The Nintendo B-Squad: Picross
Throughout it’s 30+ years of making video games, Nintendo has released countless titles that were the subject of critical and commercial acclaim. The Nintendo B-Squad series looks at those titles that were largely ignored or forgotten by the gaming public in an attempt to help them escape their relative obscurity.
From the moment it was first released, Nintendo’s Game Boy was synonymous with the puzzle game. Since 1989, Tetris had been the killer app that sold the white brick, and although several companies had tried their hand at the portable puzzle genre, nobody seemed to really succeed. However, by sheer coincidence, less than a year before the Game Boy brought Tetris to the masses, a new puzzle game was getting pieced (I’m here all week) together. It was challenging, it was addicting, it was Picross.
Picross began its life as the idea of Non Ishida, who designed a program to display graphics on the side of a building by turning the lights on and off. Soon after, Ishida published a few of his designs in Japanese puzzle magazines as logic puzzles where the reader could fill in the graphics themselves. The puzzles caught on, and were soon featured in magazines all across the globe.
Picross is simple: You have an empty grid, and all along the sides you have numbers. Each number corresponds to the number of blocks that need to be filled in on that specific row or column. Fill in all the blocks correctly, and you’ll create a picture that looks a whole lot like an early video game sprite. Text doesn’t due the concept justice very well, but imagine you’ve got a grid that’s 5×5. Along the top row, the first column has the number 5 written on it. This means that in this particular column, you fill in all five squares. It sounds incredibly simple, but puzzles can eventually be massive, including hundreds or thousands of squares that include elaborate patterns, spaces and a surprising amount of detail.
Now, if you were paying attention earlier, you’ll remember that Nintendo was looking for a fresh, new puzzle game for its Game Boy. Seeing the popularity of the picture puzzles, Nintendo decided to capitalize, and in 1995 introduced Mario’s Picross to it’s handheld powerhouse. The simple designs of the logic puzzles were a perfect fit for the original Game Boy (After all, the Game Boy’s dot matrix display is effectively an incredibly complex game of Picross) and due to their small size (15×15 grids), Mario’s Picross holds a whopping 256 puzzles. Most are typical everyday items such as household objects, but eventually there are a few Mario characters thrown in to keep things fresh. The game ends up being the perfect pick up and play game, allowing you to either sink hours into it’s blocky etchings or simply give a puzzle a try and come back to it later.
While met with total apathy from the video game public in America, Nintendo’s Picross series saw a continued popularity in Japan where it spawned the sequels Mario’s Super Picross (SNES, 1995) and Picross 2 (Game Boy, 1996) as well as a selection of Picross Puzzles for the Nintendo Power flash cartridge service in Japan. None of the games are terribly pricey, and for what they cost, they’re an excellent way to unwind and waste some time if you choose. The Game Boy version of Mario’s Picross was released for the 3DS Virtual Console in 2011 for a mere $3.99, so if you’re at all curious about the series, it’s an excellent place to start out. Mario’s Picross may not be the all time classic that Tetris is, but then again perhaps we shouldn’t expect it to be. Perhaps sometimes we should simply expect something that’s fun, kind of unique and a good way to spend ten minutes. Who better than golden age Nintendo to provide that?