The first part of Brain Age's insidious web of deception involves tricking you into thinking you're too stupid to see through its bullshit. This is accomplished via the "Brain Age Check", which is a sort of placement testing phase that's mandatory if you want to start up a new file and begin your brain training adventure. The test which, need I remind you, is designed to determine your intelligence involves you screaming the names of colors at your DS. I briefly smiled as I thought I was too smart for the game, having figured out the secret trick to getting a high score. Much to my disappointment, though, saying "Nice try game, but doing this would be inviting you to call me a lunatic and I'm not falling for it," didn't let me skip the test and I was forced to start over and attempt to complete it the legitimate way.
What they say is true, folks; video games are changing. The popular trend of games being designed as nothing more than mindless forms of entertainment is quickly disappearing. The public has embraced games as tools that inform and educate us, expand our mental capacity, help us stay physically fit, and enrich our everyday lives. This evolution is perhaps best exemplified by Brain Age
: Train Your Brain in Minutes a Day! for the Nintendo DS. I admit this cultural phenomenon had me skeptical at first, but after spending a few days experiencing its wide array of cerebral exercises, I can't help but agree with those who claim that interactive entertainment is undergoing a radical transformation. While games were once content to make us feel like fools by confounding us with poorly-designed levels and inferior mapping systems, complicated and unclear mission objectives, and obscenely difficult boss battles that we fail time and again, titles such as Brain Age
can now insult our intelligence in a much more literal fashion. Instead of merely being frustrated, we now have the opportunity to feel truly profound depression and experience a cripplingly reduced sense of self-worth.
Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the future of gaming!
The Marketing Game, Chapter 1:
"Keep redefining the industry until it fits whatever you're trying to sell!"
Since being released in 2006, Brain Age
has become a poster child for Nintendo's market philosophy of selling games to people who wouldn't normally play games. Now, whether you think Nintendo is comprised of geniuses for managing to corner an enormous untapped market or you think they're a bunch of pussies for doing their damnedest to avoid going up against their competitors directly, you have to admit that the company has made some awfully good bank by going after overprotective soccer moms and easily confused grandparents. Their ability to successfully target these demographics is made all the more impressive when you consider that these kinds of people are traditionally the gaming industry's arch enemies. What with their nudity and their blood and their foul language and their Duke Nuke-Him's
and their Dungeons and Devils
and their Grand Theft Rape Simulators
, people over the age of 35-ish generally don't look upon the vid'ya games too fondly. For Nintendo to actually sell games to these folks is a lot like if a bunch of rabbis had gotten together in the early 40's and figured out a way to get rich pushing dreidels and menorahs in Germany, along with adorable plush toys of Hitler that said "I love zee Jews, yah!" when squeezed.
How do they do it? Well, like all good salesmen, Nintendo's marketing executives rely on the time-tested strategy of lying
(or "approaching the truth from an alternative perspective" as it's known in Lawyerese). Nintendo made a killing off of Wii Sports
because they advertised it as a way to stay fit and lose weight. Now, I don't know about you, but personally, I was overjoyed when I found out I could cancel my expensive gym membership and achieve the same results by standing in front of my TV and flicking my wrist at the screen while I ate chocolate cake. No doubt, thousands of busy parents and senior citizens felt the same way. Unfortunately for myself and lots of now-dead old people, what Nintendo really meant
was that playing Wii Sports
was a healthy activity when compared to, say, playing traditional sitting-down video games or doing meth.
This philosophy of soulless, wicked deceit is also evident in Brain Age
, which is marketed with the idea that playing it will make you smarter. And when you consider that, it's really no wonder this game has sold millions of copies worldwide. After all, who doesn't want to be smart? In this age of powerful computers and instantaneous information exchange, society has placed an increasingly great importance on intelligence and problem-solving abilities as we outsource manual labor to less important countries and strive to perfect the machines that we rely on to do most of our thinking for us.
The problem with trusting Brain Age
to make you smarter is that you kind of have to be an idiot in order to believe that a DS game can actually improve your ability to mentally process information. And if you're an idiot, then you just have that much farther to go in order to become smart, which means that a video game has even less
of a chance of strengthening your intellect than it would for non-idiotic people. Want an even bigger helping of Irony Pie? The paradox I just described requires someone of extremely high intelligence to even make sense of (I'm not ashamed to admit that it's far beyond my ability to comprehend), and someone like that would have even less
of a use for Brain Age
than the typical consumer who would be expected to buy the game.
Have I completely blown your mind, yet? If you're having trouble wrapping your head around the above paragraph, then just wait until you find out how Brain Age
is "played"... Warning: Your walls might get wet with chunks of your exploded head.
The Marketing Game, Chapter 2:
"Remind people how much they suck, and how you can help them!"
My brain is currently lighting up with rage. Why the hell hasn't StarFox killed you yet?
After a short time spent yelling color names at my DS like an enraged preschooler, the game calculated my results and presented me with my Brain Age. Your Brain Age is sort of like a backwards version of an IQ score; your brain's age determines approximately how strong it is, or how well it's able to perform duties aside from making sure your head doesn't cave in. The ideal age is 20, with older ages indicating that your brain is out of shape (implying that you're a moron). I always thought that the Japanese honored their elders, but now I know that they just consider them imbeciles, and the younger generations help out the older generations more out of pity than respect.
Anyway, upon completing the initial test, the game informed me that my current Brain Age was... 51. Now, since the ideal age is 20, I was able to surmise that the game was more or less telling me that my brain was essentially as good at thinking as a ball of congealed fish paste.
In my defense, I was pretty tired that evening, and the game failed to recognize when I yelled "blue" about half of the time, no doubt unfairly subtracting quite a few points from my score. I had trouble convincing myself of that, though. The game's nefarious plot was executed flawlessly, and I was, if only for a short while, ready to believe that my poor neglected brain was in dire need of the training that this game could provide. The floating polygonal head of Dr. Kawashima would be my savior from a dark future spent drooling on myself and struggling to remember to ask people if they wanted fries with that after pressing the picture of whatever food item they just ordered.
The Marketing Game, Chapter 3:
"Trick people into thinking they're accomplishing something!"
With my pride sufficiently wounded, I proceeded to set up a new save file and prepared myself for the magical journey of learning that lay ahead. Upon beginning my brain training, I saw that I had the option of accessing a total of three different exercises: I could solve math problems, solve more math problems, or read aloud. For anyone attempting to increase their brainpower, seeing this list of options is a lot like being bitten by a King Cobra and having someone hand you a box labeled "snake venom antidotes", only to open the box and find that it contains a can of Steven Segal's Lightning Bolt energy drink, a second can of Steven Segal's Lightning Bolt energy drink, and a plastic container of goat semen.
Behold, the only video game that homeschooled Amish children think is boring.
Despite the fact that these exercises are so insultingly simple that elementary school children would laugh at the prospect of finding them included on a homework assignment, the game still finds ways to make you feel stupid after completing them. Each minigame is followed by a results screen where you receive a score based on how long you took. These scored are accompanied by a visual representation of speed-such as a man walking, a car driving, a plane flying, and so on-to help you figure out how you did. I'd say that this level of belittlement was taking things too far, but I guess I can't blame the game for assuming I'm bad with numbers since it came pre-programmed with the knowledge that I had willingly thrown away $19.99 plus sales tax to have a virtual scientist tell me I'm mentally retarded.
In addition to earning a depressingly hollow sense of satisfaction, completing exercises also awards you stamps. Earning stamps presents another one of the game's dubious methods of keeping players interested, as getting more stamps allows you access to new minigames and features. That's right folks, as advanced of a title as Brain Age fancies itself, it isn't above resorting to the woefully uninspired video game cliché of unlockable content-also known as lazy developers' favorite method of artificially increasing the length of your gaming experience. In fact, Brain Age takes this cheap trick and exploits it in a whole new devious way by only allowing you to acquire one new stamp every 24 hours. Relying on the DS's built-in clock, the game only lets you get a single stamp before making you wait until the next day to earn another, regardless of how many minigames you play or how well you do. I'm not sure if that's just bad game design, or some sort of subliminal message promoting socialism, but either way it's ridiculous.
Just imagine how well Super Mario Bros. would have been received if, upon completing level 1-1 for the first time, young gamers were met by a screen that read "Congratulations, you've beaten Level 1! Now try to beat Level 2... Tomorrow! In the meantime, feel free to replay Level 1 and think about all the alternative ways you could have spent the money you used to buy this game!" If history would have gone on to remember Shigeru Miyamoto as being solely responsible for everything bad to happen in the world after 1985, it totally would have served him right.
As tantalizing as the promise of new ways to waste your time and be called a dimwit afterwards may seem, I don't think the unlockable content is why so many people continue to put up with this game despite it lacking anything resembling fun. The main draw that will keep suckers coming back to Brain Age is the way it ingeniously presents players with the illusion of progress. Just as Nintendo fooled us into thinking that the gaping hole in our souls would somehow magically be filled if we managed to catch every single Pokémon, their newest cash cow does a damn fine job of making you believe you're gradually getting smarter the more you play it. The truth is that repetition is its own form of training, and if you replay the tiny selection of available minigames enough, you're naturally bound to make it through them faster as time goes by. This has little to do with true intelligence, but with Dr. Kawashima's eerily disembodied cranium praising you for shaving a couple seconds off of your clear time and babbling on about your prefrontal cortex and whatever, the illusion is admittedly quite convincing. It just makes you that much angrier when you realize that Brain Age won't actually increase your IQ score any more than getting naked and standing in front of a neon beer sign will give you a tan.
The Marketing Game, Chapter 4:
"Make your fad successful by capitalizing on the success of another fad!"
In addition to the HOURS OF FUN that can be had with the game's soul-crushing mental exercises, Brain Age also includes a selection of Sudoku puzzles. For those who have forgotten, Sudoku is that number-placement puzzle game that was hugely popular for about three days back in 2005. I always thought Sudoku was kind of boring, but compared to the rest of what Brain Age has to offer, I figured the opportunity to write down numbers in little squares would be an oasis of exhilarating entertainment. Little did I know just how far the creators of this game would go to ensure that I was plagued with low self-esteem after every single session playing it...
Staying true to the game's theme of grading you on everything you do more strictly than a boarding school nun with a ruler stuck up her ass, completing each Sudoku puzzle takes you to a results screen where you're told how miserably you did. Nothing takes the fun out of a relaxing puzzle game like the knowledge that you're constantly being monitored by an AI program that's absolutely hell-bent on proving to you how inferior your fleshy, non-computerized brain is. And GOD HELP YOU if you screw up at all. Marking down an incorrect number results in a time penalty of no less than TWENTY minutes. I completed my first puzzle in a little over ten minutes, but because I had made two mistakes (one of which wasn't even my fault-the game incorrectly read one of my 9's as a 4), my total time was almost an hour.
Good thing I'm too stupid to figure out I could be doing this for free on any of twelve billion different Sudoku websites.
The fact that your performance is rated at all is a little ridiculous given the fact that you're essentially playing a tacked-on bonus game, but to penalize each mistake that severely is absurd. Twenty minutes for every error? Really, game? You honestly think I'm such a dumbass that it would take me twenty minutes to figure out I made a mistake on my own? Now you're just being vindictive. I mean goddamn. If schools used a similar scoring system for grading students' work, then one wrong answer on a quiz would knock you down from an A to a C, two wrong answers would net you an F, and three or more wrong answers would result in immediate expulsion and possibly several weeks in jail.
Thankfully, making five mistakes on a single puzzle alerts the game that you're obviously too stupid to be allowed to continue, and your game is ended automatically so as to spare you the embarrassment of admitting that you have no hope of actually completing the puzzle. Unless you were almost finished and got a wrong answer because the game misread one of the numbers you wrote down, in which case that's tough shit for you.
Also, in case you're wondering, no, completing a puzzle quickly and with zero mistakes doesn't win you any sort of prize. Considering how severe the penalties for doing poorly were, I figured a perfect run would result in Reggie Fils-Aimé kicking down my front door and throwing me the keys to modified Enzo Ferrari that was powered by supermodels giving me blowjobs. Alas, this turned out to be one more dream of mine that Brain Age was seemingly developed for the express purpose of crushing.
The Marketing Game, Chapter 5:
"Use the buyers' declining standards to your advantage!"
After putting up with this game's bullshit for long enough to collect about half a dozen stamps, I couldn't take it anymore. Like the inspirationally homicidal female protagonists of so many Lifetime Original Movies, I just got fed up with the abuse. I've already got infomercials on my TV telling me I'm overweight and undereducated, spam e-mails on my computer telling me my dick is too small and my credit sucks, and even my digital alarm clock telling me I'm a lazy bastard for pressing the snooze button one too many times. I don't need my DS turning into yet another piece of technology that has to constantly remind me what a failure I am.
Yeah, now, I can totally see why this outsold every DS Zelda, Castlevania, and Final Fantasy game combined.
If Brain Age truly is the future of gaming, then I think I've gained new insight into the appeal of the retro gaming craze. It wasn't that video games were so vastly superior back in the early days of the industry, it's just that we as consumers didn't have our priorities quite so fucked up. Back in the days of the NES and earlier, "edutainment" titles were largely thought of as the outcasts of the gaming world (and rightfully so). Even when you threw in popular characters from other games that were actually enjoyable, any title that focused on learning over fun was critically panned and usually sold about as well as a death metal album that accidentally got put in with a box of gospel music compilations at a church flea market. Games like Donkey Kong Jr. Math were shunned by the public, who had no trouble seeing through the game's guise as a monkey-filled whirlwind of adventure and figuring out that it was basically a fucking homework simulator. Fast forward into in the early nineties and you'll notice folks were still smart enough to spot Nintendo's misguided attempts at education for the blatant attacks on their customers' ability to enjoy life that they were, hence the reason Mario is Missing ended up teaching kids very little about geography while simultaneously teaching them a lot about how many fireworks it takes to blow up an SNES cartridge.
Someone want to tell me exactly what happened in the last few years to make society pull a 180 and suddenly embrace the non-game with such fervor? Because something did happen. Brain Age itself is proof that this bizarre case of nationwide bipolar disorder I'm describing is real. Ten years ago I can almost guarantee a game like this would have gotten a team of developers fired, yet today it's a hit. According to Wikipedia, Brain Age has sold "more copies than my penis lol", won several awards (including the Interactive Achievement Awards for both "Handheld Game of the Year" and "Penis Penis Penis Hilary Duff Sux"), and has been followed by an equally successful sequel called Brain Age 2: More Penis in Minutes a Penis. Hmm, that's peculiar. At any rate, this game has been phenomenally successful, and I truly have no idea why.
As a tool for sharpening your mind, Brain Age works about as well as the multiplication flashcards that inspired it. I'll concede it's entirely possible that playing the minigames might help jumpstart your mental focus first thing in the morning if you don't have time to catch a full episode of Sesame Street, but any struggling D student who thinks this game is his ticket into Harvard is in for one depressing-ass surprise.
As a game... Well, shit, when you get right down to it, Brain Age isn't even really a game at all. And I guess that's what's wrong with it. I probably wouldn't give a damn one way or the other if it had been made for any other electronic device out there, but when you market something on a Nintendo DS, I expect it to be a game created for my entertainment. Maybe that's not "thinking outside the box" the way Nintendo would want me to, but I guess that's my gradually decaying 51-year-old brain for you.
On that note, I think I'll wrap this up so I can go watch some Law & Order reruns, spend hours shopping for patio furniture online, and take the trash out to the curb at two o'clock p.m. the day before the garbage man is supposed to come, just in case. In closing, Brain Age sucks ass. Don't buy it.