Monthly Archives: November 2017

Picross S!

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I love Picross.  But I also kind of hate Picross.  Picross is Nintendo’s version of nonograms, a type of pencil-and-paper puzzle similar to crosswords or sudoku.  That might sound boring at first, but there’s something about nonograms that make them more interesting in video game form than crosswords or sudoku.  Perhaps it’s the Nintendo touch, but it might also be that the relative complexity of this type of puzzle makes it work better in an electronic format.

Picross starts with a square grid of unfilled tiles with each row and column bordered by a series of numbers.  The idea behind picross is that you fill in uninterrupted blocks of tiles in each row or column based on the numbers that line the grid.  So if a row has a 3 5 next to it, that means you need to fill in a string of 3 tiles followed by a string of 5 tiles with at least one unfilled tile in between these strings.  The trick is that the tiles you fill in for that row or column must be consistent with the requirements of the columns or rows that run through it.  The game is called Picross because each puzzle should make a crude pixelated image when the tiles are filled in correctly.

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I think like most people in the U.S., I was introduced to Picross through Picross DS.  I have to confess something now.  I have a secret dark history with the Picross series, specifically, Picross DS.  There were a few weeks of my life that I was maybe a little too hooked on that game.  I would sit down after coming home in the afternoon and open up my DS and tell myself that I would only play for fifteen or twenty minutes, but before I knew it, hours would go by and the entire evening would have evaporated.   I would complete one puzzle and would tell myself, just one more!, and keep going and going.  I guess the dopamine rush I would get from solving each grid just made me not want to stop.

Eventually, I sort of triggered on the fact that spending so much time with the game was probably unhealthy.  I considered just throwing the game in the trash to deprive myself of the addiction, but I ultimately decided this would be wasteful.  I distinctly remember pulling the game out of the DS and sticking it back in its case and then burying it deep within my closet so that it would be hard to get to.  And with that, my obsession with the game just sort of dissipated.

Since then I’ve been more successful at playing new Picross games, although I haven’t played them all.  I’ve been able to avoid falling down the rabbit hole that I did with Picross DS.  But each time one comes out, I still get a little suspicious that it might make me fall into the old habit.  I especially liked Picross 3D and a few of the Picross e games that were released on 3DS.  Pokémon Picross I thought was interesting, but I’m not a big Pokémon guy and didn’t really feel the need to pay to unlock the full game.

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The latest Picross game that I’ve hopped on board with is Picross S, recently released on the Switch.  Unlike games like Picross 3D and Pokémon Picross that attempted to inject new ideas into the series, Picross S is a fairly standard expression of Picross.   There are two modes, standard picross and mega-picross, each which I think have 150 puzzles a piece.  The standard mode is Picross according to its most basic ruleset, while the mega-picross mode changes up the formula by having hints that span adjacent columns or rows.  Mega-picross has been featured as a side mode in previous editions, but I think this game has the largest collection of mega-picross puzzles in the series yet.

To be honest, even though I’ve been a picross addict in the past, something about this version just wasn’t doing it for me.  The standard version of Picross just felt rote and boring.  I got fairly deep into this mode before realizing that I just wasn’t really enjoying it all that much.  My guess is that my lackluster feelings are more a result of me burning out on Picross and less a result of the quality of work they’ve done on this game.

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As the monotony of the standard mode set in, I turned my attention to Mega-Picross mode and……wow, I got more than I expected out of it.  Mega-Picross has been featured in some of the past editions, but I don’t think it has ever been given equal focus to the standard mode like it has in Picross S.  It’s always really been a side mode.  Personally, I’ve never really messed around with this variant of the game much.  I guess I’ve really just been too lazy to learn it. The new rules can be quite intimidating at first.  But after really taking some time to understand how it works, I could immediately feel myself getting hooked again like old times.  The new dimensions of logical reasoning this mode adds were a real shot in the arm for the Picross formula.

Picross S is a good package.  With just standard picross and mega-picross, it’s far from the most innovative or ambitious title in the series.  While other releases (with the exception of Picross 3D) were also heavily focused on vanilla picross, they did try to introduce new side modes and mechanics to experiment with the formula.  But Picross S fortunately makes up for its lack of adventurousness with just a lot of content.  I don’t think any of the picross games on 3DS delivered this many puzzles for $8.

Honestly though, I don’t think I’ll be going back to anything that is simply vanilla picross.  It’s just gotten old to me.  While mega-picross has been satisfying, I think it’s time they come up with another major reinvention of the game like they did with Picross 3D.  Hopefully, picross will see as bright of a future on Switch as it did on DS and 3DS, and we will see something revolutionary materialize.

 

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Night Trap!

Night Trap

Halloween has come and gone, but I’m not done yet, and here’s the epilogue to Halloween Gaming 2017.  Night Trap is a sort of interactive movie released for Sega CD way back in 1992.  It’s kind of a legendary game, not because a lot of people played it, but because it was one of the focal points of the 1993 congressional hearings on video game violence that directly led to the formation of the ESRB.  I missed out on the Sega CD, but fortunately, Night Trap finally saw re-release this year for its 25th anniversary.

In Night Trap, you take the role of an unseen systems controller for the Special Control and Attack Team who have been investigating mysterious disappearances occurring around the lakeside winery of the Martin family.  An unnamed SCAT operative managed to hack into the house’s video security system to discover footage of guests being unwittingly captured by a complex series of traps laid throughout the home.  To make a short story shorter, the Martins are essentially vampires and constructed the various traps in the winery to capture victims for eventual exsanguination.  

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As the game starts, SCAT is preparing to catch the Martin’s red-handed as they welcome a new set of victims, six high school girls and one tag-along little brother, for a weekend stay at the lake.  As the control operative, your job is to watch the hacked video feeds coming from the house and use your override of the traps to protect the guests if necessary.  Things get complicated as the augers, mysterious men clad in black from head to toe, begin to invade the house and attempt to capture and drain the guests’ blood for themselves.

The goal of the game is to essentially capture augers and protect house guests.  The player has eight video feeds spying on different rooms of the house and must look out for auger activity by switching between these feeds.  When an auger on the screen comes near a trap, a blinking bar at the bottom of feed changes from green to yellow to red.  When it lights red, the player can set off one of the house’s traps and eliminate the auger as a threat.  Eventually, you begin to memorize where the traps are, and don’t need the assistance of the indicator as much.  

In the early parts of the game, the augers merely move from room to room searching for the Martins’ secret passages.  They stay away from the guests and don’t threaten them directly.  However, if the player lets too many of them escape out of sight, the SCAT commander will interrupt the connection and explain that the mission has failed.  Later in the game, Augers begin attacking guests directly using a strange device that they hook to the victim’s neck to draw out blood.  The player must closely watch for these confrontations and use the traps to save the victim.  If any house guest is killed by the augers, the game ends.  In addition, sometimes the Martins will change the color access code to their security system, so the player must pay close attention to them as well, and change the access code when the Martins attempt to break the connection.

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In parallel to the action with the augers, there are several scenes with the house guests and the Martins which advance the plot.  The game’s storyline is not particularly serious or complex.  It’s a fairly cheesy affair that to me just screams that it’s a product of the late eighties/early nighties.  Nonetheless, I did find it amusing and wanted to keep up with what the cast of characters were doing.

The problem with Night Trap is really that there is the way you want to play Night Trap, but then there is also the way you have to play Night Trap.  I really enjoyed following the plot involving the actual characters, but my ability to focus on these scenes was continually being interrupted by the need to switch to other rooms so that I didn’t miss any opportunities to trap augers. So you’re left in the position of choosing between whether you will watch the story threads play out and hit a point where you can’t progress further in that playthrough because you missed something important, or your ignore the plot development and simply focus on the stuff that is required to move forward, such as capturing the roaming augers or listening for changes to the code.

Really, Night Trap is a game that the player is probably meant to replay multiple times, and probably fail on most attempts.  When played this way, there would obviously be more opportunity to see all of the scenes in the game.  In a way, that makes sense for the time Night Trap was released.  People bought fewer games on average back then and games tended to be shorter, and so each game had to offer a lot of replay value to keep gamers occupied for longer periods of time.

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There is another reason that Night Trap requires so much replay: Night Trap is hard.  Particularly, the second half of the game gets quite hectic, and there are a lot of do-or-die moments that are easy to miss.  This leads to frequent abrupt game-overs.  You have to play the game quite a few times to correctly get down the sequence of where and when you need to set off traps.  From start the finish, the whole thing takes roughly 26 minutes, but there is only a single save spot at the halfway point (at around the 13 minute mark).  I’m not sure if this checkpoint existed in the original version, so it may have been even harder then.  I’m glad there’s not frequent checkpoints, because that would make it harder to see all of the scenes.  But I think at least one more checkpoint toward the end of the game before the final confrontation with the Martins would have been appreciated.

Night Trap isn’t a particularly scary game.  I think the game was originally intended to have the atmosphere of a horror movie, but this didn’t pan out for various reasons.  The My Life in Gaming Youtube channel did an excellent documentary on the game which revealed a lot of interesting facts about its production.  Originally, the set was intended to be darker and more grim, but it seems like they had to make things brighter and more colorful so the image wouldn’t become excessively pixelated during the digitization process.  And despite its place in video game history, it’s not particularly violent.  It’s crazy to think that this game was held up at one point alongside Mortal Kombat as an example of video games corrupting American youth.  Compared to the over-the-top gore of Mortal Kombat, Night Trap is incredibly tame.

Overall, I enjoyed Night Trap.  But to enjoy it, one has to have a lot of patience with it.  I doubt it’s for everyone.  The people who made this game were trying to do something completely new with the use of live action video, which I can certainly appreciate.  But it’s definitely good to have an easily accessible version available now so that everyone has the option of trying out this important piece of video game history.

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