Over the past several years, hard core gamers have protested the increasing popularity of “casual games,” titles which make little or no attempt to satisfy the particular needs of avid gamers, and rather appeal largely to “casuals,” people who only occasionally play games. Also known as Brain Training, Nintendo’s Brain Age for the Nintendo DS is one of several such boundary-pushing titles, a “brain training” title designed to stimulate your mind by giving you timed multiple choice and other tests to keep you thinking quickly. Mixing science with the fun of a quiz show, Brain Age has appealed as much to the geriatric set as middle-aged and younger users, and Nintendo has been rewarded: the original title has sold around 10 million copies, and inspired both knock-offs and sequels. [Updated July 23, 2008: We have added a new section to this December 4, 2007 review with information on the iPhone/iPod touch version of Brain Challenge, as well as updated rating information. Please see the end of this review for the new details.]
Gameloft’s Brain Challenge ($5) is the iPod Games equivalent of Brain Age, and works on the fifth-generation iPod, iPod nano, and iPod classic. Limitations of the iPod hardware and small visual changes aside, there’s no doubt that Brain Challenge is as close to Brain Age as the iPod models can get: you’re even walked through the mind games by an on-screen coach who peppers you with brain-related trivia questions and factoids in-between challenges. Here, the coach’s either an attractive male or female—your choice—rather than a bespectacled Japanese floating head. Other than one difference—the 3-2-1 countdown before each challenge moves in 3-D on the iPod, and uses a calendar-style flipping timer on the nano and classic—the game looks and feels the same on each platform, presenting you with a series of brief mind games that you’re challenged to complete as quickly as possible.
The games come from a collection of 20 training exercises, divided into Logic, Math, Memory, Visual, and Focus tests; most require multiple choice selections, while others ask you to use the Click Wheel’s touch surface to signal up, down, left, or right movements. Gameloft’s first Logic game asks you to figure out which of several objects is the heaviest; Math presents you with number and shape matching games; Memory tries to see if you can quickly recall something that’s been flashed on the screen; Visual gives you matching puzzles that test your ability to process what you’re seeing; and Focus gets you to process changing information on the screen.
Brain Challenge structures its gaming experience into two modes of play. First is the Daily Brain Test, which picks five exercises from the collection of 20, puts you on a per-exercise timer, and reductively expresses your overall accuracy and quickness as the supposed percentage of your brain that’s being used. The more and the better you play, the more the percentage increases; it starts low and your avatar chides you until you improve. Gameloft’s second mode is the Training Room, which lets you access some of the 20 exercises—more are unlocked for practice as you continue to play and train—as well as a collection of six unstructured, simple Creative Mode games. This is Gameloft’s attempt to emulate Nintendo’s inclusion of a simple Sudoku game along with Brain Age; the Creative games are untimed, and designed to let you relax between the formal training and gameplay sessions.
On a highly positive note, Brain Challenge’s games are actually fun, and achieve exactly what they’re supposed to do: they get you thinking, a little at a time, and help you become better at simple puzzle-solving. While these iPods can’t handle the Nintendo DS’s stylus/touchscreen quizzes or microphone-based interactivity, the Click Wheel’s a fine substitute, used well here for both simple touch surface tapping and multiple choice exercises. Like all properly developed games, your failures to succeed are attributable not to poor controls, but rather to your own lack of skill.
Gameloft does a good job of making the actual exercises better than their genres might suggest. In Trout Route, a “Math” game, you’re presented with a grid, a number (say, 25), and a math challenge (-5). You start from the number on the grid, and touch up, left, right, or down to move repeatedly to the next correct number in the sequence, such that 25-5 would be 20, -5 would be 15, -5 would be 10, and so on. Pick the wrong next number and you do poorly; follow the whole sequence and you move on. Other games have you figure out how changes to the left side of the screen would affect objects on the right side of the screen, determine the impact of different mirrors on blocks, and determine which of a bunch of balls bounces highest. Brain Challenge saves your performances over multiple sessions, and lets you evaluate your improvement over time.
Aesthetics aside—Brain Challenge doesn’t push the iPod hardware in any way—the game’s only real failing is its occasionally unintuitive approach to explaining and rendering the exercises. Rather than fully thinking out the pre-challenge tutorials, which are supposed to explain how each of the 20 exercises will play before you play them, Gameloft’s descriptions—and one or two of the exercises themselves—can be a little confusing. For instance, one exercise shows cars passing in and out of a garage, and presents you with multiple choices as to how many cars remain. You might screw up the first or second time: how many remain on the road, or how many remain in the garage? Another exercise asks you which of several objects is the heaviest, but then presents weird scales at the top of the screen that re-define their weights; a strawberry might counterintuitively be “heavier” to the game than a bunch of bananas. Sometimes you’ll score below your actual abilities because you’re confused about the question or the control mechanism. This doesn’t happen often, but it happens.
Since Apple hasn’t been able to formally partner with Nintendo, it and its third-party developers have two choices: ignore Nintendo’s most popular games, or release similar-enough titles at lower prices to satisfy iPod owners. Brain Challenge is a great example of the latter strategy, delivering a Nintendo DS-derivative experience at the lower-than-DS, and entirely reasonable $5 price point. Though it’s not quite the rival of the DS game on features, and not as aesthetically striking as the iPod’s best titles, it feels more complete than many iPod Games, and it’s just as smart of an offering for this platform as Brain Age was for Nintendo’s. If the idea of brain training strikes your fancy, you’ll enjoy it whether you play it briefly once a day or keep practicing for longer chunks of time—it’s a great casual game, and worth the asking price.
iPhone/iPod touch Version
Brain Challenge ($10) for the iPhone and iPod touch features both graphic and gameplay tweaks to the prior “make your brain work faster” quiz and response time title. Gameloft now includes polygonal versions of the game’s male and female brain coaches, and new modes: Stress Test challenges are designed to overwhelm you visually with layers of distracting visual effects, while new mini-games such as Cubes let you rotate the iPhone to move and unite on-screen cubes. One of the Stress Test stages has you swiping cheese-hunting mice off the screen when you’re trying to solve a puzzle; another places leaves and other impediments in front of blocks you’re trying to identify.
There are two major positives in Brain Challenge relative to the iPod version. First, Gameloft has added enough new content to make this game better than its predecessor; it has also made solid use of the touchscreen to create an interface that is better than the one on the prior iPod. However, these changes aren’t enough in our view to fully justify doubling the original price. Had Brain Challenge been a little less expensive, it would have continued to merit our high recommendation, but as a not-quite-sequel to the first game, it shouldn’t be so expensive. That said, if you haven’t tried the iPod version and want a fun set of rapid-response puzzles, this should be right up there on your list of downloadable iPhone games.
Click Wheel iPod
Company and Price
Company: Gameloft S.A.
Price: $5 (iPod), $10 (iPhone)
Compatible: iPod 5G, iPod nano (video), iPod classic, iPod touch, iPhone