My Word Coach: Vocabulary Training

Recently Ubisoft received a lot of praise from Nintendo for their My Word Coach title. Specifically, Reggie Fils-Aime said, “You got it. You guys got exactly the type of game we want for this machine.” And Satoru Iwata, president of Nintendo, went so far as to treat the Ubisoft team as an internal developer, sharing game design philosophies for the DS and Wii.

After spending a few days with the game, I have to say Nintendo was way off with their effusive praise but Ubisoft is on the right track nonetheless.

The stated purpose of My Word Coach is to improve your vocabulary. Sometimes the game achieves this goal and other times it fails miserably. The game was created in partnership with the National Center for Family Literacy and in association with Dr. Thomas Cobb from the University of Quebec at Montreal. While it’s tempting to discount the game because Dr. Cobb teaches at a francophone university, he does have the credentials to be the creator of this game – not just a technical advisor.

The mini-games that make up My Word Coach succeed for the most part. Missing Letter is the first game you play. In it you simply write the missing capital letter on the bottom screen from the word displayed on the top screen. There are some minor issues with letter recognition, but those can be resolved with practice and a little consultation with the manual. The most frustrating letter to write is R. The game has a very hard time determining if it’s an A or K unless it’s written just so.

There is a practice game (which doesn’t affect your overall score) that helps you with your in-game penmanship, but it’s not unlocked until later in the game, after you’ve unlocked a bunch of other games. This is the first sign that Ubisoft did a lot less homework on this game than they like to make the public think they did.

Split Decision is a mini-game that gives you one word and two definitions. You must pick between the two answers. Pasta Letters gives you the definition and jumbles the letters of the word for you to spell properly. Watch out for the letters as they sink in the soup. To bring them back to the surface you need to blow on the DS microphone.

Of all the mini-games, Block Letters most resembles a flash game and yet is one of the least fun of all the games. I’ll grant that I don’t play it much, but that’s because it’s so boring. While there may be a deeper level of strategy I haven’t found yet, I tended to spend most of my time waiting for the right letter to fall, often until the screen filled up and the game was over. Boring.

Word Shuffle is my favorite game. In it you’re given four definitions and a number of words to match them up with. There are always more words than there are definitions.

Safe Cracker, the last real mini-game you unlock, is another of the better games, but more for its implementation and less for its concept. The idea is similar to crosswords in that you are given a definition, the first letter and the number of letters in a word. The only clever thing about this mini-game is the input. The action of spinning a safe dial to the next letter in the sequence was engaging enough to make me want to play it again.

As you play these six core games, the game keeps track of your correct and incorrect answers and assesses your “Expression Potential” (that is, how well you speak). You can keep track of these statistics through the in-game menu.

The problem is you can only advance so far in a 24-hour period. After a certain number of correct answers, the game will not allow you to “level up” any more until after midnight. Ostensibly this is to improve your vocabulary retention, but if you’re just breezing through words you’ve known for years you don’t want to have to wait a day to improve one or two percentage points. In other words there’s a daily cap on your return of in-game investment.

Their word choices are often suspect as well. While the dollar and rupee get special notice as world currencies, there’s no mention of yen, pounds, francs, lira or rubles. Some words I can’t see myself ever using in a sentence, such as footling, flibbertigibbet and apposite. I’ll grant that many of the words that fall into that category are new to me, but they are so random as to be worthless in casual use and often so obscure they’re hardly in print anymore.

Having listed most of my grievances, let me say that this format has a lot of potential. The inclusion of pronunciation and phonetic spelling in the glossary would add much to this game, especially considering the fact they localized it for all of North America and most of Europe.

I can’t recommend you buy My Word Coach, but I think Ubisoft is on the right track so I’ll give a tentative recommendation to the next generation of the game pending more information from Ubisoft about the future of the franchise.