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The Amazing Brain Train

Score: 89%
ESRB: Everyone
Publisher: NinjaBee
Developer: Grubby Games
Media: Download/1
Players: 1
Genre: Edutainment/ Family/ Puzzle

Graphics & Sound:

Brain training games are a staple on every platform at this point, including several successful entries for Nintendo portables. A quick search for the Wii only pulls up a few titles, and only one of them counts as a pure "brain" game: Big Brain Academy: Wii Degree. There's something incredibly appealing about the idea of brain-building games, but the problem has been that form tends to follow function. Playing many of these games feels like taking a lesson - dry and academic, rather than engaging and inspirational. The Amazing Brain Train does the best job yet of making brain training fun for kids. The notion isn't exactly revolutionary, since many games have incorporated elements of brain training into mini-games or puzzle segments, presented as part of a larger story. Examples would be code-cracking in action games, or shape/color/number matching in some of the younger Platformers.

The Amazing Brain Train involves a trek through a countryside populated by friendly animals, presenting initially much like a zoo game. You'll travel around from place to place, visiting each animal and using challenges in that area to build up steam for the next leg of your trip. Most of the challenges are similar in format to others we've seen, but the presentation is kept very light and whimsical. Funny animals doing funny things is never lost on a young audience, and the fact that you're learning and stretching your brain along the way will completely escape some gamers. The only downside to The Amazing Brain Train is that it doesn't do much variety. Traveling from place to place finds you doing different challenges but nothing changes dramatically in the visual style or layout of the screen. Something to break up the action would have been nice, such as new viewing modes, or a chance to just grab a virtual crayon or animal stamp and decorate a blank screen.


Gameplay:

The style of play described above is built around what's called Quest Mode. This mode, with train travel as the primary goal, is a fun way to sample the variety of puzzles and challenges on offer. You can then roll through Test or Practice Mode to hone in on your favorites, or if you're particularly studious, bone up on what you did poorly. The Amazing Brain Train is billed as having five different game varieties, spread across 15 specific challenges. One challenge may appear to be purely about math, as in the lily pad exercise that has you selecting the right number sequence to arrive at a specific total. This is a variation on games we've seen before that ask you to select from a grid of numbered squares according to some rule like +1 or -2, but the frog-hopping, lily-pad action makes it cool for kids. The other notable numbers game is a batter-up scenario where you select the right operator for a specific equation and solution (e.g. 2 ? 4 = 8) to swat a baseball. Other challenges in the spatial and planning category reminded us more of something out of the Professor Layton DS series, such as moving odd-shaped blocks (in this case containing animals) around to fill a space. Better still are the games where you redirect a laser using a series of mirrors, to defrost some icy arctic wildlife, or slide animal-blocks around a container so the game's iconic Prof. Fizzwizzle can reach his cake. Actually, that cake bit has a slight tinge of Portal, now that we think of it...

Test and Practice Mode give you the chance to select specific challenges, since Quest doesn't have any discernible pattern or rule for how specific games appear. You earn points along the way, and can also pick up some trophies by accomplishing specific goals during play. There isn't any online or multiplayer component, which is a shame. We know that wasn't in the original spirit of the game, but at least we'd love to have some form of leaderboard or online ranking to evaluate where we are against the crowd. The Amazing Brain Train doesn't put a big focus on evaluating your brain power, other than telling you how many points you scored and how far you pushed the train down the tracks. Where many brain games take a very clinical approach, we think The Amazing Brain Train nailed it for younger gamers. If you are 10, you probably don't give a hoot about your brain age, compared to older folks that like the idea of recapturing their nimble twenty-something brain. Luckily, there are slots for multiple users, so every member of the family can maintain his or her own running progress report.


Difficulty:

The best thing about these brain-training games - and The Amazing Brain Train is no exception - is that they are only as competitive as you are against yourself. You aren't battling enemies or other players, just your previous score. There is a definite goal and a correct answer at the end of each rainbow, so competitive players will strive to improve their times. Even in areas where you may have less facility, like spatial problem-solving, you still get some kind of score and satisfaction. Better still, you can come back and try to improve your score, which suggests you are building that gray matter! It's no surprise that titles like The Amazing Brain Train are popular; they work for completely different reasons than most other gaming fare. Poor performance in Quest Mode means you'll take longer than another person to get from place to place, but you'll eventually get there. Each challenge is introduced with some explanation text and a photo, but this tends to alienate the youngest gamers. We would have liked a kind of gameplay demo in each level, showing the action required or at least the controls involved. Some challenges lend themselves more readily to pick-up-and-play than others, but more explanation up front is never a bad thing when you have a mixing pot of mini-games.

Game Mechanics:

The motion controls in The Amazing Brain Train are silky smooth and very forgiving, making all the drag-and-drop stuff easier than we've found it on many other Wii games. With every challenge that includes point-and-click functionality, it is also possible to use the up-down/left-right controls on the Wii-mote. Pure motion control, as in using motion to waggle something on-screen, doesn't play a role in The Amazing Brain Train, and we're fine with that. Just because you can doesn't mean you always should, right? In several instances, you will have to click and drag items, such as the shuffled-block puzzles and the block-placing puzzles. In these examples, the Wii-mote does a serviceable job, even if we keep imagining how much easier all that would be using a mouse and a PC... In this sense, the PC roots of The Amazing Brain Train show through, but developer NinjaBee did a great job adapting The Amazing Brain Train to this platform. A great example of where clicking and dragging plays well is in the challenge that features Fizzwizzle leading around dogs that have their leashes impossibly tangled. You have to grab the dogs and untangle them, which ends up being very simple and intuitive where it could easily have been botched.

If brain training appeals to you, but you haven't jumped into the pool, The Amazing Brain Train is a great place to start. It's also not a simple rehash of anything else out there, for more seasoned brain-training gamers. You'll find puzzles reminiscent of those you may have mastered in other games, but there are always unique twists on the action here. Kids will dig the focus on pets and the train motif, plus they will laugh at many of the situations in which Prof. Fizzwizzle finds himself. Older gamers may not love the kiddie touches, even if they can still benefit from a little brain training, but we doubt The Amazing Brain Train is really aimed at them anyway. Whether you're training a young brain or an old brain that wishes it were younger, there's plenty of good pass-the-time entertainment to be had with The Amazing Brain Train for Wii.


-Fridtjof, GameVortex Communications
AKA Matt Paddock

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