Outstanding, innovative game
Upon starting as a new player, Dr. Ryuuta Kawashima, the Doctor of Medicine upon whose books the game is based, explains in brief the nature of the game. When a person is doing normal activities, only small portions of the brain receive extra blood flow. However, certain activities require a wider range of brain functions. This game seeks to compile many such activities, and in theory, through daily training, the brain will become better at handling these situations.
The game consists of two main parts: a brain age check and daily training exercises.
The brain age check randomly chooses three activities per day from a set of seven to test your brain:
1) Win/Loss Response. This is a game of janken, known in the U.S. as "Rock-Scissors-Paper." However, rather than simply playing the game, the player is shown either rock, scissors, or paper, and is asked to either win or lose by saying "guu" (rock), "choki" (scissors), or "paa" (paper) into the DS's microphone. This is actually the weakest thing on the whole DS card, since the microphone doesn't work as well as it should. Often saying the correct thing doesn't work, while on the other hand, just talking normally to people in the surrounding area often results in a string of hits. However, the player can opt out of this game by choosing the "no speaking" option when the age check begins. This option is great, leaving the game open to people who are good at it, while allowing those of us who aren't to skip it.
2) Continuous Subtraction. The player is given a starting number (let's say "102,"since that's what I got today) and another number to subtract from the first number (today's was "9"). The player must then subtract the second number from the first number and write the answers on the touch screen as fast as possible (93, 84, 75, 66, 57, 48, 39, 30, 21, 12, 3). It does take a little practice to get used to writing numbers the DS will recognize, but overall it's fairly accurate and this activity works nicely.
3) Kanji Memorization. The player is given 36 kanji (Chinese characters), and must memorize as many as possible in two minutes, and write as many as possible in three minutes. The order doesn't matter, and I'm fairly good at this for a gaijin (my record is 21), but it obviously wouldn't localize well for audiences not in Japan or China. The best I could see them doing is using full-length words, and they would be losing something in the process, in my opinion.
4) Symbol Conversion. You get a chart of equivalences between numbers and symbols (1=#, 2=$, 3=&, etc.), then the game throws numbers at you. You have to write the corresponding symbols as quickly as possible. This is not a memorization activity, but good speed requires consulting the list for the next number's symbol while writing the current symbol.
5) Addition From Memory. The game starts you out with a number (let's say "5"), then blacks out that number and gives you an addition problem with another term ("# + 4 = ?": the correct answer here being "9"). After answering the problem, the term that was not blacked out ("4" in this case) is blacked out, and you must use it in the next problem ("6 + # = ?": "10"). This requires a lot of concentration, and is hard to understand initially - two of my coworkers couldn't figure it out. If you forgot the number, you can have the game give you a new number, but your brain age will suffer. This one is good practice.
6) 5X5 Memorization. Possibly the hardest of the seven. You are given a 5X5 chart containing numbers from 1-25, and you have two minutes to memorize them and two more minutes to write as many as you can. Unlike kanji memorization, the position of the numbers matters, and if you make a mistake, you are penalized (by having the correct answer given to you and therefore not getting another chance to fill in that square). This one is tough, and makes for good practice (my record here is 19, though I don't know how I pulled it off).
7) Largest Number. You're given a random jumble of numbers written in varying font sizes, and you have to pick the number with the highest numeric value as quickly as possible. Some of the problems have numbers that float around the touch screen to make things more confusing and interesting. I'm still working on improving at this one.
Brain age ranges from 80 to 20, with the former age being the worst possible performance, and the latter age being the best. You may check your brain age repeatedly, but only the first score of the day is recorded. My record to date is 23, but I have a coworker (one of the aforementioned middle-aged women) who rubs it in my face that she repeatedly hits 20.
Aside from the brain age feature, there is daily training. The activities are similar to the brain age check (and one is exactly the same), but overall there seem to be more problems that test specific knowledge rather than general skills. Some activities have a "difficult" mode, which must be unlocked by getting "rocket level" (the game grades you using modes of transportation from walking to rocket). The problems included in daily training are:
1) Kanji Writing. Given a sentence, replace katakana with kanji. Not timed.
2) Arithmetic Symbols. Given a problem such as "2 _ 2 = 4," write the correct symbol ("+" in this case) as quickly as possible. Difficult mode requires two symbols per problem (e.g., "2 _ 2 _ 2 = 6").
3) Famous Song Performance. Every day, you get a new song and the sheet music for it, and you have to play it on a one-octave piano on the touch screen. The piano and the sheet music both contain "do re mi" notation as a guide, but difficult mode removes these. However, if the rhythm doesn't match well, the highest possible level is "airplane" (I got a piano-playing coworker to unlock this one for me).
* 4) Kanji Composition. Arrange simple kanji and katakana into more complex kanji and write them on the touch screen as quickly as possible. This is one of my favorites, although there's no possible way to localize this for foreign markets.
* 5) Shotokutaishi (this one's name doesn't translate well). Listen to the spoken three-syllable words, then write them. Sound easy? Well, sometimes you'll get two or even three different words spoken simultanously, and you have to write all three. Headphones are a must for this. Difficult mode has more three-person problems.
* 6) Addition From Memory. As in the brain age check.
* 7) Reading Aloud With Differentiation. You get a sentence with a jumble of kanji and hiragana, and three seconds to memorize it. Then you get the same sentence with either one kanji changed to hiragana, or some hiragana changed to one kanji, and you have to write it (in kanji). I finally pulled off rocket level today, but there's no difficult mode.
* 8) Date Calculation. This starts from simple questions such as "What day of the week is it today?" and moves to questions like "What was the date five days before four days after tomorrow's yesterday?" This can get confusing, and it's timed, so getting rocket level is extremely difficult.
* 9) Four-character Compounds (Yoji-jukugo). In Japanese, knowing a lot of four-kanji idiomatic compounds is a sign of a high level of literacy. This activity gives you some with one character removed, and you have to write it. It's wonderful if you're a student of Japanese (and somewhat difficult even for many natives).
* 10) Change Return. Shown a yen amount and a bunch of money (coins and maybe a bill), you have to give the correct change by selecting coins. Speed is of the essence. There's no difficult mode though, which disappointed me a little (it could have used problems with multiple bills). It's still lots of fun, and a few minutes a day playing a similar game should be mandatory for zitfaced fast-food employees in the U.S. ("Why are you giving me six dollars and three cents? It's only $5.98!" *sigh*).
* 11) Height Counting. Tetris-like blocks fall into an opaque box, and you have to give the height in units of a given column.
* 12) Rank Counting. This one shows a race, and you have to write the rank of the starting runner at the end of the race. This one gets really hard when the number of runners increases.
* 13) Clock Reading. View analog and digital clocks at various angles (and sometimes as mirror images) and write the correct time.
* 14) English Writing. Translate Japanese into English. You're given the number of letters in each word to rule out synonyms.
As with the brain age check, only the first scores of the day are recorded. This can be frustrating, as one's brain doesn't tend to be quite as primed on the first try, but it also adds to the replay value, since your one chance to get a high score each day becomes more precious. Also, training activities I've marked with an asterisk have to be unlocked, and they're unlocked by means of calendar stamps. If you don't train at least once on a given day, you don't get a stamp. Plus if you do three different activities, you get a bigger version of the stamp, and surely nobody wants to have their calendar looking all funky with different-sized stamps, so you'll want to do at least three a day. Moreover, you can unlock an option to design your own stamp for additional customization.
As if those 14 activities aren't enough, the 15th entry on the list is... Dr. Mario! Even the music is the same is the NES version (though with updated sound quality). But there's a twist. Instead of Mario, you get Dr. Kawashima, and the game's control (like just about everything here) is entirely stylus-driven - tap to rotate a pill, drag to move it. This adds a new dimension to the gameplay. On higher difficulty levels, two or even three pills are released at one time, and even when half a piece is falling, you can move it with the stylus (I know I wished I could have done that in the original Dr. Mario).
Occasionally, Dr. Kawashima will give you things to do aside from the standard training. Sometimes he'll ask you to do things like complete several sentences, write certain kanji (to judge your personality type - this one's kind of lame), or draw pictures of certain things. The picture thing is particularly fun. If two people are playing on the same cartridge, the second person to play in a given day will be shown the pictures drawn by the first person, and will be asked to guess what they are. Then when the first person picks up the game again, he or she will get to see whether the other person could tell what was drawn.
You can also see both graphs charting your progress in both training and brain age, along with top three lists for every activity in the game.
This review is getting extremely long, and I haven't even gotten to the multiplayer functions (and believe it or not, I've left out a few other small bonuses as well)! Up to 16 (!) people may play from one DS card, and, along with competitive versions of Kanji Composition, Change Return, and 5X5 Memorization (all mentioned above), if you have 3 or more people with DSes, you can compete in drawing pictures! Everyone is given prompts of what to draw, and at the end, you get to vote for which ones you like the best (you can't vote for your own, of course). Then Olympic-style ranks are given (though it's theoretically possible for everyone to get gold if everyone gets an equal number of votes). This seems like the kind of thing the DS was made for, and it rounds out an already amazing cart by adding multiplayer fun to a game that already has insane replay value. And to top it off, this is one of the cheapest games available for the DS. I guess I need to end my review before my head explodes from love for this game. Before I go, I'll summarize my scoring.
Gameplay: I can't stress enough how great this game is, but I'm docking one point for the poor voice recognition (though it may not be the game's fault) and occasional problems with numeral recognition. 9.
Graphics: Pretty simple graphics. The only thing of note is the 3D animated head of the good professor. But any showier graphics would likely be too distracting and detract from the game. Plus you can draw your own pictures, so how could I not give it a high score?! 10.
Sound: Pretty good. Not much music in the game, aside from the menu music, the music you have to play touchscreen piano along with, and that of Dr. Mario, but what's there sounds good and perfectly complements the feel of the game. The sound effects are also appropriate, and the voices in the listening activity are reasonably clear. 9.
Value: Though this game is only for people who are fairly proficient at Japanese, its value is pretty much explained in the lengthy review above. Duh. 10.
Tilt: One of the most unique games I've ever played, and one of the most fun, too. 10.