Reviewed: December 22, 2007
Released: November 6, 2007
Nintendo has really opened up a whole new audience for "games" of a certain sort, which I will conveniently label as "edutainment". Edutainment is a genre of game that seeks to educate as well as entertain. When Nintendo put out the extremely popular Brain Age for Nintendo DS, they probably had no idea that the flood gates to a brand new audience for their handheld would have opened as wide as it did. Brain Age went on to sell nearly 10 million copies worldwide counting all the various versions by territory (which are slightly different but still similar), and has definitely been a "system seller" for the DS hardware as well.
What Brain Age does for honing your math skills and quick thinking, My Word Coach does for your vocabulary. My Word Coach was inspired by vocabulary acquisition research done by Dr. Thomas Cobb, Professor in Applied Linguistics at the University of Quebec. What you end up with is a "game" that you end up spending 15 to 20 minutes per day helping you improve your vocabulary.
My Word Coach Features
When you first start My Word Coach, the game first runs you through a little tutorial and example of how to play two of the mini-games included. The first mini-game it shows you how to do is the Missing Letter mini-game, which is where a word will be displayed on the top screen with one of the letters missing and you have to write the letter that is missing using the stylus on the touch screen. For example, it will display INCO_RIGIBLE, and you have to write "R" on the touch screen. The big problem with this mini-game is that the letter recognition is not extremely accurate or intuitive. Fortunately the manual has a guide in the back that shows the way to write your letters so that they will be recognized better.
After that mini-game runs the first time, it will then show a tutorial for the 2nd mini-game which is much better called Split Decision. In this game you have a word show up on the top screen and you have to use the stylus to move either left or right. If you move left, a definition will appear. If that definition matches the word then you click the Confirm button that it is correct. Otherwise you scroll back over to the right to see the other definition and confirm it. Later on this game gets reversed too where you have a definition on top and have to do left or right for the word.
After you try the first two mini-games the game sets you up a profile and asks you a series of words whether or not you know them so that it can do a placement for your initial Expression Potential (EP). Why do they call it that? Because by learning new words you learn more ways to... wait for it... express yourself, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
Your EP can range from 0% to 100%, where 100% is basically Word God and 0% is Cave Man. When I did mine the first time I fell in the 20% range (yes, I felt like a n00b). It's somewhat random depending on what random selection of words it first shows you out of the thousands available and whether or not you happen to know them.
Once you have a profile it will start tracking your progress and let you pick one of 4 different instructors (which doesn't seem to make much difference other than slightly different tone and style of written instructions and a different graphic for the teacher). Then you can keep playing the mini-games until you reach your daily EP goal, and once you've done that your EP will go up and you pretty much are done until the next day because it won't let you continue to increase your EP past a set limit for that day. The game is designed to play for about 20 minutes per day. Got more time than that? Oh well, try Brain Age too I guess unless you want to start playing games with the DS system clock.
The more you play each day the more mini-games you unlock until you have unlocked them all eventually. The other mini games are:
Aside from the mini-games themselves, the game also features some tracking tools to show your progress over time, and to compare your results to other profiles on the cartridge (so you can compete with family members). There is also a glossary so that you can look up words and definitions in case you want to practice or just as a quick reference guide while you’re out and about.
But is it fun? Well, sure, in small bursts, which is exactly how this edutainment software is designed to be used. This game has a lot in common with the popular game Brain Age in that it’s designed to be played for a short session every day so that you can track your progress over a long period of time. This makes it fairly difficult to review, except for being able to cheat by setting my DS clock ahead to trick it into thinking more time has passed. That’s a trick you can use too but I do not recommend it, since the slow pacing is intentional so that you will retain more of the words rather than learning and forgetting for the next set.
Graphics really aren’t that important of a factor for an edutainment game, except that they be recognizable enough not to interfere with the learning process or distract too much. As such, the graphics in My Word Coach do their job just fine. The graphics are simple, yet efficient, which is exactly what you need for a game of this type.
Could there have been more? Well sure, if cartridge memory was of no concern, they could have provided cute little animations for each of the words and maybe even had another mini-game where you are only shown the animation and have to guess the word it belongs to or something along those lines. But would that really make the game a better learning tool? And of course, the game has limited options to change the graphics to your own taste; by letting you choose one of four different coaches.
This is one area where I can find some room to criticize My Word Coach. For starters, the music for it gets tiring and a bit irritating. It’s not bad, but you hear it so much it becomes about as annoying as the Jeopardy theme song over time. Elevator music never was one of my favorite genres to begin with. Why not a little Aerosmith or Led Zeppelin to rock my words? Ahem. But in all seriousness, that’s not the biggest problem.
The biggest problem with the sound is the absolute lack of any voice content, which would have been a serious aid in learning. Imagine how much better a learning tool this game would have been if you could not only learn the words and definitions, but also how to pronounce them? Imagine your embarrassment when you go to actually use some of these newfangled 50-cent words, only to pronounce debris as “deb-riss” instead of “deh-bree”. Your new hard-earned education just bought you a big old ticket to Laughingstock Land. Word of advice - try these words on friends who are smarter than you before using them in public. The lack of pronunciation and testing for it seems like a serious lack of opportunity for this title, and really seems like a no-brainer feature. Maybe we can hope for its inclusion in the inevitable My Word Coach 2.
My Word Coach has incredible replay value, since the whole idea here is to play it over and over every day for months or years until you actually start to improve your vocabulary. And of course, an education is the most valuable investment you can make in life. Or so my guidance councilor told me, and they would never lie, am I right? Thirty bucks seems like a small price to pay for what you get. Then again, there are a lot of tools like this available on other platforms and a lot of other edutainment games on the DS, and that price may seem high depending on what you are comparing it to.
For added value, My Word Coach also supports a few multiplayer options. For one thing you can share a demo of the Block Letters game with another DS owner even if they do not have the My Word Coach card. You can also engage with them in Cube Battle, a versus version of the tetris-like Block Letters game, with variations a bit different than the single player, such as being able to take letters away from your opponent’s screen, or when using the bomb sending those letters over to your opponent’s screen.
If your buddy happens to also own My Word Coach, then besides the Cube Battle mode, you can also go head to head with them on the Safecracker mini-game. My Word Coach for the DS is also supposed to be able to interface with My Word Coach for the Nintendo Wii, but this reviewer did not get an opportunity to test that functionality.
Whatever you do in life, knowing more words can almost always make you seem smarter at least, and of course a bigger vocabulary can help you read faster and more difficult subject matter. Learning new things also helps keep your brain from rotting, or so they say. The only question is, does My Word Coach actually help you learn more? From my brief time with it, I would have to say yes, and not only that it can actually be a fun little diversion when you have 15 or 20 minutes of free time during the day. Learning while being entertained, what a novel concept!
As far as edutainment games goes, My Word Coach is one of the better ones I have spent time with and one in which nearly anyone age 8 or older should be able to get something out of. I can wholeheartedly recommend this game for everyone who at least knows intermediate English. This is not a good tool for learning English as a second language, there are better tools for that elsewhere, but it’s for English speakers who want to learn more English words (and more difficult ones). I’m guessing that if you’re reading this review, you probably are in the target audience.