June 21, 2006

Game Dork

Back To School

Check Out The 'Big Brain' On Nintendo

The dirty little secret about video games is that the average age of an American gamer is 33. Not only that, but a lot of those gamers are, gasp, parents. One-third of moms and dads play video games, so says a poll by the Entertainment Software Association. And most of those "gaming parents" even play with their kids. How square, right?

I bring this up while reviewing "Big Brain Academy" because when you hear the phrase "video games," you think of media stereotypes: 12-year-olds going on murderous rampages in "Grand Theft Auto" or throwing passes in "John Madden" football games.

But the truth is that kids don't have $7 billion to spend every year on games in America. Adults do. And according to the ESA, an industry group, the games they play more hours than most are not shoot 'em-ups but card games, like video game solitaire and poker, and puzzle games.

It just so happens that the best puzzle-type game to come out in years hit the market fairly recently — "Brain Age: Train Your Brain in Minutes a Day." What's funny is that the fantastically acclaimed "Brain Age" sends you back to school, sort of. Its puzzles call for math skills, word memorization and Sudoku puzzles.

Likewise, "Big Brain Academy" has you complete various forms of math equations, decipher analytical patterns and memorize sound bites and symbols.

It seems quite impossible to convince you that math and memory tasks could be fun enough to do in your spare time. But speaking for myself, these games beckon regularly and keep me up late at night to try to sharpen my mind. Speaking for a nation of gamers, these titles are really popular, backing up the ESA's poll.

Another great thing about "Brain Age" and "Big Brain Academy" is they're played on Nintendo's handheld game system, the Nintendo DS. Whenever parents ask me what they should buy for little kids, I usually steer them away from PlayStation 2 and Xbox and toward the DS.

Yeah, it's cool that it fits in your pocket, and has two easy-to-see video screens (one is an awesome touch screen). But DS games generally aren't as violent, and there are lots of "Mario"-type cartoon outings available for the DS.

In other words, it's exactly the system that would appeal to young children and those adults who would rather play puzzle and card games on a portable player than try to figure out all the buttons on an Xbox 360.

What's more, the DS plays not just DS games but Game Boy Advance titles. It might be worth it to seek out the new version, the DS Lite, which is exactly the same — long rechargeable battery life, same screens, same price ($130) — but it has a less bulky case.

And isn't it interesting, given that so many adults are hot for math tests, that after all these years, parents voluntarily want to revisit the classroom quizzes their kids have to take?

("Big Brain Academy" for DS — Plays fun. Looks fine for a puzzle game. Challenging. Rated "E." Three stars out of four.)

(Nintendo DS Lite — It plays exactly like the DS, but it's in a smaller package with the same good-sized screens. Four stars out of four.)

("Brain Age: Train Your Brain in Minutes a Day" for Nintendo DS — Plays entertaining, if you like brain teasers. Looks OK. Moderately challenging. Rated "E". Three stars.)


"Indigo Prophecy" is a grizzly crime thriller for Xbox and PS 2. It looks like an action movie at its best moments, which are quite intense and artistic, but you also have to play a series of "Simon Says"-style quizzes to solve a murder mystery.

Sometimes it's dull, but when it's not, it's fascinating. It's also selling for around $15 in many used-game stores. The challenging game is rated "M" for blood, partial nudity, sexual themes, strong language, use of drugs and alcohol, violence.

(Ratings: "E" for "Everyone;" "T" for "Teen;" "M" for "Mature 17+")


"NFL Head Coach" is more of a strategy game than other football games. You control the play calling and off-the-field business decisions. The June 20 release retails for $40 for Xbox and PS 2. It's rated "E."

"Tomb Raider: Legend" is already out for other game systems, and now its action adventures come out for Sony's handheld PSP. The June 20 release retails for $40. It's rated "T" for blood, suggestive themes, violence and language.

"Backyard Baseball" puts professional home run hitters in backyard settings. The June 20 release retails for $30 for GCube. It's rated "E".

"Break 'Em All" is a puzzle game for DS, sort of like the old "Break Out" game where you use a bouncing ball to bust up blocks. The June 20 release retails for $20. It's rated "E".

(Ratings: "E" for "Everyone;" "T" for "Teen;" "M" for "Mature 17+")

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