Dopefish Reviews DS Puzzle Games

Given that I still have a plethora of impressive DS titles to play, even I’m not sure why I recently started going through a bunch of puzzle games. Instead of treating myself to ‘Last Window’, the sequel to the incredibly impressive ‘Hotel Dusk’, I’ve been tapping blocks on ‘Picross DS’ in the hope that what’s left will make a fancy picture. Instead of finally trying ‘The World Ends With You’, I’ve been sliding panels around in ‘Rooms: The Main Building’. And now that the puzzle games are over, instead of playing ‘Super Scribblenauts’, I’m writing about them.

Puzzle games and me have always had a rocky relationship, since whenever a gamer mentions ‘puzzle games’, I think of Tetris. Whenever I think of Tetris, I remember dozens of people on the site discussing how they can play the game for hours and hours. When that happens, I find myself thinking ‘Don’t you have any other games to play?’ Nothing against Tetris, it’s original and fun, but I couldn’t play it for more than half an hour without feeling like I was wasting my time – like I could be playing something more involving, something I could finish. Maybe back in the days when nothing on a handheld had a plot, Tetris may have come in handy to me on car journeys or long waits at the dentist, but honestly, and this is just my opinion here, Tetris is irrelevant to me in this day and age.

But that’s not to say I don’t enjoy the odd puzzle game from time to time – when I was a kid, I used to bug my parents to buy me ‘Junior Puzzle Wonderland’ every month. I still remember my favourite kinds of puzzle to this day. First there were the hidden words in sentences; I’ll try to come up with some bad examples. Here’s two sentences, try to spot the name of a game in each.

“Good morning class, today I’d like to – ha ha ha, look what Charlie’s wearing! Where did you get that hat?”

“After Julian finished interpretting for the goblins, I turned to him and sarcastically said ‘I didn’t realise you spoke ‘monster’.”

“It looks as though there are not one, but two serial killers in this town, working together. What a grisly co-operation.”

You might have spotted Halo in ‘ha ha HA-LOok what’ in the first one, and you probably got Pokémon from ‘sPOKE-MONster’, and the Sly Cooper in ‘griSLY CO-OPERation’, but, imagine that you hadn’t, and also that I was a lot better at this. That would be fun, right? No? Well, what other puzzles are there?

Well, mazes are an obvious choice – but not the boring kind. A grid with a bunch of lines on it? Yawn! Old-fashioned mazes are where the puzzle becomes an art form. I remember this one maze that I never even completed (I was around 4, so give past-me a break,) which was just a really big picture of a group of children having a picnic, it didn’t even look like a maze. But upon closer inspection, you could see that there were gaps in the drawing, so you could draw a line from the fruitbowl to a banana, from the banana to an apple, and from the apple to a child’s hand and suddenly you’d gotten to the picnic mat and – I’m probably writing about this in a more excited way than anyone else has ever been about a maze.

Finally, there was my favourite kind of puzzle of all, and one I don’t even know the name of. There would be a 6×6 grid of 36 squares, and they would all show one big cartoon picture. But the catch was, six pairs of squares in the grid were identical, so if the picture was of a fisherman for instance, you might notice ‘Hey, that panel with the corner of the fisherman’s hat is the exact same panel as the one three squares left and two squares down of the fish’s fins!’ Good times.

… Needless reminiscence aside, even though I would hesitate to say I prefer puzzle games to any other genre, I don’t have anything against them, and on my journey to experience as many different kinds of game as possible, I’m sure I’ll encounter many worthwhile ones. They do have a few drawbacks though – they’re usually completely devoid of plot, characters, and anything you could get emotionally invested in.  Still, that comes in handy when I’ve just finished an RPG or Strategy game and I want to play something as an interlude before my next adventure.

This might sound odd, but one of the things I like about puzzle games are that in a way, they require less thinking than other games because they’re so straightforward. To give an example, I recently finished Pokemon Heart Gold, a game with literally millions of possibilities. A puzzle game on the other hand, will probably have only one solution. Being linear isn’t good for all games, but it’s nice to relax with a straightforward problem sometimes.

Anyway, in the last few months I’ve completed four puzzle games on the DS that separately aren’t really worth a full hour of discussion, but together they’re notable enough to warrant a blog. I’ll be covering the basic concept, good points, bad points, and whether or not I can really recommend it. I’ll be reviewing them in the order I played them, so let’s start with the first puzzle game I played on the DS, Polarium!

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Straight away I can say that Polarium is the most original puzzle game I’ve played in a long time, just because it’s an entirely new concept for a game. I’ll explain exactly what the concept is in a second, but just the idea that nearly two and a half decades after the popularization of video games (Polarium was a launch title for the DS so it came out in Europe and North America in 2005,) someone could come up with an entirely new idea for a puzzle game is incredibly impressive to me. It’s not a tweaked version of an older puzzle, not an idea that couldn’t have been invented until 2005 because our consoles (and minds) couldn’t handle such new ideas, it’s just… original, and in a genre like puzzle games, that’s impressive.

So what do you actually do in Polarium? Well… let’s have a screenshot of one of the puzzles, shall we?

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The object of the game is to make each row of blocks the same colour by drawing a single line through all of the blocks that you want to change the colour of. If your line goes through a white block, it becomes black, and vice versa. There’s a single-block border around the grid so that you can move from one row to another while leaving the row in between untouched, but the only way to win each level is to make every row full of the same-coloured blocks. That’s not to say the entire grid has to be the same colour – you can have a white row on a black row on another white row – but every row must be complete. Columns, go nuts, do whatever, but the ROWS must be the same colour.

What I like most about this concept is that it’s pretty much designed to have the perfect learning curve in a puzzle game. You’ll breeze through the first dozen or so levels, then come the levels that make you have to think a little harder, then come the levels that stump you for a few minutes, and then come the levels with only one solution that it could take you hours to figure out. There are two kinds of hint to help you and I’d recommend turning them both on – the first makes one block shine if you’ve been playing the same level for more than a few minutes, and the shining block is one that you should start on or finish on when drawing your line through the grid. The other ‘hint’ just lets you see your previous attempt if you try a puzzle multiple times in a row, as you go back to the puzzle menu every time you get an answer wrong.

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Another big plus of the game is an arcade-style mode in which rows fall from the sky and you have to quickly draw lines to make all of the blocks within the rows with same colour, at which point they make like a tree and get out of there. I could never get too far in it, but it was enjoyable enough that I found myself trying it out multiple times, usually to give my brain a rest after a particularly challenging puzzle.

As for the negative aspects of the game, there aren’t many, but that’s only because the game itself is pretty small. There are 100 puzzles to complete and the arcade mode is endless I suppose, but it’s not a game you can really play over and over. There’s also the music, which may as well not be there – it’s a 30 second loop of a weird-sounding techno beat with low hums and squeals, which is actually kind of fitting for the game, but it’s not something anyone will really enjoy either.

If I had to sum up the game in one word, it would be ‘original’. Maybe I’m just an idiot and this idea has been done millions of times before and I’ve just been looking the other way every time a game like this came out, but I hadn’t seen anything like this before, and I really did enjoy those puzzles. It’s the only game on the list (aside from the one coming up, and you’ll see why that game doesn’t really count,) which I didn’t end up looking up solutions for because I really wanted to finish them all myself.

Ordinarily I’d say that maybe this is a 6/10 game, but it was a DS launch title so I’ll go easy on it. Also, for some useless trivia, to the best of my knowledge this is the only DS game that has a direct sequel only available on the Gameboy Advance. Weird. Anyway, thank you Polarium for being one of the best puzzle games on the DS.

Polarium: 7/10.

Next up, Picross DS!

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Picross is a game that I never really thought I liked until I was incredibly bored one lunchtime at work and the nearby shop that sold grilled paninis was also selling a little puzzle book about ‘Hanjie’, a traditionally Japanese puzzle that’s basically Picross. I was curious as to who had ripped off who before I found out they’re both thieves because Picross and Hanjie are both what’s known in the trade as ‘Nonograms’.

Now I do like these kinds of puzzles so I’m only insulting myself when I say bad things about them but I do honestly think that you should only pursue this kind of entertainment if you’re easily entertained. Picross is essentially being told to fill in little squares in a big square grid and when you’re finished it looks like a crude, 8-bit picture. But for its credit, Picross DS takes that idea and runs with it for everything it’s worth – it’s the definitive Picross game. Which is good if you like Picross. Which I do.

If you don’t know how to play Picross then I’ll do my best to explain it now but to go into too much detail would be hazardous to my computer’s storage capability so let’s keep it short – there is a grid. There are numbers on the side of the grid that indicate how many consecutive squares in the grid need to be shaded in; if the grid is 10×10 squares and one line says ‘5, 4’ then you’ll be shading in the first 5, leaving one space for a gap, and then shading the last 4 squares. If you do this correctly then you will usually be rewarded with a rather nice-looking picture, like this one.

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So does Picross DS offer anything you couldn’t get from some free Picross puzzles online? Fortunately, yes! There are short but kind of interesting animations that the finished pictures turn into if you can complete them in less than an hour, and that’s where the difficulty comes in too. I can hear you thinking ‘An hour? Surely the game doesn’t expect me to be that bad!’ and you’d be right – but on bigger puzzles with bigger grids, you’re more likely to make a mistake now and then, and that’s where timing becomes an issue. If you fill in the wrong square, the game penalizes you by adding one minute to the time spent completing a puzzle. Another mistake, and your punishment is a two minute addition, followed by a four-minute penalty and finally eight minutes, which repeats should you continue to make mistakes.

But what makes the game go above and beyond regular Picross? Well, you wouldn’t expect it from a repetitive DS puzzle game, but it actually has one of the best bonus features I’ve seen in a long time. Each group of puzzles is divided into sections of 15, like fish, flowers, animals, and towards the end, things to do with space. When you complete all the puzzles, you unlock a special ‘Nintendo’ Picross section where the finished puzzles portray Mario, Link, Samus, Goombas, Koopas and more, all with a remix of the classic Super Mario Bros theme.

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At the same time, the biggest problem the game has is… well, it’s Picross DS! Nobody in the world who’s played more than 3 games has Picross DS as their favourite game. The puzzles don’t have a lot of replay value, and although it’s natural for the game to make good use of the touch-screen, you will inevitably accidentally get punished for hitting blocks you didn’t mean to hit at some point. The music is forgettable too, although I’ll admit that it’s better than Polarium. Picross DS is one of the reasons this blog had to be about four different puzzle games – writing for an hour on Picross DS would conclude with me bashing my head against the keyboard until I somehow spelt ‘Picross’.

Another problem that’s out of the game’s hands is that if you’re not sure whether or not you like Picross, you can try a few puzzles here, complete with some relaxing jazz music as part of the game ‘Armor Picross 2’. It’s online. It’s free. It’s common. If you’re a Picross enthusiast, you absolutely do not need to buy the DS game. You have to be a Picross enthusiast, DS owner who likes to play puzzle games specifically on their DS for this to be a worthwhile purchase.

All in all, the game isn’t majorly flawed in any way, it’s just held back a little by what it is. I can honestly say it’s as good as it can be – there’s a zoom-in/zoom-out function that I was scared would be awful but it works really well and is mandatory for solving bigger puzzles. If I’m honest, Picross DS is the kind of game I automatically think deserves a 10/10 on some level just because of what it sets out to accomplish. It’s called Picross DS. It’s a Picross game and it’s on the DS. Having played the DS game (on the DS) I can confirm that Picross DS for the DS has many Picross puzzles within it. Picross. DS. It does better than expected, but considering the low ceiling it has in regards to how good it could possibly be, I can only recommend it to fans of the puzzle.

Picross DS: 6/10.

Next up, the only game in this blog that doesn’t begin with ‘P’, ‘Rooms: The Main Building’!

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‘Rooms: The Main Building’, henceforth referred to as ‘Rooms’ because it’s a stupid name, is (spoiler alert) probably the best game in this blog. It’s not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but it achieves the same amount of originality that Polarium achieves, and it does so not by coming up with an entirely new formula, but by merging two existing types of puzzle game together. Rooms is a combination of sliding puzzles and classic ‘escape the room’ games.

It’s also the only game in this blog that actually has a plot, even though it doesn’t really need one. You play as… some guy, who gets given a jigsaw puzzle with 4 pieces missing and you get sucked into some puzzle land place where a talking book with obvious ulterior motives helps you to get back home by solving slidey block puzzles. Not exactly gripping, but for what it’s worth, it might be an unnecessary story but that doesn’t mean it’s bad. I got a few chuckles out of it.

The gameplay is really what sets Rooms apart from other puzzle games on the DS though. You’re all probably familiar with block-sliding puzzles – there’s a grid, there’s some squares in the grid, rearrange them so they make a picture, yes? Well, what if in one of the squares was a man? What if you could only slide around the block that the man was in, but to make things easier, the man could move between adjacent blocks? This combination of exploration, item-collection and puzzle-solving makes this one of the most fun puzzle games I’m played in a while. For the most part.

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There are some standard items to help out along the way – if a room has a ladder in it then you can climb to a room above it, and if two rooms have telephones you can use them to teleport from one to another. There are also closets which function in a similar way, but instead of changing your location, they actually switch the closet-occupying squares around, which is handy if one room has an irritating wall preventing you from moving on.

There’s a hint of point’n’click gameplay in the overworld between the five ‘mansions’ of the game, each of which contains 20 rooms. The first four mansions are to get jigsaw pieces, and the last one is optional, although you need to solve all puzzles if you want to get the good ending. One thing I like is that you unlock new kinds of rooms which make the puzzles more expansive, and they actually have some overworld-relevance. The overworld is limited to a small section of an abandoned street containing a house, a subway station, and a library. In one mansion, you find a subway ticket, which allows you to get past the ticket barriers in the subway station, but they also unlock a new kind of room to be used in puzzles – subway rooms, which always come in pairs, and if you can get them onto the same row then you can use them to travel to any room in between them. A mixture of plot and gameplay, and quite well-done at that.

Another bonus feature of the game is that even though your main goal is to get to the exit door in each level, there are solutions that just to happen to place ever block in the right place and reveal part of a picture. The picture isn’t interesting because there are always a few blocks missing from the end product, but it’s a nice added incentive, and half the time you’ll end up with the ‘correct solution’ anyway. It can also provide some hints when you think you’re going the right way but you switch to ‘final-picture-block-vision-mode’ (the game doesn’t call it that) and see that none of your blocks line up with what the game expects you to win with. Although after some long and frustrating levels, you might not care if you happen to get the ‘incorrect solution’. Quite the oxymoron.

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I’d also like to bring up the soundtrack, since it’s the only game on the list with a notable one. The music isn’t spectacular, but the tracks range from old-fashioned and funky to posh with a hint of grandiose. It’s not much, but comparing it to the other games is this blog is like comparing the soundtrack of Chrono Trigger to… Pong.

The game is by no means perfect, however. The later levels are long, and in levels that had 5×5 grids, the game would lag very noticeably. A lot of the new gameplay elements towards the end of the game are also a tad confusing (Hands on a grandfather clock that rotate the room a limited number of times, two rooms with identical mirror that move in opposite synchronization to make it more difficult when you only want to move one,) but overall it’s a really fresh experience and probably the best game to give a shot if you want a good old-fashioned thinking man’s game to keep you occupied for a few days.

Rooms: The Main Building: 7/10.

Now let’s talk about the final game, ‘Prism: Light The Way’.

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I’m just going to call this ‘Prism’ like I did with ‘Rooms’. What is it with puzzle games and colons anyway? Well, Prism is a good game to talk about when you’re running out of steam because although it’s good, it’s probably the least notable or memorable game in the blog. Not that it’s bad or anything, but it’s hard to get genuinely excited over a game when you can play a higher-quality version of it for free on the internet. Seriously.

The objective in Prism is to light all of the ‘Glowbos’ in any level by redirecting beams of light shone by the ‘Bulboids’ of the same level. You can redirect the beams with mirrors, splitters that turn one beam into two, and coloured blocks which can change the colour of the beam of light passing through it. There are a few more types of object in the game, but you should have the general idea by now, and to be honest, it’s fun! I’ve played a few ‘lights and mirrors’ puzzles in other games ranging to Professor Layton and The Wind Waker to Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, Beyond Good and Evil, and Eternal Darkness. They’re not exactly uncommon.

For some reason I’m reminded of a piece of advice that my English teacher gave me about writing essays – “Every essay you write starts out at 10/10 and all you have to do is avoid the mistakes that drop your mark.” So even though the game is definitely not the worst way to spend a few hours, let’s go over what gives this game a lower-than-perfect score.

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Firstly, as mentioned before, the entire game is playable online. The developers put it on the internet (with much better graphics) for free as a flash game before it ended up on a DS cart. Then again, having beaten every level, I can say that playing the DS version is greatly superior due to the more comfortable control scheme that comes with the availability of a touch-screen. Much better than using a mouse.

The second mistake that costs Prism a mark is the music, which, whilst not the most annoying tune, is just a squeaky minute-long tune that loops indefinitely. Picross DS had looping music, but it was mellow and subdued, while Polarium’s music wasn’t even noticeable most of the time. Prism tries to be upbeat and jumpy, but when the music just isn’t catchy and loops every minute then it’s easy to become annoying instead.

The third and fourth mistakes are both to do with the difficulty level of the game. The first few levels of games are always meant to be easy, but Prism takes this a step too far by having an entire third of the game pathetically simple to the point at which I completed it on autopilot – and I’m by no means smarter than the average gamer. Or bear. Or brick. I was a little surprised around Puzzle 42 when I was warned that ‘This is the last puzzle for which you can use hints!’ because I hadn’t realised a hints system existed! The puzzles I’d be solving only had 2 or 3 moving parts, and you usually only needed to move one to succeed.

Then again, the difficulty towards the end of the game is harshly unforgiving, as you’re given levels with dozens of items and it’s almost impossible to figure out where to put them all. It was common by the end of the game to have levels with 10 or more T-Splitters because you’d have more than a dozen ‘Glowbos’ to shine light into, and no idea where to start.

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Still, despite these flaws, a puzzle game is good if it gets your brain working and can ease the boredom of a 3 hour train journey or a lazy Sunday afternoon, and while Prism isn’t perfect, it definitely succeeds in these regards. The first third is a bit dumbed down but the game really picks up speed once you get into the more challenging puzzles, and if you’re not a thicko like me, you might even enjoy the hair-pullingly difficult later levels too. It’s a game riddled by flaws, but they’re each only small enough that they hinder the experience in small unimportant ways.

Prism: Light The Way: 6/10.

So that’s every puzzle game I’ve played recently! I hope you find my recommendations useful, and if you have a DS and maybe have a long flight ahead of you, or you’re just looking for something to dust off the cobwebs from that noggin of yours, I would recommend any one of these games as decent time-wasters that keep the cogs turning.

As for me, I’ve had enough of puzzles for now, so I think I’ll play something more substantial. I just finished Ratchet & Clank 2, so maybe I could start the third. Or I could finish up LocoRoco, a game which makes it impossible for me to regret buying a second-hand PSP. Plus there’s still Legend of Dragoon for the PS1, I’m nearly at the end of Disc 2 of that. One thing’s for sure though – I won’t feel like going back to puzzle games for a long time!

I’m going to go replay some Professor Layton. Bye!

Thanks for reading!

-The Dopefish

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