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"Casual" software games are easy for old and young

"Casual" software - the sort of games anyone of any age can quickly learn to play. Titles like "Nintendogs," "Brain Age" and "Clubhouse Games" have propelled sales of Nintendo's portable DS, making it the most popular of the current generation of consoles.

The company has a brand name for its casual line: Touch Generations, which somewhat awkwardly connects the DS' touch-screen capability to its cross-generational appeal. For now, Nintendo has reserved the Touch Generations logo for the software it publishes, but I can think of a few dozen more DS titles -like Ubisoft's "Platinum Sudoku," Majesco's "The New York Times Crosswords" and D3's "Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords" -that older players would enjoy.

While I'm a more stereotypical video-game consumer, I like to balance intense action games with more laid-back fare. Even hardcore gamers need a break from "Gears of War" every now and then.

- "Brain Age 2" (Nintendo, for the DS, $19.99): Last year's "Brain Age: Train Your Brain in Minutes a Day!" was more than a surprise hit -it created a new genre, spawning a flood of imitators. Most of those lacked the simple charm of "Brain Age," but now Nintendo is back with a proper sequel.

Again, "Brain Age 2" presents you with an assortment of simple math and observation puzzles. You may be asked to make correct change, unscramble words or complete an equation with the appropriate mathematical symbol. Speed and accuracy determine your "brain age" -the younger the better.

A few of the exercises, like a brief piano-playing challenge, are entertaining, and "Brain Age 2" also offers 100 sudoku puzzles. But the math questions are too straightforward to be much fun, and I still don't know if the "Brain Age" brand of rapid-fire problem-solving boosts your intelligence any more than crosswords, jigsaw puzzles or even "Pokemon." Still, trying to bring down your brain age can become an addiction. Two-and-a-half stars.

- "Picross DS" (Nintendo, for the DS, $19.99): Now that sudoku has conquered the world, some of its fans are discovering other Japanese logic puzzles with exotic names like kakuro, nurikabe and hanjie. The last of those is the basis of "Picross DS," a collection of hundreds of "paint-by-numbers" brainteasers.

Each puzzle begins as a blank grid. Numbers along the top show how many black squares are needed in each column; numbers along the left side provide the same information for the rows. You need to use logic to figure out which squares need to be filled in; get it right and you're rewarded with a pixelated picture. That little bonus makes "Picross" a little more rewarding than sudoku.

If you've never tried hanjie before, "Picross" provides a nice tutorial. Once you get the hang of it, there's enough material here to keep you busy for months. And "Picross" lets you make your own puzzles and send them to other players. It's a real bargain at just $20. Three-and-a-half stars.

- "TouchMaster" (Midway, for the DS, $29.99): If you're reading this in a bar, look around and you'll probably see one of Midway's TouchMaster machines -it's that countertop console that you can play trivia, solitaire or checkers on. If you aren't in a bar, well, now you can play 23 of those TouchMaster games on your DS.

It's a decent assortment. Besides trivia and card games, you get variations on mahjong, hangman, Yahtzee and others. There are a few duds in the bunch -"Hot Hoops" free-throw shooting, the incomprehensible "Artifact" -but most of the games are fun for a few minutes at a time.

As you would expect from games that are designed to appeal to a tipsy crowd, there's nothing terribly complicated here. On the whole, the games in "TouchMaster" are fast-paced and agreeable -and may bring back memories for those whose drinking days are behind them. Two-and-a-half stars.

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