One of the most successful games of the Nintendo DS era returns, but is playing Sudoku on your Switch really good for your brain?
Brain Training on Nintendo Switch is not the most obvious way to usher in a new decade of video games, but for whatever reason it is the first major new release of 2020. And if nothing else a sobering opportunity to think about how much has changed since the original came out in 2005. Brain Training was the first of the derogatorily named ‘non-games’, titles that included the likes of Big Brain Academy and Nintendogs and which went on to become amongst the most successful video games of their generation. Even though they weren’t really video games at all.
Although the home console scene of 2005 featured recognisable hits such as Resident Evil 4 and Call Of Duty 2 there was one thing that would nowadays seem inconceivable to younger gamers: smartphones did not yet exist. Moreover, it was a difficult transition period for Nintendo, as not only had the GameCube not been a success but the Game Boy Advance had reached the end of its natural life and the DS was only being tentatively promoted as a direct replacement.
As has happened more than once in Nintendo’s storied history, they realised that major change was necessary and so many of the DS’s biggest releases were aimed at non-gamers, a successful tactic that later inspired the Wii and in particular titles like Wii Fit and Wii Music. To this day Brain Training remains one of the most successful single format games ever in the UK, so you can understand the temptation in wanting to bring it back. You can also predict just how out of place it feels in the modern era…
The original Brain Training may have sold over 19 million copies but the idea of spending £20+ on a self-help tool, whose most entertaining element is a game of Sudoku, is an incredibly hard sell in today’s market. Not only is the audience for Brain Training now used to using smartphones for such things but they’re also used to paying little or nothing for them. There’s little Nintendo can do about that, but the surprising thing about the new Brain Training is what a poor showcase it is for the Switch, and especially the Switch Lite.
If this was a traditional game it’d probably be classed as a remaster or director’s cut, as its core is the same as the original DS game, but with other mini-games and elements added in from its sequels – as well as others that have been created just for this edition. Although, since the Switch doesn’t have a built-in microphone, none of the old voice recognition ones are included and the list of separate games is actually rather short.
Based on a series of self-help books by the eponymous Dr Kawashima, your brain is trained via a small selection of exercises, starting with simple maths calculations and word puzzles. Some games can be played separately but you’re encouraged to take part in ‘daily training’ so you can calculate your brain’s mental age.
Your first Brain Age Check is likely to identify you as an octogenarian, whether you are or not, but the idea is that with regular play you can improve your score and thereby your mental acuity. Although the science behind that concept was called into question even at the time of the original release and still seems to be in dispute now.
If nothing else, practising every day does have a demonstrable effect on the Brain Age score, with the game also encouraging rivalries with other people in terms of comparing scores and multiplayer mini-games. Although we should emphasise that all these game are purely therapeutic and, with the exception of Sudoku, none of them are really any fun in their own right – although to be fair they’re not advertised as such.
What also isn’t advertised is how much you lose out if you only have a Switch Lite. Many of the new mini-games, including the multiplayer ones, use the IR sensor on the right Joy-Con, which the Switch Lite doesn’t have. These are used for things like rock, paper, scissors and counting your fingers but the reliability is not great, which is a real problem when you’re being tested on the speed of your reaction.
Presumably the developers didn’t know about the Lite when they were working on the game, but it’s unfortunate just how much of the new functionality is based around playing on the full fat Switch console. But not even that works particularly well as you can’t play the daily training mode when the console is docked and holding it vertically with a Joy-Con in your other hand is very awkward.
As an extra bonus the handwriting recognition, which is important enough that the physical copy comes with a free stylus, is awful and baffling in the mistakes it makes. Which wouldn’t be so bad except that’s the only way to input numbers.
Brain Training for Switch was always going to feel like a game out of time, but Nintendo have done themselves no favours here. Perhaps if this had been a brand new game, rather than a half-hearted remaster, things might have been different, but with dozens of free Sudoku games available on every smartphone it doesn’t take much braining training to know this isn’t worth it.
Dr Kawashima’s Brain Training For Nintendo Switch review summary
Pros: The basic idea still has value and can be a useful introduction to video games for the committed non-gamer. Sudoku is always fun.
Cons: Many of the mini-games from the previous games are missing and a lot of the new ones need a Joy-Con, which a Switch Lite doesn’t have by default. Poor IR and hand-writing recognition.
Formats: Nintendo Switch
Developer: Nintendo EPD and indieszero
Release Date: 3rd January 2020
Age Rating: 3