The original Brain Age for the Nintendo DS debuted in April 2006 in North America, and despite being an educational title — or edutainment, if you prefer — it surprisingly flew up the sales charts. It could be considered the title that bolstered the popularity of the Nintendo DS among adults. It was essentially the Wii Sports of the Nintendo DS, and as of 2011, it has sold over 18 million units worldwide.
That sets a high bar for the follow-up title on the 3DS, Brain Age: Concentration Training. It's not the first sequel in the series; the second Brain Age title also debuted on the DS, along with a smaller package of tests in digital form for a DSi-only release. Concentration Training is a pretty big departure from the timed multiplication tests, Sudoku puzzles, and other minigames that have been commonly associated with the franchise.
Still a project spearheaded by Dr. Ryuta Kawashima, a noted Japanese neuroscientist, Concentration Training has more of a focus on working memory than improving your thinking speed. "Devilish Training" introduces a new set of training exercises, and as the name implies, they are fiendishly hard — at first. Other, more familiar brain training exercises are still present, but the focus here is strictly on the Devilish Training courses, meant to be tackled on a daily basis, with five minutes a day devoted to each course.
As the game begins, you set up a profile based on your existing Mii on the 3DS. There are numerous profile spots for other users, and it's worth getting others to play so you can compare stats across all training courses. The lack of online functionality means that this is the only way to get any competitive enjoyment from the game — aside from the StreetPass feature, which serves the same purpose. I live in an area that is apparently devoid of 3DS players, so I didn't get the opportunity to check out the StreetPass functionality, but I was disappointed in the lack of online capabilities, as I think it would have bolstered enjoyment for those who like to compare stats and scores.
Once your profile is created, the floating polygonal face of Dr. Kawashima appears, much like he did in the original Brain Age. He's actually given a voice in this go-round, so he'll introduce you to the concept of concentration training, adding some explanation of how it's intended to improve your working memory. If you're curious, working memory is the ability to temporarily store information for immediate access on a current task. Most of the Devilish Training exercises are focused on forcing you to remember information you saw seconds ago and recall it without the aid of a visual prompt.
While it's great that the 3DS hardware is used to render a slightly more animated and detailed version of the trademark Dr. Kawashima polygonal face, the good doctor gets a little long-winded at times. You can speed up most dialogue by holding down a face button or pressing the stylus against the screen, but he seems to pop up often, even after a couple of weeks, so it would've been helpful to have the ability to turn him off completely. There's an option to disable the voice-overs, but not the dialogue. It's less of a problem at first, but you'll grow tired of him tossing in an encouraging word in the middle of your training exercises and breaking your concentration.
At least the training exercises are fun, if not fiendishly difficult. The Devilish Training exercises are introduced with the concept of 1-Back. This exercise gives you a simple math problem, addition or subtraction, and forces you to remember the answer while looking at the next problem. 1-Back won't be too challenging for most, but a lot of folks will find the later versions to be quite tough. I've progressed to 4-Back after about three weeks, so some improvement is being made. If you're stuck at 2- or 3-Back, that seems to be a pretty standard wall. The five-minute timer to complete the exercises seems perfect; it's long enough that you can potentially see improvement, but it's not so long that you'll get frustrated and stop trying.
Other Devilish Training exercises adopt a similar method of play. Devilish Shapes shows you wildly different shapes and tasks you with remembering one of them while being shown others. Devilish Reading has you read small sentences into the microphone, with emphasis given to one word in each sentence. At the end of the reading, you'll need to write all of the highlighted words to proceed. Devilish Mice gives you a grid pattern represented by cards, with mice icons underneath certain cards that you'll need to track. As the difficulty progresses, you'll need to track more mice, with the card shuffling in different directions and occasionally off the board.
A lot of the training exercises take some time before you feel proficient, but once things start to click, you'll have little trouble seeing some benefit within the game. I can't speak to how the effects of Devilish Training have carried over into the real world, but you can see improvement in the various graphs that indicate your game progress. There's a system in place that decides when you advance to the next stage, stay at the same level, or fall back to a previous difficulty setting.
Other added benefits in this title are enhanced writing and voice recognition. The original Brain Age was notorious for misinterpreting word and number inputs. I had little difficulty with Concentration Training's ability to figure out what I wrote, despite my awful handwriting skills. I had to be a little more careful with certain words and numbers, but I never felt that I was missing answers due to incorrect interpretations of what I wrote, unlike the original DS titles. With that said, the recognition doesn't carry over as well outside of Devilish Training. The other training exercises seem dependent on an older version of input recognition from the previous games, and the transition between the two can be a little jarring.
Outside of Devilish Training, you've got a hefty number of modes and games: Brain Training, Concentration Challenges, Relaxation Mode and Supplemental Training. Brain Training features more minigame modes, including familiar games like Klondike and Spider Solitaire. Not nearly as taxing as Devilish Training or Supplemental Training, these games are designed to keep your brain active but without number and word games. Other minigames include Block Head, which involves taking over small blocks against an AI-controlled opponent who's trying to do the same. The end goal is to take over the most blocks. The Piano Player minigame gives you a simple, familiar song and you try to press the appropriate piano keys when prompted by the sheet music.
Relaxation Mode gives you a few mindless minigames, mostly based on falling block puzzles akin to Columns, Dr. Mario and Tetris. It's honestly a wasted mode for the title, as the games themselves aren't that fun and provide no real benefit or notable stat-tracking. Considering that Brain Age is on a video game platform, if I want to relax my brain, I could certainly find better methods on the handheld.
Supplemental Training follows the same concepts of Devilish Training, focusing on concentration in addition to speed. It contains some modes found in previous Brain Age titles, like Calculations x20, but there's also newer material. One of my favorites here is Sum Totaled: Battle, which has some light RPG trappings as you face monsters, which are represented by stacked numbers. You need to quickly add these numbers together to defeat the monster, and there's a challenging boss encounter at the end of each level.
Aside from the useless Relaxation Mode, Brain Age: Concentration Training is a pretty solid entry in the Brain Age series. It doesn't make exceptional use of the 3DS hardware, since the 3-D effect doesn't amount to much when graphics consist of simple shapes and text. The additional challenge of Devilish Mode certainly makes this title interesting enough to check out. The difficulty might put off those who enjoyed the original games, but that barrier to entry eventually dissipates as you put more time into the training exercises. Some of the wonder has worn off after the plethora of copycat titles, but Concentration Training is definitely worth a look.
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