a review of Vision Training (or, flash focus: vision training in minutes a day)
a videogame developed by nintendo of japan
and published by nintendo of japan
for the nintendo DS
text by tim rogers
The “training” game market has become something of a cluttered wasteland: pink flamingos standing at obscene angles in a sea of congealed clam chowder. Step into any Japanese electronics retailer and you’ll see literally hundreds of different titles, all of them with spookily similar packages. Primary colors, big text, and the either photographed, polygon-rendered, or hand-drawn face of some balding professor so superficially boring he probably couldn’t sell liquid nitrogen in hell. It’s gotten objectively offensive, really: one can imagine the boardrooms in all the office buildings in Japan, where wood-teethed old men swat a large table with a small financial newspaper and shout about how we need to make games the way Nintendo makes games, if we ever expect to retire. And then, instead of making games in the spirit of the Modern Nintendo — evergreen products with function and fun — they just go ahead and make another training game exactly like Nintendo’s training games, copying everything right down to the box. The average user, however, rejects these games like a bad kidney transplant: that is to say, for reasons they don’t entirely understand. I mean, a kidney’s a kidney. If we were to look at most of these training games with a magnifying glass — and a microphone — it would start to make sense: above all else, the sound design tends to be pretty terrible. Many of these games require the “player” to wear headphones and keep a close ear on voice samples: listen to a voice recording in a foreign language, test your comprehension by writing it down. This is why it’s unforgivable that many of these games feature pencil sound effects reminiscent of the sound of a butter knife scraping a chalkboard. When the back of the box only has to show sample questions and an unobtrusive screen layout, if the front of the box looks just like the front of every other box on the aisle-long shelf, it’s easy to hook rubes into the stufftiest edutainment. Loiter around the front counter of any Japanese electronics shop for more than ten minutes after seven PM on a weekday, and you’ll no doubt hear some fine young woman ask the cashier, “Which one of these English games for DS is . . . you know . . . the good one?” She might go on: her friend bought one the other day, and it wasn’t very good. If the store you’re at is kind of shady (like my favorite little store), you might hear the guy say “They’re all the same, really.” If the store is a mega-huge franchise, the guy will say “It is with great fear that I humbly intone to you, esteemed miss: they’re all the same, really.” Go to a tiny shop where the manager knows his stuff, and — well, they’re only stocking the Nintendo-brand training games. Huh. I wonder if Nintendo owns the patent on “minimalist handheld edutainment software where the sound effects and presentation don’t force the player to seriously contemplate stomping a hecking chihuahua flat to the ground”.
Either way, one thing’s for sure, and by for sure, I mean for real: Nintendo maybe kinda need to exercise a tiny bit of conscience about these things. Whatever happened to the heyday of the Nintendo Seal of Approval? They have to get a little more stingy about that stuff, I swear.
The situation is that sketchy publishers are flooding the market with me-too “training” games that will sell a half a million copies upon release, only to have sequels that sell less than five thousand. The publishers, out to make quick yen, realize that their games don’t have to actually be good, though they also underestimate the power of word-of-mouth — which, yes, is how Nintendo started selling all of these training games in the first place. It’s that word-of-mouth that could, quite possibly, be holding a pistol to Nintendo’s head right about now. While I’m optimistic that, maybe, Nintendo has some ace up its sleeve, that Brain Training was merely their way to make the public aware of games again, I have friends in the Japanese games industry who are quick to gravely intone: the DS bubble has already burst.
At any rate, Vision Training (or “Flash Focus“, or whatever they’re calling it in your country) represents a conscientious effort on Nintendo’s part to offer a non-stuffty alternative to some of the stuffty trainers already clogging the market. Or maybe Vision Training‘s gimpy conceptual predecessors (I think one of them was published by Kokuyo, a stationery company) were like “Deep Impact” to Nintendo’s “Armageddon” — you know, some documents somewhere were leaked, and people started rubbing their hands together at amazing speeds.
The bastard fathers of Vision Training were riding low on the speed-reading wave that’s repeatedly crashing against these island shores and getting back up again. There’s certainly been a mysterious atmosphere of self-improvement around here, even before Nintendo released Brain Training. That game was certainly a catalyst, though it was by no means the beginning: to wit, Professor Kawashima had originally released his brain-training method as a standalone portable device. Likewise, self-help books have swung all the way around the carousel we call “culture” and come back to the pop-arty side of things. Except people aren’t asking for help with problems or deficits so much as they want to obtain — and cheaply — lower-tier superhuman powers of vision, wine-tasting ability, common sense, or business manners. Last year’s wild gush of paperback books about speed-reading felt vaguely like a pyramid scheme in which everyone is selling pyramid scheme brochures. In a way, the whole climate is ripe for cute marketing: This is the Information Age! What Better Way to Process All This Information than to Obtain SPEEEEED REEEEEADING POWWWWWWERS! No one ever goes the “cute” route, though: it’s all stone-faced, testicles-on-table deadly seriousness.
When a couple of these book-publishers got the idea to jump on the gaming train, a few problems popped to the fore. Namely, the games sucked. All they could scrounge out of the pit of greed was the idea to make the “game” consist of long passages of text which appear on the screen for a limited amount of time, challenging — taunting, almost — the player to read as quickly as he or she could, before answering some comprehension questions. “Dick and Jane go for a walk in the park. Jane says ‘I hate you’. Dick says ‘Why don’t you–‘” “What did Dick ask Jane to do?”
Other wannabes tried pretty hard to bring some simple hand-eye based games into the mix, though how these make you better at speed-reading, who the heck knows. Said games mostly felt like some sub Wii Play stuff, only without the force feedback and/or 97% of the alleged fun. Follow the bouncing ball with the stylus, et cetera. Mostly, just stuff you could do with Ouendan, while also listening to terrible covers of questionable music. In other words, while the facade is lacking to the point of being absent (and therefore, um, not quite “grating”), a game pretty much needs a purpose or else we start to hunger for a facade.
Nintendo’s Vision Training, however, analyzes the core concepts of speed-reading, and presents a set of daily, toothbrushing, vitaminesque challenges that will wax players on and off until, theoretically, they can count toothpicks like Dustin Hoffman in “Rain Man”.
It’s a leaner, cleaner, more, um, focused training game for Nintendo. They eschew the style they personally turned into a cookie-cutter, and present the consumer with a semi-hip modern-art-style eyeball logo instead of a photograph of some charcoal-stuffting old Japanese man. Challenges include speed-reading comprehension tests (sure to come in hand for purchasers of the recently-released Nintendo-brand DS Japanese literature primer (unfortunately, all of the novels are abridged)), variants on the shell-game theme (which become increasingly difficult as your day-to-day performance rises), and some super-clever Magic-Eye-like challenges: the magic eye is on the top screen, the multiple choices on the bottom. Like all of Nintendo’s self-improvement software, the true genius lies in the game’s attention to detail, keen memory, and persistent, flamboyant tracking of your performance. Triumphantly, where Vision Training succeeds as a “game”, it starts being a “software application”: the hardware, of course, is you. If Brain Training‘s hook was the iconic “Brain Age”, updated every day, based on your performance, then Vision Training‘s hook (ignoring that it actually does give your “eye age”) is the fact that it actually can make your eyes faster.
Recently, Japanese television networks have reported grave news: ratings this year are down by something like 75%. There could be any number of reasons for this, and most of those reasons might have something to do with Japanese actors being hired because their fathers are rich, or because the guys who host talk shows are chosen because they’ve been hosting talk shows for years, even though they’re now old enough to look like teenager-molesters, or maybe it’s because the network TV in Japan really does suck (the cable, however, is exceptional, though mostly because you get American channels plus the wacky Japanese stuff). I think maybe it’s all of the above, plus a little bit more. You see, even before reality TV took off in America, Japan has been enjoying (word used loosely) a prototypical form of reality television. Where the West would later invent “Survivor”, which takes normal people and puts them into the interesting situation of being trapped on a desert island with no food (and ubiquitous men with cameras, who make sure no one dies), the Japanese — well, we can’t say “invented”; it’s more like — developed “reality-esque” television programs in which interesting people are put through the paces of normal situations. Like, say, eating dinner at a moderately cheap restaurant, for example. This television trend has started to stew Japanese casual conversation in a marinade du bastard, however, and we will often see otherwise not-mentally-handicapped-looking Japanese children with silly hair standing up during a meal at a family restaurant to scream something “hilarious” at a classmate, because hey, the restaurant those two “famous” comedians were eating at on that mundanely fascinating television show last night couldn’t have been more expensive than this, and hey, we’re only in high school — we might as well be adults, already.
One reason Japanese television might be going down the crapper is the popularity of videogames. When a Japanese television executive was pressed for comment semi-recently, he replied that “Maybe everyone is busy playing their Wiis”. This quote got blown out of proportion — he was most likely in a joshing mood when he said that. Still — it might be right. Because, you see, Japanese proto-reality TV has always been less about any kind of “entertainment” status quo and more about providing background noise for people in informal situations. Some of these proto-reality TV shows will pit celebrities against one another in laid-back quizzes, where no one gets a prize in the end. It’s just filler sound for someone who spent all day at work, whether they’re eating dinner alone or with their husband. Whether they’re talking to their husband or just kind of reading a magazine.
The accidental glory of Nintendo’s training series is that they give us things to talk about with our friends; there is no prize for winning. There is only a feeling that comes in one of two flavors: warm, or lukewarm. (Usually, if you just keep getting worse for about ten days in a row, that’s when you give up.) And though Vision Training lacks the iconic conversation hook of “What’s your Brain Age, sweet thing?” there is a whole new plane of pickup lines etched beneath the surface, if you’re willing to look. Let me seduce you a little bit:
When I was four years old, I was in a car accident with my dad, on a snowy road, on the way to church. My right eye popped out of my head. They managed to stuff it back in there, though the muscles never quite grew back correctly. As a result, two dozen years later, I can see Magic Eye puzzles just by taking off my glasses and blinking. This talent for soft-focus has allowed me to build a pretty impressive speed-reading ability, though precision movement — as with shell games — is a little more taxing. However, whenever my cellular phone (eternally on silent mode) blinks with an incoming email, wherever it is in my apartment, I detect it, and I find it with my eyes before the blink has finished. The major drawbacks of my Weird Eyes are that I Can’t See Shit without my glasses, and that anything with multiple moving perspectives gives me an instant migraine — hence my being unable to ever play first-person shooters split-screen, ever. I got good enough at Gradius V to one-credit it all the way up to the stage with the asteroid field, though I could not proceed any further because of the terrifying headache caused by the multidirectional scrolling. I do not, however, get carsick while reading a book. The worst game-related headache I ever endured was in Sega’s game Dororo (Blood Will Tell), where the first stage is black and white, with the only color being the life meter, which was red and green. That actually shocked the hell out of me.
Do I feel like any videogames in the traditional sense have made my eyes worse? Not really. Though all this reminds me of something: there was this letter in Nintendo Power way back when, from the parent of a kid who was diagnosed as legally blind. The progressive-minded specialist recommended by their family doctor prescribed videogames, preferably ones with large characters moving at medium speeds. The kid got hooked on Double Dragon II, and after a few months of sitting very close to the television, was finally able to function sight-wise with a pair of thick glasses. “Look out, Howard [Lincoln, then-president of Nintendo of America] — some day a kid with thick glasses might show up in your office, after your job!” said the mother, in closing. I wonder what ever happened to that kid. For some reason, just thinking about Vision Training makes me curious. It makes me sincerely hope he got a good deal somewhere down the line. Who would have imagined — games making people do something sincerely.