- 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.

Age range: The device is built for ages 8 and older. It might temporarily engage that age (with a parent’s help), but older players will see its potential, as long as they turn up the contrast, sit in a well-lit room and break out the bifocals.

Final advice: I’ve already beaten this point to death. Nintendo and its magical DS deliver the interactive goods when it comes to brain training (witnessed by Brain Age). Mr. Small and Radica will need to continue to refine Brain Games in order to challenge that virtual entertainment innovator at any level.

Game Bytes

Here’s an abbreviated look at some multimedia items for the entire family:

Secret Agent Clank (for PlayStation Portable, Sony, $39.99) - When legendary lombax Ratchet finds himself wrongly accused of a crime and sent to the big house, only his trusted robotic companion can help free him and save the day.

Normally tagging along as Ratchet’s backpack, Clank now takes center stage as a suave, tuxedo-wearing hero in this fun platforming challenge, which has enough action and chuckles to keep the above-average gamer amused.

Delivered with Austin Powers-style charm, the game has the player mostly control Clank. He is as adept at wooing the ladies with his footwork as taking out mechanical guards using spy-themed accessories, such as cuff-link bombs and a hypno watch.

Two-dozen missions are tied to melee combat, avoiding light beams, stealthy attacks, racing, puzzling corridors, laser obstacle courses and enjoying the occasional deadly game of poker. A nice touch is the rhythm-based levels that include a hysterical dance, as well as a sneaky run through a gantlet of danger executed by matching buttons to a steady stream of on-screen cues a la Guitar Hero.

Players also take control of Ratchet as he battles prison inmates, Clank’s mini-army of Gadgetbots and blowhard Captain Qwark for more third-person combat.

The game really tries hard to please with its variety of activities (with every nuance from weapons upgrade management to snowboarding) and is a welcome addition to the Ratchet and Clank family.

Space Invaders Extreme (for Nintendo DS, Square Enix, $19.99) - One of the granddaddies of the video-game industry celebrates its 30th anniversary with a spiffy new look, but the same addictive style of action.

Everyone already knows the point-accumulating drill of Space Invaders. Shoot, slide back and forth, duck missiles and hold off an unending assault of descending alien vessels during each round.

The refresh includes dizzying animated backgrounds, a techno beat matched to weapons fire (increasingly complex during the action), boss battles, score multipliers and minilevels tossed in during the main action.

Remember that large vessel occasionally floating at the top of the screen? Players now can determine when it appears by shooting the right combination of enemies.

For the budget-minded, not only is the price irresistible, but a pair of players also can challenge each other by sharing a cartridge via the DS’ Download Play Mode.

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