Really? You aren’t playing My Spanish Coach for the visuals are you? If you demand the shiniest visuals from your games, this is probably not the title for you. There’s not much to say about the visual presentation here: the graphics are functional, crisp and colorful. Everything is clear and easy to understand. The text, both in English and Spanish, is very easy to read on the small screens of the DS . There’s an attractive looking Hispanic woman who is your coach and her picture shows up throughout the lessons and games. In the minigames , everything is easy to see but there’s no real visual flair here. In a game like this, eye-catching visuals are not only unnecessary but can be distracting. Things should be presented clearly and pleasantly and they are.

This is much more important for a game like My Spanish Coach. There is some music, but it’s mostly just a Latin-sounding theme on the menu screens. What’s amazing are the amount of voice samples packed inside this little DS cartridge. The game tells you on one of the opening screens to “use headphones to maximize your learning experience.” The reason is because every Spanish word in the game has a corresponding voice sample that demonstrates how to pronounce it. It’s really pretty amazing, especially when the game promises “close to 10,000 words and 700 phrases.” I’m not sure what bitrate these were recorded at but they are recorded by a female with a clear and easy to follow voice and I’m familiar enough with Spanish to know that the pronunciations are accurate. Some of the words are pronounced a bit quickly and there’s no option to slow down the pronunciation, but you can repeat the voice sample over and over until you get it just right. One thing that would be nice is the option to hear the pronunciation of part of a word so you could master it and then work on the entire word, much like in the Pimsleur lessons.

The game also makes good use of the DS’s microphone. You can record yourself saying any of the words or phrases that you learn in the lessons. Once you have your own voice sample recorded, you can play it back to hear yourself or you can play it together with the game’s voice sample to see how your pronunciation compares to the “official” pronunciation. This is helpful in figuring out the right intonation and emphasis.

Overall, My Spanish Coach does a great job with its audio. But you’d expect that in a game that’s designed to teach you a foreign language, right?

My Spanish Coach makes good use of the DS’s touch screen. You play the entire game with the stylus and hardly ever use the d-pad or buttons. Part of the game consists of the actual lessons and in this section your input mostly involves tapping the “Forward” button. It’s the actual mini-games that will have you giving your stylus a workout. Where it can be frustrating is that most of the minigames are timed, which means you have to be quick with your stylus. For some of them like multiple choice this is no problem as there are four options and you can easily select your answer. Some of the other ones like Whack-a-Mole… excuse me… Hit-a-Word can be frustrating. The words pop up so quickly that you have to keep your stylus in the center of the screen to be ready for them but part of your hand is inevitably covering some of the screen which makes it easy to start missing words. Word Search involves a seek-and-find puzzle and you draw a line through the words you discover. One of the best things about the controls is that they are intuitive. This is a game designed for the casual audience so the controls need to make sense and be easy to manage. And they are.

One of the criticisms of Nintendo has been their recent shifting of their design and marketing toward the casual audience. Back in the day, games were games and you could count on Nintendo for side-scrolling or role-playing or sports. But you didn’t go to Nintendo for learning. That’s not what video games were for. If you wanted “edutainment” you went to the PC and its vast library of school- and parent-friendly titles. That changed with the Nintendo DS and Brain Age. Suddenly the line between entertainment and education/self-improvement became blurry.

And that brings us to My Spanish Coach. Is this thing a game? Well…

Mostly it’s an educational aid and reference tool with the additon of some minigames to aid you in learning.

There are a total of 8 minigames that let you practice your vocabulary words as you learn them through the lessons. You start out with Multiple Choice but soon you can play Hit-a-Word, Word Search, Flash Cards and many others you will unlock as you progress through the lessons and improve your Spanish. I have a couple of criticisms regarding the minigames. First, I hate the fact that you have to unlock minigames as you progress. Is there really any harm in giving me the Memory game right from the start? With there being only eight games here, having them dribbled out to you is frustrating. I would like to have had all the options available to me from the beginning. And the reason has to do with my second complaint.

The minigames are fairly repetitive and can be boring. The program is structured so that the only way to progress to more advanced lessons is by demonstrating that you know the vocabulary you have learned. And the only way to show you know your lessons is to play the minigames over and over. Each time you complete a minigame, the program determines what words you have mastered and increases your score. Once you reach a high enough score, a new lesson is unlocked.

The problem here is you will have to play these 8 minigames over and over and over. They’re generally fun, especially the first couple of times through. But after you’ve played the word equivalent of Whack-a-Mole ten times you begin to get bored. After you’ve played it fifty times or more you are ready to either kill a real mole or else put the game down. You can choose the difficulty level of the minigames which helps some but even on hard things become boring quickly. There needs to be a larger variety of fun and interesting games to keep the player’s interest. And it would have been nice to have the option of bypassing the minigames for words you already know or have learned quickly.

Can a $30 Nintendo DS game teach you a language? There are sophisticated learning systems out there that propose to teach you a language and cost ten times as much, so is it fair to expect My Spanish Coach to make you fluent? Not really… but then again the game does advertise that you can “learn Spanish in only 15 minutes a day” so we have to expect something from it. My Spanish Coach will definitely do a great job of helping you learn vocabulary and basic phrases. Once you’ve finished the game, you’ll be familiar with a lot of words but you’ll be hard pressed to carry on a conversation or be able to watch a Spanish movie without the subtitles on. Still, this is a good way to begin or to improve your Spanish and it might be a good adjunct to a high school or college class.

The game does have some replay value as it allows you to review lessons and also contains a dictionary, phrasebook and a sketchpad. In theory, you could carry your DS with you to a Spanish-speaking country and use the phrasebook and dictionary to interact and navigate your way around. Hopefully My Spanish Coach would create enough interest in the language to prompt someone to take classes and further their learning.

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