Picross is Nintendo’s name for a certain genre of picture logic puzzles. Wikipedia has a pretty good explanation, and it’s easy enough to find places where you can play them online (this site seemed like the best of the first page of search results): the game consists of a grid, together with a set of numbers for each row and column. Those numbers tell you how many squares in that row/column are filled in, and how they cluster, so if the numbers are, say, “4, 5” then you know that there’s a set of four black squares, then one or more empty squares, then a set of five black squares. (Possibly with white space before the first set and/or after the last set.) The easiest example of how this helps is if you see one number that’s more than half the length of the row: if the row just contains an 8 and the row is 10 squares wide, then you don’t know exactly where the 8 goes (it could touch the left side, it could touch the right side, or it could leave one empty square on either side), but you know that, no matter what, the middle six squares are filled in.

Liesl and I had been doing these for years in Games magazine. (We also worked through most a book of them.) So, when they released Picross DS, I knew we had to get it. In particular, I was really curious how it would turn out on the DS; it seemed like a natural fit for the stylus interface.

At first, I wasn’t too impressed. It doesn’t have multiple save slots, in a blatant attempt to get people to buy multiple copies for their household. (The flip side is that it only costs $20, so even two copies don’t add up to much.) They’d advertised online features, including online competitive gameplay and new downloadable puzzles every week; I got connection failures when I first tried the former, and no puzzles were available for the latter. Puzzles are hardwired to play in either “normal” or “free” mode; in the former, you get told whenever you fill in a square that you shouldn’t, which I found fairly annoying. And the stylus controls don’t work well for puzzles larger than 10×10: you have to move around the puzzle instead of seeing it all at once.

But I kept on going, and soon none of that mattered. It has two control modes, and the D-pad + button version works just fine: you can see the whole grid at once, and it’s easier to mark squares as known to be empty in that control scheme. I let Liesl work puzzles first, and did a row of puzzles at a time; with that, it was easy enough for both of us to keep track of where we were. I still wish there were an option to do all puzzles in free mode, but I can deal. Downloadable content started appearing (every two weeks, though, not every week), and I even got in some online matches. Which turns out to be pleasantly different from the regular game: I treat the regular game as “prove that there’s a unique solution”, while on the online version you really have to go as fast as possible, so you can use things like symmetry and guesses about what the picture will look like.

And then the puzzles started to get nice and hard. They go up to 25×20, which is actually a bit much for me (not so much because of the difficulty but because of the increased amount of fiddly counting), but the hardest 20×20 puzzles were really something, and even the hardest 15×15 puzzles were quite good. Only a few of the puzzles were at the best difficulty level, but there’s a wide range that requires at least some thought, and I enjoy even the easy ones.

I’m not sure how much time I sunk into the game; it comes with about 400 puzzles, I’ve downloaded another 150 or so, and while there are a lot more that take only a couple of minutes than ones that take an hour, it wouldn’t surprise me if I’ve spent 50 hours on the game, or even more. Add in Liesl’s time spent on it, and we may have gotten 100 hours of gameplay out of our $20 purchase; hard to beat that for value.

I wasn’t expecting a simple puzzle game to be the second best game I’ve played this year, but there you have it. (Hmm, maybe third best, and some other contenders may also force their way in over the next few days.) A perfect game for a portable system; you can pick it up and play it anywhere, for minutes or hours at a time.

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