You may have heard about the rampant Nintendo DS shortages in Japan. Part of the reason it's in such high demand is this one game - Brain Age: Train Your Brain in Minutes a Day. The everyday mind-stretcher has captivated the entire country, spanning all ages and sucking up non-gamers as well. Now it's your turn.
Every day you're supposed to fire up Brain Age and perform a series of quick tests that gauge how old your mind really feels. They start out fairly simple, like basic math problems, then morph into three-minute memorization marathons. One test has you scribbling answers onto the touch screen, using the DS like a workbook (you even hold the unit sideways, like a book), while the next makes you say, out loud, what color you're looking at. If you're in a compromising position, say on a bus or in class, you can opt for all non-verbal tests.
Sounds a lot like homework. But the constant, positive reinforcement and clicky-clacky sound effects make the logic puzzles feel like a reward. With no goal to achieve or overall score to best, the only reason to play is to better yourself, and hopefully maintain an average brain age close to your real age. Unless you're a sudoku nut - in which case there are a slew of touch-screen puzzles to topple.
Day-to-day stat tracking lets you know how you're doing, plus shows how others sharing your game card stack up against you. If no one else has it, up to 16 can sample the puzzling goodness. Just be prepared for some unexpectedly high ages until you work around the game's touch-and-go interface.
If there's one thing we all know that will never be perfect, it's speech-and-handwriting recognition software. No matter how lenient Brain Age may appear to be, most of us will have to re-learn how to speak and write. The English language allows so much room for sloppy script and jumbled words - that means the quirky way you write the letter "e" is going to land you a ton of trouble here.
Same goes for speaking. While the vast majority of speech tests work fine, hearing "Blue, blue, blue ... blue?" over and over again makes it painfully obvious that a lot people say words differently - and not knowing the "correct" way to pronounce things will make you seem 50 years old when you're really 30. You've got to learn how to beat the test, which of course means your improving score isn't so much you getting better, but rather just you growing accustomed to the routine.
Even with its sometimes-wonky recognition, Brain Age is a mindjob piece of software. The fact that you can only test for your age once a day gives you incentive to keep trying, and with the floating head of Professor Kawashima offering suggestions, there's a sense of a persisting, updating world every time you play. He'll even ask you what you ate for lunch - just to turn around two weeks later and ask what it was you ate for lunch that day. Anyone can do this. It's the ultimate way to invite new people to gaming, and you might just learn something along the way.