New games bring more people to video consoles

by Taiga Uranaka

There may be no monsters to slay or racing cars to spin, but new video games that claim to stimulate the brain or translate languages are being snapped up by a new crowd of gamers.

The people snapping up these games often have never touched a console before — which is both a surprise and welcome news for the industry, suffering from a decline in the market.

Nintendo Co.’s program, “No wo Kitaeru Otonano DS Training” (“Brain Training for Grownups”), for the Nintendo DS portable console, has proved to be a blockbuster hit, selling more than 1.5 million units since its release last May.

Its sequel, released in late December, became a million-seller in less than a month.

The games, based on research by Ryuta Kawashima, a neuroscientist at Tohoku University, claim to stimulate brain activity with a series of simple questions, including math and kanji problems. Players are also challenged to read texts out loud as quickly as possible.

They are played with a stylus and a touch pad, making it easy for people who have never used game controls before.

Officials at the Kyoto-based game maker said the brain games have attracted novice video game players, adding that one-third of the buyers are aged 35 years and older, a statistic not usually seen for other games.

The game has also proved very popular with the elderly, they said.

“It’s easy to play and a bit beneficial while providing good fun,” Nintendo spokesman Ken Toyoda said of the game’s appeal.

Given the games’ hot figures at home, Nintendo will launch a version overseas, planning to introduce it to North America on April 17 with the title, “Brain Age: Train Your Brain in Minutes a Day!” It will be also released in Europe this spring under the name “Prof. Kawashima’s Brain Training: How Old Is Your Brain?”

Rival Sony Computer Entertainment Inc. is also seeing greater-than-expected popularity of its nontraditional video game.

“Talkman,” released in November for the PlayStation Portable game console, has been attracting middle-aged women interested in South Korea-related products, sparked by the popularity of South Korean television dramas here.

Players speak into a microphone and a smooth-talking cartoon bird, named Max, will repeat a slangy version of the phrase in the language selected — Korean, Chinese, American English or Japanese.

The game, born from the frustration of a game creator who had problems with the language barrier on a trip to Europe, is designed to aid communication and features 3,000 phrases that are often used by people traveling.

But SCE Executive Vice President Masatsuka Saeki said the software, packed with hip phrases, is not meant to be used as a translation device.

“It’s an entertainment item, a tool to use to have fun with locals,” he said.

SCE is targeting frequent travelers with the game as well as regular gamers, and has placed long TV commercials on a satellite channel that specializes in South Korean dramas.

“Women in their 30s also buy ‘Talkman’ for their children’s foreign language studies,” Saeki said. “The range of buyers is wider than we had expected.”

SCE said it has sold about 150,000 units since its release. The figure may pale in comparison with Nintendo’s brain games, but SCE officials said it is still a smash hit given that it is new to the market.

Another reason for the difference in sales could be the price — “Talkman” is 6,090 yen while the two brain trainers are 2,800 yen each.

Encouraged by its popularity, SCE will release a European version of “Talkman” in May, featuring British English, German, Italian, Spanish, French and Japanese.

It hopes demand will be high for the European version in the leadup to the World Cup soccer tournament in Germany, which begins in June, although the firm cannot mention the event in its advertising because it does not have a sponsorship contract.

For the game makers, the surprise hits of the brain games and “Talkman” might give hints on how to survive long term in a continually shrinking market.

According to Enterbrain Inc., a game industry research company, the domestic video game market in 2005 was 454.73 billion yen, up from 428 billion yen in 2004.

While the figure represents a reverse in a declining trend that had continued for three years, it is still 15 percent smaller than the peak year of 1997 and industry officials say there are few signs the market will grow.

“The trend for more complex games has led to a decline in the gaming population,” Nintendo’s Toyoda said, adding the firm wants to expand its gamer base with these new categories.