- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 13, 2008

In a world of ultraviolent video games, there should be a place for children and their parents to interact and actually learn something from that overpriced multimedia computer/gaming system. Take a deep breath and enter the ROMper Room, where learning is a four-letter word [-] cool.

Another leading expert on exercising gray matter has thrown his name behind a hand-held set of challenges with Brain Games 2 (Radica, $19.99 requires two AAA batteries).

Author Gary Small, director of the UCLA Center on Aging, certainly has the credentials, research and media appearances to back his theories on memory and aging (www.drgarysmall.com).

Last year’s Brain Games, the first version of the Radica product, was less than impressive. About the size of an open Nintendo DS, it featured a 2-inch-wide, black-and-white, low-resolution LED screen and a befuddling keyboard without labels. It offered five games to help sharpen the brain and, more specifically, memory.

The latest version is an upgrade, now a hand-held personal digital assistant with a 2-inch-square touch screen and stylus. Its games are essentially the same.

Here’s the bad news on the latest Brain Games: The presentation is still just terrible. The LED screen is back with limited sound effects and the outline of an encouraging professor as the most complex art element. It is not an entertaining experience.

The touch screen helps, but I actually miss the keyboard. The stylus pen is more like a thick, pointed Popsicle stick and is difficult to use with the screen direction icons hidden in the corners. The images, critical to playing half of the games, are hard to decipher due to the screen’s low resolution.

The good news is the games. They may not be unique to the genre, but they’re engaging enough.

The timed bunch includes Sequence (duplicate a series of numbers on a gridded board), Focus (memorize image relationships), Twist (mirror image relationships), Word Hunt (create words from a set of letters) and Recall (memorize a list of words).

Players either practice or train daily as they work through six levels of difficulty for each challenge. Scores are stored in the device’s memory.

The best game of the bunch is still Recall, which explains Mr. Small’s memory theory of Look (pay close attention), Snap (visualize a mental snapshot of each word) and Connect (create a story using the words). The player gets a set time limit and number of words to break into categories (such as 10 words in 90 seconds) and will have to identify them later (sans the categories) after playing four other challenges.

In Brain Games, players get what they pay for, but $20 to stimulate the noggin is not a bad deal.

Learning time: The first Brain Games had a great way to quickly sharpen numerical problem-solving skills. Its intense Flash Cards was a timed descent on a math roller coaster as the player rapidly answered addition, multiplication, subtraction and division problems (up to 100 at the sixth level) using that annoying keypad.

There is no Flash Cards game in the latest system, but Word Hunt works as an effective lexicon tool, much like Scrabble, while Twist is a riff on logic-type questions (“A is to B as C is to ?”) found on the SAT. The player compares a pair of images’ traits and must extend their relationship to another image and its mate.

Also, the system has a tips section to offer users some good direction with life. Mr. Small’s obvious suggestions for a healthier mind and body include getting extra sleep, eating fruit for a snack and taking a 15-minute walk after dinner.

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