Friday, September 7, 2007

What I'm Playing: Picross

This week I am playing Picross, from Nintendo. Picross is a puzzle game: each puzzle looks like a crossword puzzle, with a square grid you fill in, but instead of words and clues, you fill in the cells based on numeric clues. For each horizontal row and vertical column, they tell you how many consecutive spaces are filled. So "2 5" indicates there will be 2 cells filled in and then 5 cells filled in, with one or more blanks between them. the resulting image, once you fill in the puzzle properly, is a picture that then becomes colorized -- such as a fruit or animal -- and has some cute animation associated with it.

Picross is definitely addictive, and I have been thoroughly enjoying it. I haven't reached hard mode yet, but easy and normal have provided a sufficient and growing challenge enough to keep me hooked. I am not a Soduko fan, but I do enjoy crossword and spatial puzzles (such as tanagrams) and Picross has much the same appeal.

The Picross puzzles are timed and you get a time penalty for marking the wrong cells, so there is the ability to challenge yourself against a deadline. But there is no hard stop; no game-ending timeout as in the more frenetic puzzle games such as Tetris. So the timer is only there as encouragement.

In this respect, Picross should be ideal for me. I do not have lots of time for game playing (I squeeze in what time I can during coffee breaks or lunch) and I am often interrupted. So having a game that I can play for 5-10 minutes or pause without losing "momentum" really matches my current game playing style.

In fact, that is becoming one of the two minor deficits for me when playing Picross. The puzzles are preset, not automatically generated, so there is only so much of the game to go around. You can create your own puzzles or "compete" against others on a time challenge, but quite frankly those modes do not appeal to me much. (I do not have the artistic wizardry to create a puzzle I would find rewarding or an interest in solving a puzzle I know already because I created it. And although I enjoy playing competitive games with my sons, timed puzzles are not as interesting as the many racing, sports, and adventure games we already play.) So I have played through easy mode and most of normal, and have now reached the 15x15 grids, which -- to be honest -- take me more than 10 minutes to solve. The puzzles are beginning to exceed the time available to me for "casual play". So from now on I am either going to have to spend more dedicated time with the game or put up with extended breaks while working on individual puzzles. And I am not sure I have sufficient interest to do that.

The second issue I have with the game is -- as addictive as it is, and it is -- I get the feeling I do when solving crossword puzzles from the same source too often (such as the New Yorker, or NY Times) that a large part of my time is spent filling them out mechanically. With crossword puzzles, you begin to recognize certain clues and answers that are used repetitively. Similarly, in Picross, there are certain opening moves that you start doing by rote. A 15 block row requiring 10 in a row will always occupy the middle 5 blocks, etc. It is still addictive, but the brain isn't working as hard as it did when I started the game. Ultimately, this is why I stopped doing New Yorker crossword puzzles. I figure I will probably finish Picross before it gets that far, but there is a decreasing level of mental challenge vs. puzzle challenge as the game progresses. And ultimately the satisfaction of solving a puzzle has a tinge of guilt that you just wasted your time. Not enough to stop you, but just a tiny twinge.

Despite that (and the shift from brain challenge to learned behavior is a danger in any type of puzzle), Picross is an excellent game and at $20 I would recommend it to anyone who likes puzzles.

P.S. Another puzzle game I would recommend is Honeycomb Beat. I bought this game as an import from Japan last year and thoroughly enjoy it. Like Picross, Honeycomb Beat has a puzzle mode with some 200+ pre-defined puzzles. The basic mechanism is there a field of hexagons (hence the honeycomb), when you click on one hexagon, all of the immediately adjacent hexagons "flip" from light to dark or vice versa. The goal is to turn the entire field one color in a certain number of moves. (There are other complications later in the game, but they all play off this basic "flipping" mechanic.) The pre-defined puzzles start out very simply (too simply?), but somewhere around puzzle 40 or 50 they become wickedly difficult.

The fields are small (generally no more than 15-20 cells) and the number of steps limited (under 10), so if you know what you are doing, any puzzle can be solved in under a minute. The trick is knowing what to do. Unlike Picross, where you slowly work your way through the puzzle to the end, in Honeycomb Beat you try, fail, try again, until you get it.

So far I have not encountered any slackening on the mental challenge. the game also fits very nicely within my limitations. It is very easy to play for 5-10 minutes because you can try a puzzle as many times as you like. Since any one attempt is so short, there is no harm in turning the game off and coming back to it later. If you don't get it in 10 minutes, you can spend the rest of the day thinking out possible alternatives so you are eager to get back to it and try a new angle next time you get a chance to play. (When I say it gets difficult, I encountered one puzzle that took we three days to solve, and I haven't been able to recreate the solution since!)

In addition, the game has a challenge mode which plays much like Tetris, where rows of hexagons come down the screen and you remove them by filling an entire line (or group of lines). If you don't work fast enough, the screen will eventually fill and stop the game. I find challenge mode at least as fun as puzzle mode, but in a completely different way because of the time limit.

It was never advertised much and I am surprised how negative the reviews have been. Consequently, at the moment you can pick up Honeycomb Beat for around $15 new. So I strongly recommend it to anyone who enjoys puzzle games. Pick it up when they go to get Picross!

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