Duane Hoffmann / MSNBC.com
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 7/19/2007 9:28:23 PM ET 2007-07-20T01:28:23

The results are in and the diagnosis is not good.

It seems I'm in possession of a brain that is underweight, lukewarm and aged well beyond its years. Furthermore, my grey matter is woefully inadequate to tasks that require it to solve problems steeped in logic and visual analysis.

The good news is, there's a potential cure for my feeble frontal lobe: video games.

In 2005, Nintendo struck gaming gold when it created "Brain Age: Train Your Brain in Minutes a Day" for the handheld Nintendo DS game machine. Based on the research of Japanese neuroscientist Ryuta Kawashima, the game presented players with a variety of puzzles and quizzes that Kawashima claimed would stimulate blood flow to the brain's prefrontal cortex.

Pilates for the noggin
Among the mental calisthenics posed to players: timed math quizzes, a speed-counting exercise and a challenge to see how many four-letter words could be memorized and regurgitated in a matter of mere minutes. The game then assessed the player's "brain age" based on the speed and accuracy with which the tests were completed.

Youth, of course, won the day. The older your brain, the worse off you were. Kawashima's research, however, suggested that elderly brains were not condemned to remain so. He encouraged people to play "Brain Age" a little bit every day and to watch as their accuracy and response times improved and their brains grew ever younger and more agile.

And thus a craze was born.

Despite the fact that "Brain Age's" quizzes sound a lot like homework, it's become a massive hit, selling more than 7.7 million units worldwide and spawning an onslaught of imitators. In Japan, brain-training games are all the rage. And even here in the United States, we seem keen to get our collective flabby frontal lobes firmed up.

Witness: In recent weeks, three new brain training games have arrived on store shelves, each one promising to give us neural networks of steel. There's "Hot Brain" and "Practical Intelligence Quotient 2," both playable on Sony's handheld PSP. And then there's "Big Brain Academy: Wii Degree" for Nintendo's new Wii console.

Meanwhile, at the Casual Connect gaming conference Tuesday, RealNetworks announced it would launch "Mind Medley" — a collection of 16 brain-training exercises — later this summer. And next month Nintendo is scheduled to launch "Brain Age 2: More Training in Minutes a Day" here in the United States. (This sequel to the game that started it all already has sold 4.3 million units in Japan and Europe.)

Not so 'Hot Brain'
Of course, whether these games truly evaluate or improve upon the way our minds function is debatable. And after running my own mind through some of the latest tests, I'm highly motivated to question their accuracy.

"Hot Brain"  Midway's new PSP title — is an unrepentant "Brain Age" knock off. The schtick here: You're a volunteer at the Hot Brain Institute where you take part in quick, simple puzzles that increase the blood flow to your brain (sound familiar?) The more the blood flows, the higher the temperature of your lobes. So being a hothead is a good thing.

The zany and fictional Professor Warmer guides you through various activities that test your logic, memory, math, language and concentration skills. Voiced nicely by actor Fred Willard (from "Anchorman" and "Best in Show"), Warmer rates your noggin anywhere from an "Icy" 32 degrees to an "On Fire" 120 degrees all while tossing off jokes and jabs.

Among the tests designed to take my brain's temp: A musical memory exercise in which I was asked to remember a sequence of sounds and then repeat them back, and a concentration quiz in which I had to decide what figure would complete a specific shape. In both of these categories my initial scores showed me to be sporting a "Luke Warm" noodle chilling out at 60 degrees.

Good thing I've got some skills in the language department. Tasked with looking at various pictures and selecting the words that rhymed with them (what rhymes with clock: lark, sock, knife or quack?) my mad rhyming skills saved the day. At last, my brain was "On Fire!"

Alas, putting all my scores together, "Hot Brain" assessed my overall temperature at a very average 79 degrees. (Me? Average? Say it ain't so.)

Not that I'm bitter or anything, but as long as we're passing judgment it should be noted that, as far as games go, "Hot Brain" is pretty average itself.

Loading delays pop up too frequently and last too long and while the various quizzes are pretty fun, they're also pretty derivative. The math exercise in which you're asked to keep track of the number of people entering and exiting a boat is an obvious knock off of the "Brain Age" quiz that asks you to keep track of the people coming and going from a house.

Also, though the PSP delivers some excellent graphics with "Hot Brain," it's simply not as fun to play this type of game on this particular machine. The DS's touch screen and voice recognition capabilities are sorely missed here. I love the way "Brain Age" has you hand write your answers right there on the DS's screen, or simply tap the correct answer with the stylus.

'Brain Age' rides again
Alan Averill, the location writer and editor working on the American version "Brain Age 2," says Nintendo spent a lot of time trying to make the first game accessible to all sorts of people. And that effort has paid off. Nintendo has had a great deal of success recently drawing in older gamers, non gamers and lapsed gamers and "Brain Age" has been a big part of that.

This summer Nintendo launches two new entries into the brain-training phenomenon it created. And judging from what I've seen, it continues to own this genre.

Though "Brain Age 2" doesn't arrive in stores until August 20 th, Averill gave me a sneak peak at what's to come. And it appears that "Brain Age 2" will look and feel very much like the original, with the jolly, floating head of Kawashima himself again acting as the game's chatty guide. Even the spare, simple graphics look the same.

However, "Brain Age 2" will offer some 15 new quizzes and activities to train and test our brains on. Among them: "Piano Player" in which you must tap notes on a keyboard while keeping up with a cursor moving over a sheet music, and "Word Scramble" in which you unscramble letters to determine the word they spell.

Averill says Nintendo has also improved "Brain Age 2's" handwriting and voice recognition, the latter of which will be used in the "Rock, Paper, Scissors" exercise (look at a picture of a hand in the rock, paper or scissors shape and then speak the symbol that either beats it or loses to it).

It's this kind of innovative way of interacting with these games that makes Nintendo's brain training titles so outstanding. Just check out the company's other summer trainer — "Big Brain Academy: Wii Degree." The lighter, more fanciful brother to "Brain Age," "Big Brain Academy" first appeared on the DS and has now been excellently reinterpreted for the Wii.

Here, the Wii's motion sensitive controller becomes the perfect tool for taking quizzes that are supposed to measure the weight of your brain (bigger is better in this totally unscientific test).

After you enroll in the academy, the cartoony Dr. Lobe runs you through tests in five categories: identify, memorize, analyze, compute and visualize. Aim the controller at the screen and pop numbered balloons from lowest to highest. Use the controller to place missing pieces into a puzzle. Hold the controller to your ear like a telephone and listen as a voice calls in food orders that you must memorize.

The challenges are light and breezy and especially fun when played in one of the three multiplayer modes (Mental Marathon, Mind Sprint and Brain Quiz). With friends around, I found that this brain training game doubles as a killer party game. In fact, I was having so much fun, I almost didn't mind that Dr. Lobe weighed my brain in at a paltry 923 grams.

Not for the neophyte
Among the crowd of brain- training imitators "Practical Intelligence Quotient 2" for the PSP stands out as a unique entry. But while most other brain games tend to appeal to a broad audience, "PQ2" is not for the neophyte.

There are no simple math problems to solve or word games to play at. There are no balloons to shoot and you'll find no cartoony figures cracking corny jokes about the temperature, weight or age of your brain. No, "PQ2" takes itself seriously (note the austere graphics and the cool, clean techno music) and it offers up some seriously brain-bending puzzles.

Like the original "Practical Intelligence Quotient," "PQ2's" puzzles take the shape of three-dimensional mazes (more than 200 of them). Inside the maze, you must maneuver your avatar from point A to point B in as few moves as possible and as quickly as possible. But since your avatar can only step up and down one level, you'll have to figure out how to get over and around obstacles by moving various boxes, manipulating pressure pads and using teleportation portals, among other things.

"PQ2" claims that your ability to solve these puzzles tests your logic skills and says something about your ability to apply your intelligence in real world scenarios. It gives you a score not unlike a standard IQ test with an average score being 100.

What I think this game really says about me is that if I was a rat in a maze I'd never find my way to the cheese. I'm embarrassed to report that "PQ2" ranked me at a below average 80.

But even if "PQ2" gave me a low score, I'll give it a high one. Not only does this game have several different testing modes (a 100 Puzzle Test, a Quick Test and various Theme Tests) what makes "PQ2" especially cool is that it allows players to create their own 3D puzzles to share with other players.

And as poorly as I ranked, the more I played it the better I did. After a few rounds of "PQ2," I  made my way up to a hard-earned and not-so-humiliating score of 103. In "Hot Brain," I warmed my way up to Red Hot ranking of 83 degrees. And after playing "Big Brain Academy" a few times, I managed to weigh in at 1030 grams.

Whether these games are bulking up my brain…who knows. Still though, it's nice to feel a little bit smarter than when I started.

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