Over the last few years, the 'funny pages' at the back of the daily newspapers have seen a major change. The humble crossword has been joined by a whole host of new grid-based puzzles, which have pushed the comic strips and word searches to one side, replacing them with numerous number-based challenges.
I am of course talking about the ongoing fashion for Sudoku, the commuter's favourite and spearhead of the new craze for Japanese grid puzzles like Kakuro and Maru-batsu. Yet despite their massive popularity and prominence in the national press, there is one problem that becomes startlingly obvious when you watch frustrated puzzlers angrily quitting and tossing their paper to one side; unless you take a rubber with you wherever you go, you often end up with a grid full of overlapping scribbles that completely ruins the puzzle below.
So it's a real surprise that more game developers have not harnessed the DS's touch screen to cash in on the craze in the UK. Tapping away at a puzzle with your stylus, correcting mistakes and filling in potential solutions as you go, works perfectly, as proved by the hugely popular, Japan-only, Hudson Puzzle Series.
Finally though, the DS can offer UK grid-puzzle fans some respite from the taste of the end of a pencil and the sense of a wasted tube journey. Picross is here, and its novel combination of crossword and illustration makes for a thoroughly addictive challenge.
'As you fill in the squares, a simple pixilated image begins to appear in the grid, until you complete the picture and finish the puzzle.'
At the start of a game you are presented with a blank grid surrounded by numbers. Reading across and horizontally, these numbers give clues as to which squares in the grid should be filled in with solid colour. As you fill in the squares, a simple pixilated image begins to appear in the grid, until you complete the picture and finish the puzzle.
Thousands of words could be written on the techniques and process used to work out which squares to fill in, but like Minesweeper and countless others, the pleasure is in learning the nuances of the game. When you start Picross, the sense of bewilderment you feel is quickly replaced with smugness as you realise that various logical steps and systems almost completely replace the need for guesswork.
That's 'almost completely'. Perhaps the most interesting and unique element of Picross is that once the picture starts to become clearer, you can use informed guesswork and some creative energy to fill in squares based on continuing the drawing. Sometimes symmetry becomes obvious, and sometimes you just can't resist taking a gamble on where an elephant's tail, or pomegranate's stalk, starts and finishes.
There are plenty of modes, including versions that assist the newcomer and more punishing systems that drop any kind of player help, as well as a mode that lets you create our own pictures and turn them into puzzles you can share with friends wirelessly. Completing collections of puzzles also opens up mini-games that provide some arcade-style distraction from the brain teasing, such as a speed drawing challenge and a grid based whack-a-rat affair.
There are enough grids on offer for a little longevity, but the game does start to lose appeal just as you gain confidence in your ability and move on to the larger puzzles. Once the play area increases to 15 squares in width and height, a clumsy zoom tool kicks in. Though it is a workable system for moving around the grid, it is a simple fact that the game is best played with the entire grid visible. Zooming in and moving about just makes things too confusing, and piles on the pressure when you are playing a timed game. Though you can still zoom out, you can only interact with the grid when the game camera is closest to the grid in question.
Despite this, Picross is a great little puzzle game that certainly makes a change from doing Sudoku on a crumpled up paper. It won't last forever, and it has its faults, but if you've ever got addicted to Minesweeper you'll likely enjoy this curious puzzle game.