Cutting The Edge Of The Box
There’s something about filling boxes on a grid that is oddly fulfilling. Like penciling in all the little ovals of the letters B, D, O, P, Q, and R (whee!), there is an almost deranged sense of satisfaction that comes from playful tedium. Crosswords, Sudoku, "Magic Squares" – these are just a sampling of how thinking can actually be fun – with the help of a simple grid and without the need for hand-eye coordination or frag-filled strategies.
[image1]This is only true, though, for a handful of people such as myself — a logic lover. Many gamers find these innocuous, inoffensive, non-toxic, and thereby parent-friendly mind-benders boring — and who can really blame them? As satisfying as it may be to learn an arsenal of nitty-gritty rules and finally fitting that last piece of a puzzle, anything that reminds us of a homework problem is usually the opposite of joy.
Thankfully, Picross DS (Nonograms DS sounds frightening) is a cheerful, little package that preserves the simple and addictive qualities of Sudoku – and sharpens them. A combination between "picture" and "crossword," this easy-to-learn, "paint by numbers" puzzler tests your ability to organize and group pixels on a square grid. Alongside each row and column is a sequence of numbers that give you clues as to which boxes in that row and column need to be filled in. For instance, a row labeled with "1 2 3" means that it contains, from left to right, a group of one, then a group of two, and finally a group of three.
How these groups are separated is deduced by combining both the row and column clues together and applying a couple of handy techniques, such as "overlapping" — a mental process which would explain (note: cruelty to fictional birds) that if there are eight pigeons tied to each other and there are ten birdhouses in a row (each equally spaced in accordance with comfortable strung-together pigeon living standards), then the middle six birdhouses must be occupied. Fill in the right birdhouses, err…, pixels and, by the end, you will be rewarded with a miniature picture for your mental prowess.
But you probably won’t care about the picture at all, at least until your eyes remember to look away and notice the image forming on the top screen. You’ll be too busy looking at high numbers for overlapping, marking boxes you’re sure aren’t in the picture with Xs, deciding whether you’re just guessing, praying you’re right, and scanning the lines and lines of numbers hoping you can eek out your next move towards pictorial domination.
[image2]Numbers that have already given you all their worth will fade into grey, a visual sign that you’re inching closer and closer to the end. With some luck, your concentration hasn’t lapsed. There’s not much worse than the sinking feeling, settling deep in your stomach, that comes when you realize you made a careless mistake, with no way to fix it but to start all over again. Still, you forge ahead from corner to corner, ducking and diving on the edge of your brain.
It’s hard to imagine that a port from what should be a pen-and-paper off-shoot in the Sunday New York Times could be this engrossing as a video game. That Picross doesn’t require any note-taking or random guessing makes it well-suited for the comfortable, pick-up-and-play mold. However, the game is mostly successful because of timing and shock value.
Picross has been around since the late 1980’s, and this isn’t the first time Nintendo has tried to market it in the US, as with Mario’s Picross (1995) for the Gameboy. Picross DS receives a lot of snaps for being the first self-dedicated title (Essential Sudoku DS throws in some Picross puzzles for fun) released in the recent surge in "edutainment". And is extremely lucky that it doesn’t have to run through a gauntlet of knockoff games, which any recent Sudoku title has to do. Anyone want to go up against Carol Vorderman’s Sudoku?
Being noticed is already difficult for a budget title, so knocking Picross DS for its production values feels like a shameful sucker-punch. But the dearth of polish is impossible to overlook, and this goes further than a few generic tracks and plain-vanilla window-dressing (Lumines, you have spoiled me). For one, using the stylus is a nightmare. Accidentally filling in the wrong box is as commonplace as filling in the right one, which is only made worse in Normal Mode where every supposed mistake yields a time penalty. Likewise, having to tap an icon every time you want to switch between filling in a square and marking a box with an X gives only more incentive to choose the D-pad and buttons for control.
At least there’s a lot to do. Completing several puzzles in main mode unlocks a trio of touch-sensitive mini-games: Catch, Sketch, and Hit. None of these have anything to do with Picross, but they provide an enjoyable diversion from the bread and butter of the game; that is, if you can get past the hair-pulling stylus controls. My Picross allows you to download user-created puzzles and create your own, of which you can send to friends over a Wi-Fi connection. You and a friend can also fight for the best time in completing two quick match-ups, but like its grid-based counterparts, Picross is more of a single-player experience than a bona-fide deathmatch ("I challenge thee to a duel of coloring!").
Along with that, Daily Picross offers five time-attack variants that pose quite a challenge, especially Secret mode which devilishly keeps some of the numerical clues hidden. Demanding dedication, unlocking Secret mode requires that you play Daily Picross once for twenty days. Unfortunately, the pacing of this mode is incredibly slow, allowing you to play only the chosen puzzles of the day. There are no practice time-attack puzzles at all – you can’t even play ones that you already completed – which is exceedingly odd, given that you are graded on how well you perform and that the modes in Daily Picross are fast and furious, and have the highest potential for replay.
[image3]Also scratch-your-head odd are the unrefined optional settings. As you progress from the namby-bamby 5×5 grid to the 10×10, 15×15, and (sick!) 20×20 grids, a zooming feature becomes available, allowing you to eyeball the boxes more clearly. Having to move back and forth between viewpoints, however, causes more convulsions than anything else, and unless you have poor eyesight, zooming is largely unnecessary.
Before starting a puzzle, you can also opt for several hints that give you the correct answer for one row and one column. It may seem nice that hints are completely free — all you have to suffer is a bit of pride — but it makes playing hint-free feel masochistic, when you should feel honorable challenging Picross at its purest level.
For something that belongs in your ‘Games’ folder between Minesweeper and Freecell, Picross DS is a quaint title that makes its number on engrossing gameplay. Though most of its bells and whistles do not hold up to scrutiny very well, the simplicity and depth of the main modes will keep you occupied with more than two hundred unlockable puzzles. There is not much of a difference between getting Picross DS and just a plain ol’ book of Picross puzzles, but not having to lug around a fist-sized eraser (because you’re going to need one) is more than enough reason to be grateful for its digital rebirth. May you be oddly fulfilled for weeks to come.