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Picross DS from Jupiter may not tickle many pundits' game of the year glands, but for me it's the perfect combination of Nintendo minimalism and puzzle game challenge. Early in 2007, whilst the masses mindlessly grinded their way through umpteen Sudoku knock-offs, I happily stretched logic and math to the limit with what is easily the cream of the touch generations titles on the DS. Not surprising then, that this is my next slow burning hit for 2007.
It is not since the maroon buttoned days of the grey brick (many lovingly remember as the original Gameboy) that a Picross game graced a handheld. We need to be thankful for Nintendo's determination and deep pockets that they have tried again on the DS; the original release bombed at retail in the US and Europe. It fared slightly better in Japan, but even there it hasn't seen the light of day since 1995. Happily then, in their new role as video game trend setter the big N set their face to the wind and decided to bring the joys of Picross to the gaming hoards. Not only did we have this release on the DS but soon after came a Virtual Console reappearance of the old SNES system's Mario's Super Picross.
Even as a puzzle game fanatic myself, I probably wouldn't be convinced yet, had I not had the benefit of playing the game. But before I can eulogise the merits of Picross DS we need to have a brief sketch of what the heck it is. In brief, it is part of a family of picture puzzles known as Nonograms, all of which involve colouring in grid cells according to numbers given at the side to reveal a hidden picture. A quick google will reveal a more in depth explanation than we have space for here. As with any good puzzle games an incredibly simple premise evolves into a whole world of approaches and tactics. The combination of each number-clue allows the player to use techniques with names as wonderful as simple boxing, simple spacing, forcing, gluing, joining and splitting; we could go on. The bottom line is that this is the gaming equivalent of sour cream Pringles; once you've popped you can't stop. And while it may not bring you the popularity or partying lifestyle so well portrayed by their moustache wearing moniker, you will certainly avoid calcifying your kidneys and bringing your breath into disrepute.
It plays on that same buzz of satisfaction that comes from solving GCSE trig. But, cleaver little beavers that they are, Nintendo have packaged the whole thing up in such an unobtrusive and appealing package that anyone can happily pick it up and play.
Let's make no bones about it, this is (quite possibly) the geekiest of puzzle games. It plays on that same buzz of satisfaction that comes from solving GCSE trig. But, cleaver little beavers that they are, Nintendo have packaged the whole thing up in such an unobtrusive and appealing package that anyone can happily pick it up and play. This extends not just to the crisp clean aesthetics, but through the wide variety of game modes. Most inspired is the Daily Picross mode which immediately hooks the brain improvement crowd to come back each day to beat their previous scores. For a more substantial challenge, the Normal mode presents increasingly difficult puzzles, whilst providing enough handholding to stop the experience ever becoming too frustrating. Move to the hard-core Free mode and you will immediately miss the friendly notification of errors and feel the adrenalin kick in as the stakes are raised. Perhaps my earlier reference to Pringles earlier should have been to that of gaming Crack. In fact, let me pop off and (ahem) knock one off now.
The icing on this cake, as I can now freshly testify, is the little pictorial reward that is inherent in completing each Picross puzzle. Once you have filled in all the cells correctly you realise that all the while you have been constructing a little picture. What's more, on the DS the little scene is then animated in true pixelated retro glory. It's a minor design point but one that made a big difference to me. The rest of the game's design and execution continues this sort of attention to detail. Needless to say the controls and interface is floorless.
The cherry on the top of the icing of the cake is the nerve jangling Wifi Connection (WFC) challenge mode that pits you against another player online in a best of three puzzle battles. As you work your way through your puzzles you are shown both your and your opponent's completed percentage. Unlike Tetris DS, where you can see the actual state of the other player's wells, Picross keeps that a secret. So, as you approach the last puzzle you are never sure whether you have the lead or if the other guy has their grid all set-up for a last minute turn around. Add to this the five second penalty for a mistake and you have the makings of coronary educing levels of stress.
There we have it, another water tight case for a slow burning hit of 2007. These elements all combine into one highly honed experience that balances challenge and reward to perfection. Forget the pub, forget nights in front of the TV, even forget your main games console. Picross DS will grab you by the short-and-curlies and not let go until you are screaming with delight.
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