Gentle, bland, and entirely lacking any kind of violence – or even much in the way of dynamic action – Dr Kawashima’s Brain Training is still Nintendo’s most shocking game. A startling crisp, white about-face, it came out of nowhere, and appeared to entirely contradict not just the company’s own cherished output, but most of the hard-learned practices of digital entertainment in general. Many continue to argue, in fact, over whether Brain Training even really counts as entertainment in the first place: is this a game, or is it something less involved – a course of interactive medication, an internet-era prescription? Proof that it’s hard to recognise a revolution even when it’s happening right in front of you, Brain Training seemed so slight, so niche, so harmless, that nobody initially appreciated just where this particular budget release would ultimately lead, just as nobody revelled darkly at the underhanded brilliance of videogaming’s most venerable company, or suspected it might be more method than madness that saw the maker of Mario, Zelda and the Metroid series abandoning the well-trodden world of dreams for the guileless iconography of GCSEs. What was Nintendo up to? How did it create such a huge splash with such a modest product? What ultimately convinced so many people to buy such a dull little game, and – most importantly – why did they then spend such a long time playing it?
For an ostensibly educational title, it seems only appropriate to kick things off with a little light number-crunching. Brain Training took a team of just nine developers a little under three months to make a game that has gone on to sell over 19 million copies worldwide since its release in 2005. That’s a devastating equation in an era when big-budget console titles regularly require teams of well over 100 people, and proceed to sell two or three million units at best. It’s a piece of cold, hard business reckoning that suggests, even before you get to the multiplication, subtraction and classic literature stored on the modest DS cart, that Brain Training is the product of a deep, unblinking intelligence.
And if it was made like few other games, it didn’t look much like many of them either. Built of stick men, algebra and extracts from the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and that other adrenal-gland favourite, Louise May Alcott, and presided over by the grinning – sometimes obscurely terrifying – bobbing pixelated head of a cheery Japanese scientist, there is little chance that even the most myopic of thrill seekers could mistake Dr Kawashima’s cerebral pleasures for the grunting splatter of the latest God Of War when they get to the cash register. As strange as it seems, however, Nintendo’s abandonment of its traditional multicoloured fantasy landscapes, its unsentimental ditching of its own squishy icons and jangly collectables, is a total masterstroke. In summoning up the blank, involuted realm of the exam paper, the design team has created a singular kind of videogame environment: a place that almost everyone in the developed world, with its endless bureaucracies and standardised test frameworks that scoop you up at four or five and only begin to think about letting you go again after you’re old enough to drive, is already familiar with.
Crucially, it also lends a mild-mannered but strangely persistent authority to proceedings. Other games have to tempt you to play with the promise of glitzy trinkets and cutscenes, offering meaningless pop-ups called Achievements to lure you into staying put for the next ten minutes. Brain Training needs none of that. Instead, it speaks with a quiet, almost governmental, insistence, and that – along with the promise of self-improvement – is enough to knock down even the most mocking of a player’s defences, one by one.
So if by the company’s previous standards it was far from traditional, Brain Training’s presentation turns out to be another brilliant piece of Nintendo scene-setting, every bit as effective as a lingering, misty pan over Hyrule Field at dawn, or a bouncy ramble around Princess Peach’s latest castle. It’s a reminder, in fact, that Nintendo’s back catalogue has always been effortlessly manipulative – that its brand of game design is really all about the control and direction of audiences – and rather than a retreat from such timeworn tactics, Brain Training actually goes further, using an extremely broad range of tools to ensure that you keep playing.
Back to first impressions, then, and the common observation that Brain Training is a piece of software rather than a game, its main focus lying in a gentle course of something approaching treatment instead of the sturdy slog of a singleplayer campaign. At times, Nintendo lays it on a little thick: stats are marshalled, tiny, vague models of the human brain whiz past in a blur, and Kawashima’s own head offers a calm mixture of low-ball neurobabble and something that comes dangerously close to granny wisdom: “Look at the blood flow through the pre-frontal cortex.” “Remember to take breaks if you’re getting tired.” “I’m glad to see you’re finding time to play every day!”
While there’s certainly no harm in doing 20 maths questions at least once every 24 hours, reading aloud, memorising lists of words and performing a seemingly endless run of Stroop tests (a more difficult matter, however, is if there’s any real benefit to any of that), the end result is much less than a genuine health product, but much more complex than a brilliant piece of mere lifestyle marketing. In fact, Brain Training’s self-improvement claims work to add another layer of justification to the mindless activities the game slowly asks you to perfect, the daily routines, comparisons, personal stats and progress charts behaving no differently, really, than the grind system of an RPG.
If anything, Nintendo’s tricks are actually more effective for encouraging repeated play: RPGs simply pile on the trinkets over time, a weapon here and a buff there, while your character level gradually ticks ever higher. Brain Training, however, tests you once a day, and then proceeds to judge you, putting a suspiciously exact mark on your nebulous hotchpotch of cerebral abilities. And, like a vicious Force Push unleashed on an unsuspecting Snorlax, that simple daily routine is super-effective: for many players, their first Brain Age is a mark of surprisingly personal shame – and so their subsequent journey back to the universal ideal of the 20-year-old mind then becomes a cause for real pride.
Conjuring a brand new problem into existence, and then stepping in to solve it: it’s standard advertising practice – or, viewed from a slightly less charitable perspective, the ageless modus operandi of charlatans. But while many argue over the educational benefits of Nintendo’s game – if there’s anything substantial to Kawashima’s theories, and whether the game is even really adequately representing those theories in the first place – the truth has been hidden right in front of you all along.
Beyond the promises and the hopes and the cat-and-mouse game Nintendo plays with your fluctuating self-esteem, you pick up Brain Training every day because it’s fun. You pick it up because solving a maths puzzle provides the same tiny burst of satisfaction you get from expertly squishing a Koopa Troopa out of its shell, while perfecting a syllable-counting challenge is as temporarily energising as barrelling through the Green Hill Zone on a personal-best speed run. Brain Training isn’t brain surgery – in fact, it’s almost entirely transparent in its workings, giving you simple, comprehensible challenges, trapped inside an endlessly repeating framework, and then driving it all home with Nintendo’s trademark mastery of visual and aural feedback: the train that toots briskly when you jab it with a stylus, the perfect three-note countdown prior to the commencement of a test, and exactly the right two-tone buzzer blast that ensures people all around the world will immediately equate it with failure. And then it even obligingly tells you that it’s OK to play, that you’re not simply wasting your time in a spiral of dull repetition – and why wouldn’t you want to believe that?
A familiar pleasure to everyone who’s ever smiled secretly to themselves at the prospect of a freshly sharpened pencil and a three-hour exam, Dr Kawashima’s game, its challenges so brilliantly isolated and cued up by the world’s premier scientists of fun, could never really have failed to sell that enormous 19 million copies. Ultimately, the real shock of Brain Training is that, beneath the stripped-down textbook aesthetic, the bedside manner and the seemingly primitive parade of fractions and musical notation, Nintendo’s just doing what it has always done.