Looking for a puzzler on the go? Just take your Pic

Mario’s Picross (1995)

You know you’re getting pretty goshdarned by-gum old when you’re getting a bit excited by puzzles. I’ve been well into the cryptic crosswords lately, the easy ones of course. My brain nearly melted right out of my ears the last time I tried to tackle a Guardian cryptic. Talk about hard, just how many viagras can you stuff down a crossword puzzle’s throat? Enough to give it a stiff neck, that’s what.

You see the thing about cryptic crosswording is that it’s almost its own language, meaning the clues are completely impenetrable at first – but it all falls into place eventually, and then you start seeing the same ones again and again. Here’s one to get your mush brain going: Cold opener (6). Doesn’t matter if it’s down or across, you should get it handily enough. What’s that? You’re struggling so much that your hemorrhoids are threatening to give way? Oh well, we can’t have that. The answer is “Burkey”, isn’t it?

Alright, I accept cryptic crosswords are the sole preserve of elderly gentlemen named Roger who have nothing else to do with their lives only write into newspapers with their own monogrammed Mont Blanc pen, and tell everyone who’ll listen about how they once held court with Tim Martin, so let’s go a bit more mainstream. What’s your favourite type of puzzle?

The missus likes a good logic puzzle, you know, Mr. Cockburn has green shoes but doesn’t like red pants, and Mrs. Knocker likes her pants like she likes her men, all that kind of thing. Reminds me a bit of Cluedo indeed, which I’m catalogue useless at – any aspiring murderers out there should pray to God that they don’t get me on their jury. Or worse, that they don’t get me as a Lawyer-for-the-day as part of some community outreach programme. You’ll be in the cells faster than you can say “Colonel Mustard”.

I like a good Spot the Difference, not really a puzzle per se, but often to be found in the type of puzzle books that her indoors likes to bring onto planes (I prefer Viz magazine myself). You can cheat slightly at Spot the Difference by crossing your eyes and overlaying both images on top of each other, a bit like those magic eye puzzles which I can barely get to work. This’ll cost you about ten litres of eyesight, but at least you’ll beat all your challengers, which is what really counts.

Your standard wordsearch, I can take or leave. You might as well throw a load of playing cards on the floor and try to pick out specific ones from the pile – not a bit of skill involved. Incidentally, if ever anyone offers to play you in a game of 52 Card Pickup, don’t do it. Although, like anything else in life, this rule changes if you’re the one holding all the cards.

When it comes to code puzzles, those ones where letters become assigned to numbers and you gotta figure out the pattern, then you’re talking my language. Or counting my language, whatever. Then there’s those arrowords, where you have to answer a question before you can fill in the letters, essentially a crossword all crushed and condensed together. These are good because they require big brain energy, and I’m chock-full of that – imbeciles need not apply. Finally you’ve got the simple crosswords, a bit beneath a cryptologist like me of course, but oiks like you might get something out of them.

But then along comes a new challenger, ready to shake the world of pen-and-paper puzzling to its very core: Picross. And by “along comes”, I mean these are the puzzle types called nonograms, and really they came along in the 1980s, which is last week in puzzling terms. I thought nonograms were actually booby examinations, well I was mistaken, but that doesn’t make Picross any less fun. It’s just a pity we didn’t all see it sooner, when Mario’s Picross was released worldwide on the Game Boy, and seemingly no-one bought it.

Well, puzzle games are pretty rock and roll you know, so I have to imagine that it was a bit like the well known Johnny B. Goode sequence in Back to the Future, “you guys aren’t ready for that yet, but your kids are gonna love it.” Case in point, look at how beloved the 2007 release Picross DS is; it’s a game which I’ll go to my grave defending as one of the best on the console.

Mario’s Picross, for its part, desperately needed a bit of brand recognition to try and achieve sales. Nothing wrong with that, even if it meant Mario and others hooring themselves about quite a bit in the 90s, like a girl who “found herself” in college but has attained at least a modicum of decency since. Just take a look at Dr. Mario, Wario’s Woods, Kirby’s Avalanche (or Dr. Robotniks’s Mean Bean Machine if you like) for further examples.

The premise of Picross can look tricky to crack from the outside, but it really couldn’t be simpler – you’re given a blank grid to work on, with every horizontal and vertical row assigned numbers – these refer to how many tiles need to be chiselled into that particular row. When you’ve hammered them all in, the final result is a picture of an object of some kind. If it’s a 5×5 grid, the image will just be something you defecated out in Minecraft, not pretty at all, but you start to get some more elaborate constructions as the puzzles get as big as 15×15.

Later games bring much bigger puzzles, but that’s not a bad start for the wee grey brick. Although it’s probably also true to say that you’re better off starting with later Picross games – of which there are now nine million – as these will provide much-needed quality of life upgrades and improvements, such as more buttons, larger screen, more modes, experimenting with possible solutions, and, erm… colour.

Of course, while the original Game Boy does offer that luxury of portability – and the game of Picross, or any puzzle game for that matter, is suited perfectly to pick-up-and-playability – remember that playing this one on the original hardware gives you that blotchy green-and-black colouring scheme. Even the best emulator will only ever bring this up to black and white – or that obscure setting on Game Boy games where, using certain button combinations on startup, you can choose from a limited number of different palettes. Remember using that one for Pokémon?

Actually, I’d say this game can really benefit from playing it on the big screen using the Super Game Boy, especially as we didn’t get the much better (and in full colour!) Mario’s Super Picross until the Wii and Switch brought it back. You see? Look after your Game Boy, and it’ll look after you. Don’t worry though, even if you are essentially doing the same thing again and again in this game, you won’t believe how compelling and addictive Picross is. In this game alone, there are over 250 puzzles, and they can each take the guts of a half-hour to complete at the higher end of things.

That’s a hell of a lot of longevity from one little Game Boy cartridge. Oh sure, you’re not going to beautiful new locations, listening to loads of bopper tunes or getting swept into a fascinating story. But how many times did that happen on Game Boy anyway? If you ask me, a game like Mario’s Picross epitomises what portable gaming is really all about.

As well as that, Picross follows the golden rule of keeping it simple. That means, obviously, that it’s a bit passé for cryptic crossword legends like me and Roger. If you’re in any way a bit simple though, then I say get your hands on Mario’s Picross and knock your brain out.

7 January 2022

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