Everybody and their nan had Dr Kawashima’s Brain Training on the Nintendo DS and 3DS, as it sold over 19 million copies worldwide. We don’t think we’ve been in a charity shop that doesn’t have one. 19 million is a hefty number, and Team Microids have clearly decided that they like those apples. They’ve enlisted Ernő Rubik, famed inventor and toymaker, to be their figurehead, and packaged up a Kawashima-beater across multiple platforms in the form of Professor Rubik’s Brain Fitness, all ready to fill up some Christmas stockings.
Professor Rubik is a more familiar name here in the west, being the evil genius behind the Rubik’s Cube (knocking Kawashima’s number into a cocked hat with 350 million cubes sold). There’s some justification in saying that Rubik is an unusual choice: academically, he’s an architect, while Kawashima is a neuroscientist who’s written books on the science of learning. But most people used Brain Training as a video game version of a Rubik’s cube – a short dose of intellectual stimulation – so perhaps it’s not so unusual after all.
Stepping into Professor Rubik’s Brain Fitness, it’s clear how much of an influence Brain Training has been (apologies in advance – we are going to make this comparison a lot). The presentation is extremely similar, with sharp, clinical interfaces and soft muzak, while Dr Rubik is even represented in the same polygonal manner as Dr Kawashima (although, not a giant floating head like Kawashima, who looked more like a Starfox boss). Your first steps in the game are similar too, with Professor Rubik asking for some basic details before plunging you into an Evaluation. You’ll emerge with a score against a set of Archetypes, as the game calls them: Letters, Memory, Concentration, Calculation, Spatialisation and Agility.
These Archetypes are the bedrock on which the rest of the game sits, as you’re given long-term goals of improving your score, and – again, like Brain Training – you’ll chip away at them with ‘Daily Training’. Professor Rubik really, really wants you to play every day, front-loading a calendar, and each day you’ll do three tasks that will make headway on your focuses. Slowly but surely you’ll become a megamind.
Outside of the regimen, there’s a surprisingly large number of modes and other features. There’s a Free Play section, which offers your choice of tasks, for one player or two. Then there are four Puzzle Games that aim for a bit more fun factor, and they can be played by up to four players. These include a Grindstone-like game where you make paths through connected squares, and a Puyo Pop copycat that gives extra points for creating a setlist of specific shapes. It’s a pretty stacked package, to be fair; the games and the multiplayer options are more than expected, and the rest is as fully featured as its competitors.
We’re no neuroscientists, so we couldn’t tell you if the tasks adequately test for Calculation, Concentration and the rest, but they do a good job of foxing the old grey matter. You will find tasks easier or more difficult than we did but, for our money, Professor Rubik’s tasks are a notch more difficult than Dr Kawashima’s. It might be because we are ‘people of words’ rather than engineers, but Spacialisation tasks were mind blowingly difficult. We’d suggest that they’re pitched a little too loftily for the average player, but that would be admitting we’re rubbish at them.
If there are criticisms of the tasks, it’s that reading speed and reaction time is a big factor in the scores you get. You might be a genius, but if you can’t read some of the slightly-too-wordy questions quick enough, or choose the correct input fast enough, then an S ranking will elude you. Having spent time with Mario Party and 51 Worldwide Games, the tasks would have benefited from how they tutorialise by showing the task, rather than explaining it in words. You can fail a couple of times before understanding the task’s quirks.
Generally, though, the tasks are well made, clear and taxing. Let’s give you some examples: Flash Compare shows you two-to-four piles of coloured cubes and asks questions like ‘which pile has the most green cubes?’. Calcubator (a filthy name for a puzzle) shows a series of sums across multiple cube faces, and then asks which face has the sum that amounts to, say, 64. Step by Step, which is a demon of a task, remixes a Rubik’s Cube, and you have to replicate the way it was remixed. The controls are a bit wonky on that last one, and you’ll accidentally remix it in a way you hadn’t intended.
A neat feature of the tasks is that they adapt when you fail consistently. The difficulty will dial down a little, so you’re not consistently messing it up, and you can get back on the horse. We’re reasonably certain that this was a Kawashima feature too, but it’s good to see that Professor Rubik’s Brain Fitness doesn’t skimp.
The games are much more of a mixed bunch, as they step into the territory of similar – and, generally, better – games. It’s hard to recommend a dry, personality-less version of Puyo Pop when you could be playing the full fat version, for example. We found them to be the disposable parts of Professor Rubik’s Brain Fitness, and adding multiple players only exposed that feeling to more people.
The lack of personality is an Achille’s heel of Brain Fitness. There’s not a jot of humour, surprise or interest here, beyond a Gallery that populates with images and facts about Professor Rubik. This is a tool that expands the mind, nothing more. When you factor in that it’s ‘borrowed’ so much of Dr Kawashima’s aesthetic, too, it misses the opportunity to have any kind of identity of its own.
For most people, that won’t matter. Dr Kawashima won’t be moving from Nintendo consoles any time soon, and there isn’t a deluge of brain trainers on the Xbox. There is clearly a niche, and Professor Rubik slots in there snugly.
If you’ve been waiting for Brain Training on the Xbox, Professor Rubik’s Brain Fitness delivers exactly on those terms. It’s fully featured and well presented, with tasks that stretch your brain to its limits, even more so than Dr Kawashima’s did. There may be a hole at the centre of the cube where a personality or identity should be, but for the puzzle enthusiasts who want to keep their brain limber, this is ideal, cubed.