I won’t lie to you, folks; in a holiday season packed with Pokémon, Shin Megami Tensei, and (at least for import-minded gamers like myself) Super Robot Wars, the new Big Brain Academy wasn’t so much as a blip on my radar. Still, Nintendo kept insisting that this would be a fun and intellectually challenging family gaming experience, so—being that I’m a fan of fun and games and challenges and… families—I eventually took the bait and decided to check out Big Brain Academy: Brain vs. Brain for myself.
What I found was both the family-friendly tournament of the minds I was promised as well as something more—an enlightening, engaging, and occasionally enraging take on the memory, matching, and pattern recognition games of old.
Challenge Your Family
Big Brain Academy: Brain vs. Brain consists of two basic modes, Solo, which I’ll discuss in a moment, and Party, the two-to-four-player battle of wits and whimsy. For three or more players, you’ll be required to use multiple Joy-Cons or similar detached controllers, however, if there are just two of you, you can choose either button or touch controls.
I’ll pause here and say that touch control is the superior interface simply because of how responsive it is on the Switch. Button controls, then, are a little bit clunkier for navigating and choosing answers, but if everyone is using them, at least each player is on equal footing.
Speaking of equal footing, the big selling point of Brain vs. Brain multiplayer is its various difficulty levels. This difficulty is determined per player as opposed to per match or per game, meaning that kids and grownups can compete together quite equitably.
Difficulty ranges from Sprout class, for very young children, to the fairly self-explanatory Beginner, Intermediate, and Advanced classes. But it doesn’t stop there—Elite and Super Elite classes are also available for the brainiacs among you.
The brain games in question also break down nicely into discrete categories: Identify, Memorize, Analyze, Compute, and Visualize. Party play can either be restricted to a single category for each match, or you can spin the big wheel and let the Fates decide.
Players then participate, either alternately choosing the play activity or spinning the wheel, in each activity, with each one being scaled to the correct difficulty level for all included participants. This means likely even your youngest geeklings can keep up, making things fun and fair and maybe even a little bit frivolous.
If, however, you choose Solo on that fateful splash screen, stuff gets real—real fast.
Unlike Party play, which includes generic guest accounts, new users in Solo mode must register by telling the game’s host, Dr. Lobe, a little about themselves. This includes their age, their style (vaguely masculine or feminine), their occupation (in the broadest strokes, like high-schooler or office worker), and a catchphrase (chosen from a pre-generated list).
Users then create a simple avatar. Options are limited at first, but many more are unlocked through gameplay.
With that behind you, the first task is the basic Practice mode. This leads you through the various activities of the aforementioned categories, adjusting the difficulty on the fly in response to your performance.
Each activity seems dead simple on first blush, but they become maddeningly hard at higher levels. For example, Species Spotlight, one of my favorite selections in the Identify category, wants you to shine a beam of light across a darkened stage. On that stage, a number of animals move about, and you are expected to choose the species with the most animals visible from the image list below.
This is a cakewalk with just a couple of animal species, but as more and more are added, things take a stark turn.
The same goes for the Compute activity Tick-Tock Turn, wherein you are expected to adjust the hands of a clock as new time requests are displayed. I mean, I know how clocks work! I can move forward 15 minutes or back a half-hour with ease, but when Dr. Lobe starts saying things like “220 minutes ahead,” my reasoning faculties go right out the window.
Like the classic brain games that came before it, your performance across each activity is weighed and scored, based on time and accuracy. You are awarded both an overall score and one or more Lobe Medals, the latter of which also provides coins. Ten coins mean a new clothing item is unlocked, and I am clearly more than willing to make myself look like an idiot for those coins and more sweet, sweet virtual clothing.
You are also encouraged to explore the Test mode. Here your mental mettle is weighed against a battery of activities, one from each category, and then you are given your full Big Brain Brawn score, a corresponding letter grade, and a Brain Type.
Currently, my BBB is a healthy 2985 points, and my Brain Grade is A++… but my Brain Type is simply described as “Visualize deficient,” which is true, but, I mean… ouch.
Challenge the World
The last major Solo sub-mode is Ghost Clash, which is far less supernatural than it sounds. Basically, you’re able to compete in brain games against ghost data from your friends, family, and the world at large.
You’re then ranked against the others within the designated group. Competition is fierce, and my only advice to you is the same sage knowledge I imparted earlier: use touch controls. They are quicker, more efficient, and just more fun.
Not only do wins in Ghost Clash give you coins for new items, as your Big Brain World Ranking moves up you also unlock additional greetings—which, while not as satisfying as an expanding fake wardrobe, still manages to stimulate my own brain’s fickle reward center.
It’s Big Brain Time
Look, I’m not going to sit here and tell you that Big Brain Academy: Brain vs. Brain is going to be my game of the year. I’m not going to obsess over proper strategies for the various Visualize activities I stink at or hit up GameFAQs looking for some sort of walkthrough.
What I will say is that Brain vs. Brain is a surprising amount of fun for both individuals to explore alone and for families to play together, and at 30 bucks, you really can’t go wrong.
Sure, BBA talks a good game—the word “brain” is in the title no less than three times—but its brand of edutainment is, mercifully, far heavier on entertainment than education.
But feel free to take that recommendation with a grain of salt. I am, after all, “Visualize deficient.”
Instead, why not just check the free demo available via the Nintendo Switch eShop and see for yourself? I believe you too will be pleasantly surprised.
Review materials provided by Nintendo of America. This post contains affiliate links. Insert the requisite Markiplier meme here.