- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 15, 2008

With help from Nintendo’s magical handheld system, a new game series teaches kids “It’s OK to Be Smart” - if they are willing to go on a Brain Quest (Electronic Arts, $29.99 each).

Based on the popular pumped-up flashcard series by Workman Publishing, this fun, educational challenge goes overboard with keeping kids interested in learning.

Two titles, Brain Quest: Grades 5 & 6 and Brain Quest: Grades 3 & 4, contain more than 6,000 questions each and extend the typical trivia format usually mired in multiple-choice possibilities. The games offer a varied style of curriculum-based questions and spice up the action through extra activities and achievements to be unlocked.

Both use the same game mechanics, but a different story line. Let’s first look at the more difficult Grades 5 & 6 title, which is geared to students 10 to 12 years old.

After an introduction to the game’s host, a “High School Musical” type named Brian, the player is walked through the game’s modes. Those who want to do something more than simply answer questions in the Brain Mode (answer the fastest to collect the most points) can go on a wordy Quest.

The student selects from six extreme tween style areas tied to the subjects math (soccer), history (surfing), science (an auto shop), geography (snowboarding), English (rock music) and a grab bag (skateboarding). Once a venue is chosen, the player converses with multiple characters and, as he keeps reading their trash talk, a challenge eventually is issued.

If near a garage, one might think the player would be in a race game, but no, it’s a series of rounds loaded with questions. He must answer a certain number to earn a collectible and impress the character before moving on.

Brian will explain each question format before the player begins. Questions come in standard multiple choice, fill in the blanks (using a keyboard on the DS’ bottom touch screen), eliminate an answer by drawing an “X” through it, draw lines to match items, and grab and move answers into the correct order.

The questions are always fresh and taxing. A student might have to match first and last names of famous American composers, solve a complex equation, arrange precious stones from hardest to least hard, or spell “goodbye” in Italian.

The grab bag adds topics on the arts, literature, nutrition, sports, movies and music.

Success leads to collecting points and unlocking animated stickers. These can be purchased and added to a static scene to offer the student a chance to demonstrate some creativity.

If bored with questions, a deep Sudoku game is also available in 4-by-4, 6-by-6 and 9-by-9 puzzle grids.

If that still isn’t enough action, a pseudo-multiplayer option provides competitive and cooperative modes as players pass a DS back and forth. Not as great as tapping into two DS units wirelessly using one card, but I appreciate the thought.

The Grades 3 & 4 title offers the same extras and a wildlife motif as students converse with park rangers and go on quests to help animals. The questions are almost as difficult: One asked me to put in order, by age, the female stars of “Little Women.” I asked a couple of fourth-graders to perform the feat and their jaws dropped.

I warned in a previous column that the DS could make curriculum-based, casual gaming an enjoyable reality. Well, the time has arrived and students stand to gain a wealth of knowledge and feel great about their accomplishments thanks to Electronic Arts’ Brain Quest series.

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