Saturday, February 24, 2007


Picross is a Japanese puzzle akin to a wordsearch or crossword, only more math-based (so more like sukodu then). You are given a grid and a series of numerical clues and you have to shade in parts of the grid to make a picture using those clues. It starts out easy enough, once you figure out how the game works, but gets ever more cerebral when you decide on where the potential shading squares might be and where they definitely are. It's a bit like Minesweeper in that respect. It's impossible to describe without actually playing it, so my advice is to look for a ROM or check the link near the bottom of this article.

I contemplated turning this into a "Designing Genres" post, but there's nothing that can really be done to this genre, since the "gameplay" has basically stayed the same since the puzzle was invented. Instead, I'll talk about the video game conversions of this puzzle to date.

The earliest version to actually receive a western audience was the GameBoy title "Mario's Picross", which combined everyone's favorite plumber mascot with the world of Picross. Though actually part of a long series of GB Picross games, Mario's Picross remains to date the only Picross game to have been released outside of Japan. I've recently been playing Picross DS, which has various graphical features to assist you in playing the game.

First, and this is pretty cool, you have a puzzle "theme" (such as space or zoo animals) and you shade in special grids made for each theme. So for the space theme, the shaded squares become little airlocks that open/close. For the furniture theme, the whole grid is bubble wrap and you have to pop the squares that need shading in. The picture, once complete, turns into a little animation to help you identify what the image is displaying. Just little touches, but it makes the experience a whole lot more enjoyable. Designer subtlety is always something I try to keep an eye out for.

The final thing that needs to be said about Picross is that a western version actually exists in the form of "Griddlers", basically the same puzzle with a bizarre fast-food-type name. You can access Griddlers at their website, which is full of puzzles (and has a few demo puzzles if you don't feel like signing up):

Not only are the grids significantly larger than anything the GB/DS games can handle, but they also experiment with different colors and shapes you can use, which can make the puzzles easier or harder depending on the picture. Each puzzle is rated by a computer "difficulty", which uses some kind of programming logarithm to decide how long it would take someone to solve the puzzle via logic (rather than just guessing what the picture will look like) and award you that many "points" accordingly. It tends to become one of those bookmarks you always click when you have five minutes free from work but still need to keep your mind sharp.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Common Video Game Annoyances

Oh right, an update and such. Well..

Today I'll be talking about stuff that grinds my gears. Though I'll be making sure to mention things that are universally annoying and/or reviled, as opposed to the things only I dislike (usually because I suck at them).

The first are compulsory puzzles in action games: Now, there's a fair degree of monotony in some action titles. You run over here, shoot a dude, run over there and shoot a dude. It's all good in the 'hood if that's what you're into, but sometimes having to use your noggin to get around a problem alleviates the repetitiveness and challenges the smartness centre of the brain instead of the part that just likes to watch things blow up. Some games, like Tomb Raider and Zelda, wouldn't be anything like what they are without their intriguing puzzles and mysteries to solve.

However, I do believe there is a line that can be crossed with these puzzles. And it can be crossed in two ways: Difficulty and Monotony.

Difficult puzzles are entirely unwarranted in an action game, especially when there are no hints that difficult puzzles exist anywhere in the game description (and no, calling them "action/adventure" doesn't count). I've been told that sliding puzzles (where you shift squares around a block to make pictures) and the ones where you hit switches to make some platforms go up and some other ones go down are the two biggest offenders for "What the hell? I just want to get through this friggin' area and save it. It's 1am, I gotta work tomorrow" angst. The monotony part is when you have to go to the opposite ends of the Earth for some key or other, or you have to find a full set of items in order to continue for no apparent reason (and one of those items can only be found by doing a sliding puzzle). Of course, if the puzzle is for an entirely optional benefit and not something that is in your way, it's fine. Better than fine, even.

In fact, since it's right next door I'll just go onto compulsory subgames which attempt a different game genre than the one the rest of the game is in. The most prevalent of which are racing mini-games in action/platformer games, jumping puzzles in FPS games and stealth sequences in games which don't have "STEALTH" anywhere on the box. Seriously, no thanks. The reason these extracurricular subgames tend to blow is usually because a designer decides to add a mini-game at the last second. A mini-game which just happens to need an entirely new batch of code and end up being rushed and buggy. While optional versions of these mini-games may also be terrible, they are entirely exonerated by the "optional" part.

Platformer games which take away a series of collectible items if you die, making you start over. Sort of personal this one. It can be seen in the original Mario 64 (you lose all your coins and need to start over) and Acclaim's Vexx (which had enough going against it already).

Sailing. Relaxing for some, monotonous for others. Suikoden IV and Wind Waker both seemed to slow to a crawl because of excess amounts of sailing to places.

Cameras in Survival Horror games. But then, this is sort of like the gamer nerd equivalent of "Man, what's the deal with airline food?". This doesn't include actual cameras in Survival Horror games, by which I mean the Camera Obscura in the Fatal Frame/Project Zero series. The game would be kind of short without your main weapon.

If I come up with any more of these or read about other folk having issues with a game for whatever reason, I'll bring them up. I figure by listing all these unappealing game flaws, I'll be less likely to accidentally use them myself at some point in the future.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Design Elements #1: Dinosaurs

*** Note: I'm now the owner of a shiny Nintendo Wii (at long friggin' last) so not only is this a note to say "I'll be playing the Wii a lot instead of updating regularly like I'm supposed to" but also to say "look out for Wii-related ideas in the future now I know how the technology works first-hand".***

So, this is a new section where instead of taking a genre or license to build a game idea around, I take a single element of.. well, anything, really. Generally pop-culture related, but often just a setting or item pulled out of thin air. I then try to craft some sort of newish game idea around that element. It's sort of like an Iron Chef (Steel Designer?) ingredient, if you will.

I'll just do a quick summary of dinosaurs in video games first of all. Usually standard fodder in various RPGs and Prehistoric-themed Action/Adventure games, dinosaurs are just mindless beasts that happen to be really friggin' big. Games that have put a little more focus into Dinosaurs include the Jurassic Park series of games (especially the Genesis version of the first movie, which allowed you to play as "the Raptor" following a storyline mirroring Dr. Alan Grant's) and the Res Evil-esque Dino Crisis. Tomb Raider is another series that likes to give you dinosaur-related challenges when you least expect them, including a T-Rex that comes out of nowhere midway into the first game. Turok was a famous console FPS series which identified the eponymous hero as a "dinosaur hunter", and so dinosaurs were regular enemies in the games.

You usually get the antagonistic and intelligent Raptors as common but dangerous adversaries in these games, whereas the gigantic and considerably more powerful T-Rex-types usually only show up as supertough bosses or as a challenge you cannot defeat with force alone and so must find another way of getting past them.

For this game idea, I'm considering taking the raptor protagonist idea and taking it to the next level: a game that utilizes their hunting pack structure. Half RTS and half squad-based strategy/action, your job as alpha raptor is to procure food for your clan/group by organising hunting parties and defending the creche (nursery) from harmful predators. As the younger raptors grow up, you can select them to join you in taking down bigger prey more rapidly. As your numbers grow, so too will the size of the dinosaurs you will be able to defeat as a group.

Your first task is to set up a nest in your beginning area and then scout around for smaller prey. This exploration is done on a scaled map, and functions in the same way as a map in an RTS game does. While exploring you can scroll back to the base to see how they're faring (and you'll receive warnings while away from the nest if something happens to it). Though limited in what you can effectively "build" (raptors aren't known for their technological prowess: opening doors is pretty much it), your nest area will advance as you naturally discover ways of protecting the eggs using the nearby geography. For example, you could block off one path heading towards your nest area by employing a gang of raptors to push a boulder from its place on a hill onto the offending path, protecting it from wandering predators.

Like most RTS games, you'll only grow as far as you need to to achieve the goal for that map/campaign; this goal condition may be increasing the size of your nest area to cover a certain percentage of the screen, or to have a large army of hunter raptors under your command, or even destroying one particularly deadly predator nearby thereby guaranteeing safety for all nests in the predator's territory. Once this goal is complete, you can move onto the next map and start anew.

The combat in the game will be squad-based, as stated previously. You'll need to scout a potential target and its movement patterns to find out when it is at its most vulnerable and then take it down with your raptors. Most prey in the game have a certain raptor requirement for you to defeat (which is given as an approximate number of raptors needed), but like the measures you can take to protect the nest, you can also employ tactics to take down huge creatures or at least injuring them for your raptors to finish off. If pressed, you can drag down the creature's energy with constant quick hit-and-run attacks (though be careful of retribution) or flank it so that your raptors can attack from an angle where they are safe (usually best to avoid the target's tail or mouth). Since the RTS map is out of scale, the game will "zoom in" on a target as you approach it so you can more effectively mount an attack. Like with most real-time squad strategy games, your raptor will be able to bark commands to his subordinates, instructing them to stay clear or attack when it is most opportune.

Though the game loses something in the strategy area by doing away with building, it also adds a pure strategic feel to the game in its place. You have nothing but your wits and your instincts to help you in this ancient world full of danger, and there's no excessive amounts of power plants or tanks in reserve there to save you. If the squad-based raptor combat system ends up being as fun as I visualise it (sic-ing half a dozen hungry raptors on an unsuspecting triceratops at a watering hole, for instance) then this could be something worth spending an inordinate amount of time on. But then the chances of something like this being made (if it hasn't already; I don't follow the RTS market that closely) are pretty good already, so I shouldn't worry.

Friday, February 09, 2007

New Update

The first part of my top ten favoritest games ever was supposed to be this week's update, but since I started it several days ago and Blogger is such a bitchy bitch bitch man, it's actually dated 29/01/07 and is somewhere else in the blog now instead of the front page. So there. Definitely updated this week.

Later this week: A game about dinosaurs. Dinosaurs are still cool, right?