picrossds_boxart.jpgNintendo tried to do the Picross thing once before back in 1995 with Mario’s Picross for Gameboy. It didn’t really go over very well, which is probably why I didn’t know whether it was pronounced “pih-cross” or “pie-cross”– for the record, the former. After the uber explosion of Sudoku in the states, though, they’ve localized Picross DS. With more people with puzzles on the brain, and especially DS-minded people who train their brains “in minutes a day”, they probably figured it was a sure-fire hit.

And it’s definitely fun. If you’re not familiar with Picross, the technical term for each puzzle is “nonogram”, presumably derived from Non Ishida, the name of the graphic artist who invented and published a book of them in 1988 (although another fellow, Tetsuya Nishio, actually did the same thing about that time as well). The goal is to create a pixelly picture by filling in a grid based on numerical instructions at the beginning of each row and column. For example, a row might say, “8 2 1” which means that there are groups of eight, two, and one markers separated by at least one empty square. By exercising some simple math and logic, the image appears.

The game translates to the DS very well, since you can use the stylus and touch screen as you would a pencil and paper, with the added electronic bonus of the computer knowing when you screw up. Unfortunately once you get into larger grids, the stylus control system somewhat breaks down. There is the option to zoom in and move the viewing area around to continue, but why bother with all that when you can use the buttons and see the whole grid? Isn’t uncovering the big picture the whole point? That’s really when you can only see part of it at a time. Add to that the fact that the D-pad and face buttons work faster than tapping touch-screen buttons to change between empty space-holder Xs and pencil markers, and there’s really not much point to using the stylus.

That doesn’t detract from the game at all, though (unlike, sadly, the soundtrack, which hovers somewhere between ho hum and obnoxious most of the time). The tutorial gets you all set up to tackle the easy and normal sets of problems. In Normal Mode, while filling in grids with fruits and animals, a timer will count upwards as you go, with two minute (or eight, depending how on how many mistakes you’re making) penalties for mistakes. Completing in less than an hour earns you a cute little animation.

The mini-game levels unlocked when a row is completed are a decent break from the puzzle action, although trying to copy pictures from the top grid to the bottom grid within a time limit is almost more frustrating. The others are mostly reflexes and involved catching markers that either slide around the grid or appear and disappear à la Whack-a-Mole.

Those mini-games and also “Daily Picross” exercises that track your progress like a brain training game are unlocked as you complete more puzzles, but the main game (or at least the majority of it—we didn’t get through enough to find out whether there was a super secret creepy difficulty level or not) is all open. You can bounce around to any difficulty, including the “Free Mode” which doesn’t have a timer, but also won’t tell you if you make a mistake. It’s for those that the “Try it out” overlay comes in handy for messing with your work without messing it UP.

Tons of puzzles, plus new ones to download, and playing head-to-head via download, multi-cart, and Wi-Fi already makes this game a sweet deal for $20, but then check out the puzzle creation modes. One takes a picture you’ve drawn and converts it into a puzzle, while another let’s you place your own pixels, but both allow you to design a full-color picture to display once the puzzle is solved. I found the “easy” way to be more fun, because what the computer comes up is hilariously removed from what you originally drew. The best part about it, though, is that you will never create a puzzle that is impossible to solve because the game knows instantly whether it’s possible or not and will keep you updated as you draw. Touching “Correction” will even auto-adjust your picture to a playable form.

With a price this right, Picross DS is highly recommended. It’s perfect for taking with you, even if your bus ride is short or you think your date will be on time, because a quick save slot allows a break in just a couple clicks. Prepare for your new addiction.