Back in 2006, Nintendo managed to push the Nintendo DS firmly into the mainstream with Dr. Kawashima’s Brain Training series. How much more mainstream could you get than having Louise Redknapp and Terry Wogan flipping open a Nintendo DS and scrawling numbers on the screen, or barking colours at it?
Kicking off the new year, the series is back in the aptly titled Dr. Kawashima’s Brain Training for Nintendo Switch.
The first thing you’ll find when loading up the game is that everything is sideways; Dr. Kawashima’s disembodied low polygon head is having a bit of a lie down. The vast majority of the game is meant to be played with the console held vertically, more like a tablet than a gaming device, and you’ll often be interacting with it via the touch screen instead of with buttons and controls. It’s a call back to how the original Nintendo DS games played, asking you to hold the handheld like a book, and fits into the game’s blend of the old with the new.
The bulk of the game is in the Daily Training section, giving you a profile, tracking your daily mental gymnastics to see how you’re progressing. There’s the ever stressful Brain Age tests, here stringing together a trio of randomised tests and then popping out a calculated brain. They’re designed to test you in self-control, short-term memory and processing speed, throwing different mathematical, reflex and memory challenges at you. It’s as stressful doing these against the clock now as it was back in the mid-2000s!
But it’s not just about testing, it’s about training. Turfed out after successive days of training, there’s 12 minigames to take on, with a bunch of returning games like quick-fire Calculations x25 and Head Count. There’s also tricky new ones like Photographic Memory, where you have to pick the previously displayed photo while remembering the next one and deal with flipped images, and Dual Task, which has you picking the highest number while simultaneously jumping hurdles. Oh, and there’s obviously the return of Sudoku, which was a huge part of the original game’s popularity.
The game is also designed to make use of the Nintendo Switch’s unique properties. The IR sensor on the right Joy-Con opens the door to Finger Calculations, doing sums between 1-5, Finger Drills (snicker), where you follow hand shape patterns shown on screen, and Rock, Paper, Scissors where you have to either win or lose versus the hand shown on screen.
They’re good, but not great. You can often fudge your way through these tests, with the IR sensor misreading or grabbing an answer as you move your fingers. You’re advised to play away from direct sunlight which can interfere, but even then it’s a touch flakey. There’s also some issues with handwriting recognition, with the number 5 often being mistaken for a 9, or simply not read at all. There’s a setting that let’s you determine a two-stroke 5, but it would be better if the game could learn your handwriting. A stylus is bundled with physical copies of the game can help writing feel better, but results are honestly the same when writing with your finger.
Quick Play is home to those three IR mini-games and a trio of Head-to-Head Training games, where you pass a Joy-Con to another player and compete. There’s Semaphore-style motion controlled Flag Raising, hurried item counting in Birdwatching, and a memory oriented variant of this in Box Counting. They’re a fun competitive slant on the game, but more of a quick diversion.
A big factor to consider is how the game works on the Switch Lite. The more compact console feels like it would go hand in hand with Brain Training, and in many ways it does. It’s a little bit lighter in the hand and its more rounded edges make it a shade easier to hold vertically as so much of Brain Training requires, but the slightly smaller screen feels a bit cramped in some games, and worst of all, it doesn’t have an IR sensor. Without picking up a right Joy-Con separately, you simply miss out on almost half of Brain Training’s content. All of the Quick Play modes require the sensor, motion controls or separated controllers, and some of them feed into the main brain training modes.
You’d think that the game might be programmed to understand that it’s on a Switch Lite and not a Switch, but it isn’t. Those games aren’t greyed out, it just blankly prompts you to detach the right Joy-Con, and there’s nothing on the game’s packaging to indicate that it’s less capable on Switch Lite. I’m pretty certain there’s going to be people picking this up without knowing there’s a meaningful difference.
Note: Review code provided by Nintendo. As per terms of the review embargo, there is no score for Dr. Kawashima’s Brain Training for Nintendo Switch.