, you must invest months upon months on the game. Since you're locked out of taking more daily tests until the calendar rolls over, it would take a minimum of 35 days to reach level 7, where players first start encountering multiplication tables and other more complicated problems. Those looking to get into the really complex and challenging problems would have to play every day for over two months, and it's hard to see this game enjoying that sort of longevity. I can't think of any game I've played every single day for two straight months, especially one where the only stated purpose is to have me solve mathematical equations. No, you'd need to be extremely devoted to the cause in order to stick this one out.
Personal Trainer: Math also features a multiplayer component, but it likely won't find many followers. Up to 16 players can play a 100-Cell game wirelessly over one SD card. It's all pretty simple, with everyone filling in their answers as quickly and as accurately as possible; the fastest time wins. Really, the only practical use for this is in classrooms and math clubs because I find it unlikely that anyone is going to get 15 other players to agree to forgo Halo or Call of Duty to work on their multiplication skills. Furthermore, how many school districts out there have money in their budgets to provide 16 DS units for an educational method most people have never even heard of? While it may be nice that Nintendo tried to include some sort of multiplayer, it ultimately feels like the sort of thing that was just shoehorned in because just about everything that is released on a Nintendo console these days must be able to appeal to the casual crowd.
In the end, Personal Trainer: Math is little more than a digital textbook, and not even a very thorough one at that. Without any sort of baseline measurement, anyone who picks up the game is initially treated like a six-year-old and given math problems so easy that you could likely solve them in your sleep. The game's strict rules against advancement also mean that most people who start playing will probably grow bored and give up long before it starts to present a challenge. Furthermore, the Kageyama Method, while different, doesn't teach anything new, so gamers aren't really learning new math skills, just testing how quickly they can employ principles they already learned. I suppose if it's any consolation, the touch-screen controls work very well, and the game has almost no trouble recognizing any of the character inputs on the screen, but if that's the highest praise that one can give a game, then something has gone terribly wrong.
Extreme math nuts may enjoy Personal Trainer: Math simply due to the fact that if you drill down deep enough, there are plenty of exercises to test your skills. Everyone else should just steer clear of the game, as there's very little entertainment value to be had. If you don't love being assigned homework and being treated like an idiot, then you likely won't enjoy this title; no difficult quadratic equations are necessary to express that truth.