|Wed Jan 16, 2008 - 10:25 AM EST - By Andre Kibbe|
When it comes to physical fitness, the options available for developing ourselves are legion. We can choose from aerobics, weight training, jogging, yoga—the list goes on and on. Oddly, when it comes to enhancing mental fitness, suggesting a similar developmental approach of progressive conditioning courts skepticism. But since the Nineties, a number of researchers have argued that a systematic program of brain exercise can enhance mental performance in the manner that aerobics enhances physical performance. In Japan, Dr. Ryuta Kawashima hit a nerve with an exposition of this theory in his bestselling book, Train Your Brain: 60 Days to a Better Brain. Nintendo productized the book’s concepts and content into Brain Age, a blockbuster series of training games for the Nintendo DS and the Wii.
A game along similar lines is hard to find for the Palm platform. One prospect I reviewed a couple of weeks ago was Handcase’s game suite, Brain Hand, which left me nonplussed by the poorly translated English captions and instructions. While its games could be described as brain ticklers, they didn’t take the progressive grading approach that characterizes Brain Age as a training tool.
Much closer to Brain Age’s methodologies is In-Fusio’s Advanced Brain Trainer, a series currently comprised of two editions, available for Windows Mobile, Blackberry, Symbian/Series 60 and Palm OS. Let’s take a look at Edition 1 for POS.
You can test drive Advanced Brain Trainer by downloading the demo version, which has a 1-exam trial limit. As with most demos, I’d strongly prefer a version whose only limit is a fixed number of days. Limiting this game to one exam leaves much of the content unexplored: two of the five games, one of the coaches, and one of the playing modes.
The game begins with the two main coaches introducing themselves. A severe-looking Dr. Ann Winters starts things off by distinguishing her coaching style from that of her colleague, Dr. Bill Ferson. “Some trainees prefer of more lenient approach. I demand discipline.” Players get to choose between the two. While I appreciated the role reversal from the stereotypical “nurturing” female and “analytical” male, I opted for low maintenance, choosing Dr. Bill for the rest of the ride. Bill’s idea of lenient is whining, “I’m disappointed” when you score low, where Ann would bark, “This is terrible!
After several exams, another avatar is unlocked for players to choose from—a more abstract cartoon character of the Scott Adams/Matt Groening variety—named (if memory serves) Zack. He doesn’t seem to have a dominant coaching trait like Ann’s fastidiousness or Bill’s humanism, but is more no-nonsense than either.
The Exam Mode consists of five modules, three of which are unlocked during the first exams: Speed Count, Drawing Over, and Parking Check. An exam runs through each of these modules in no particular order, and players are only allowed to complete one exam per day. At the end of each exam, the coach reviews and displays the scoring with a bar graph showing players their progress (or lack thereof) from exam to exam. Coaches counsel players at the end of each review in their characteristic style, scolding if scores are low—or if a day of practice is missed—and praising if scores show progress.
After taking an exam, further training is possible in Practice Mode, which has no limit on the number of plays of unlocked modules. But like the Exam Mode, only unlocked modules are available.
Later exams unlock an Arcade Mode, which is a middle ground between the Exam and Practice Modes. The games in this Arcade Mode are often deployed at an accelerated pace, and only allow a limited number of mistakes.
Speed Count is the least entertaining of the bunch. Like other games designed for training or education, it’s obvious that amusement is not Advanced Brain Trainer’s top priority, and certainly not with this arithmetic module. Speed Count is essentially a series of “flashcards” of simple problems displayed at a brisk pace for the player to answer in a closed time frame. Not original, but effective.
Drawing Over is a deceptively simple battery of short-term memory tests. The first screen displays a pair of 2-color shape diagrams. The second screen shows a set of four diagrams to examine, one of which properly overlays the pair from the previous screen into a single image. The third screen asks the player to identify the correct image. In practice, it often winds up being harder than it looks. I found that I tended retain the shape patterns accurately at the expense of retaining the correct color scheme, or vice versa.
Parking Check is my favorite. This one’s a cruel challenge. The first screen presents a covered parking lot at the center of four roads. At irregular intervals over a one- to two-minute session, cars enter or exit the lot from any of four directions, either individually or in convoys of up to five cars. Sometimes the entries and exits occur one at a time, sometimes simultaneously. Occasionally are car has a trailer hitched to it designed to throw off the player’s count. The second screen asks the player how many cars remain inside the lot.
Color Algebra gets unlocked after the third exam. It takes Speed Count’s layout and bumps it up a notch with colored numerals and operators. The first screen presents a simple algebraic expression (no polynomials or functions). Some expressions feature unknowns, represented by question marks instead of variables; others are complete expressions with no unknowns. The second screen asks the player to provide the appropriate answer. If the expression in the prior screen had an unknown, the player is usually asked to provide that value. If the prior screen had a complete expression with no unknown (e.g. 5 3 > 12-6), the question is usually whether or not the expression is true or false. In less usual cases, the player is asked to recall the color assigned to a certain numeral or operator. Calculation and short-term memory are being tested simultaneously.
Four Aces is diabolical, unquestionably the hardest game of the bunch. The first screen displays a 3 x 3 grid of placeholders, on which up to 5 playing cards may be placed. The cards are displayed briefly, then flipped over, then slowly (or not so slowly) repositioned several times into new placeholders. On the second screen the player is asked to identify one—or a pair—of the cards’ current placements. If you’re lucky, you’ll get an assortment with only one card having a unique suit to track, but usually you’re forced to track the movements of more than one card simultaneously. I initially thought this was impossible, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised that it’s possible to get better at “multitracking” with practice.
Like Brain Age, or games in its tiny genre of cerebral fitness, Advanced Brain Trainer’s focus is on user performance, not entertainment per se. It’s not as thrilling as conventional games designed expressly for fun.
For its namesake purpose, it focuses on calculation and short-term memory more than other mental faculties, like pattern recognition, lateral thinking and logical deduction. So there’s room for improvement. That said, this edition does deliver the goods fabulously for the aspects of mental conditioning that it does cover. During the exams and practice sessions, you can almost feel your synapses firing to keep up. If you’re looking for some intellectual stimulation with a little more variety than another round of Sudoku, Advanced Brain Trainer provides a unique set of challenges.
I’ll continue the brain quest by reviewing Edition 2 of this series, so stay tuned.
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