Reviewing Brain Age is like critiquing a barbell: it doesn't look like much, and what you get out of it depends on what you do with it. For a budget price, you get a set of extremely simple but fast-paced mini-games tied together by the jolly bouncing head of Dr. Ryuta Kawashima, the neuroscientist who devised this "brain training" regimen. You're expected to check in for a few minutes a day to run through arithmetic problems, counting games, and reading exercises as quickly yet accurately as possible. Brain Age measures and charts your progress, and Kawashima goads you on with silly cracks and pseudobabble about your "prefrontal cortex." But stick with it, and you'll train your brain to be as limber as a 20-year-old's.
Of course, Brain Age isn't the only video game that will make you smarter: Anyone who's cracked esoteric puzzles in an adventure game or mastered the tactics of a simulated battlefield already knows the satisfaction of stretching the brain to fit new kinds of problems. Brain Age offers a specific, limited stimulation, but to its target audience—including older non-gamers looking to get a few more synapses to fire—its convenience is the selling point. This is Nintendo's Seven Minute Lobes, and although the cognitive benefits have yet to be proven, using it daily probably will make you sharper. Then again, so will caffeine.
Beyond the game: A huge hit in Japan, Brain Age has scored buzz on these shores as the kind of outside-the-box game that brings new audiences to Nintendo gaming. Can the world's greatest "know your state capitals" game be far behind?
Worth playing for: Banging through arithmetic problems may grow tedious, but in competitive mode, it's surprisingly fun. Four players can try to beat each other's scores on the same DS, and Brain Age also comes with a head-to-head wi-fi game.
Frustration sets in when: The handwriting and voice recognition are great features, except when they fail; it takes practice to retrain your writing and pronunciation to Brain Age's expectations, and in the meantime, your DS just thinks you're stupid.
Final judgment: Results may vary.