You'd think I'd be fed up with counting grid-based squares every day, filling them in with basic mathematical precision to form a pixel-y picture, especially since I've been doing so for almost a year now. But no, I've found it to be a pleasant, albeit mindless and virtually substance-less, act to perform before heading to bed, to the point where hardly a day goes by without some Picross play.
This isn't to say that the game's play is infinite. 'Normal' and 'Free' mode both have ten levels, each level containing ten puzzles and I've been methodically working my way through every one. Normal mode is actually trickier than the 'Free' mode level in that you have the imposition of a time limit. While there's no real penalty for solving a puzzle past the hour-long time limit, you don't get to see the Picross animated and rendered in color when you complete the puzzle, which is half the fun. So I'd (almost) always double back and finish each puzzle within their time limit if I ever missed one, simply because I didn't want to leave a single tile unturned, so to speak.
After 'Normal' mode, I moved onto the time limit-less 'Free' mode, which fails to punish you for picking incorrect tiles. While completing such a task is daunting at first, eventually you're able to suss out patterns and pick up on filling tricks (especially if you opt for the introductory 'hint', which fills in one horizontal and one vertical row for you). Sure, occasionally I'd botch a puzzle so badly that I'd have to restart from scratch after spending close to an hour on it already, but filling these puzzles were much more peaceful and pleasant affairs compared to the stress of Normal's clock countdown. Nonetheless, I did relish the countdown towards the final level, towards knowing I'd finally complete each and every Picross available on the SD card!
When I finally – finally! – topped off the 10th puzzle in the 10th Free Mode level, I expected closure. I didn't expect fireworks or anything – after all, it was just a puzzle game – but I expected some cursory message acknowledging the accomplishment. However, upon capping off the last tile on the last puzzle, I was greeted with the following:
"Congratulations! You've successfully completed all the Free Mode Puzzles, and unlocked a bonus level!"
Wait, ten more puzzles? This didn't happen on Normal Mode ... unless.
I quickly paged back to Normal Mode and shuffled through each puzzle, looking for a black-and-white puzzle icon. Low-and-behold, one of the final puzzles on the last level was left in a two-color state. Unsolved. I hastily plugged my way through it, rushing a bit more than I normally would and, upon completion I was greeted with a similar 'Congratulations!' message. All this time I thought I had mastered this mode! No no, there was still quite a bit left to go. And, little did I know, the best was yet to come.
The next day I fired up the first bonus level and immediately the 8-bit visage of Mario flitted into view on the top of my DS screen, while the Super Mario Bros. theme looped softly in the background. My jaw nearly dropped. After 200 puzzles of banal pixel imagery and mind-numbing themes, just now I'm getting the nostalgic bits? I waded through over 50 hours of generic clip art, and Nintendo decides to bring out the old-school gaming icons solely for a bonus level?
I couldn't be happier.
Granted, the solid pixel lines of Nintendo's original heroes make these puzzles much simpler and easier to solve than the prior levels, but the nostalgic designs, the tiles masquerading as coin-housing bricks, brought joy to my hardened eyes. Seeing these legends come to life with each unveiled tile, hearing the looped Mario-based refrains, lit my face up. It wasn't just because of the puzzles or the icons themselves, but their significance. Nintendo could have easily stacked the prior levels with loads of stock gaming characters and icons, immediately endearing the game to retro and casual gamers alike (like they did with Mario's Picross in 1995 for the original GameBoy). But yet they held out and saved the best for last. This was a real reward, a real bonus. And what made it all the sweeter was the fact that it was completely and utterly unexpected, like an encore from a surprisingly brilliant, but previous unknown, opening band.
Despite attempts at restraint, I burned through Normal Mode's ten extra levels pretty quickly. I was treated to guest stars like ye ol' Ice Climbers, Samus and even Bowser. And consequently I went into the Free Mode bonus level with high expectations. After all, the Normal Mode bonus was brilliant, so just what sort of magnificent self-aware references would the harder Free Mode contain? While the Free Mode bonus level does cater to retro gamers, the theme, sadly, is not as lovable. Instead of gaming characters, it's a trip through iterations of Nintendo hardware. Instead of bringing Mario or Link to life, I'm illustrating the stagnant, the static, the obsolete. Oh, don't get me wrong; I love these old handhelds and consoles (and the Virtual Boy was a nice touch), but piecing them together tile-by-tile doesn't bring forth the same vibrancy as the avatars of my youth. And while the Free Mode soundtrack – the Super Mario Bros. dungeon theme – is nice, it's not nearly as soothing as the Normal Mode bonus soundtrack.
Upon completing all of the bonus levels I found myself left with nothing. There was no acknowledgement, no credits, not even a closing placard congratulating me on my accomplishment; it was as if nothing happened at all. And while I was only slightly disappointed that there were no bonus-bonus levels featuring more contemporary Nintendo icons, the current levels were more than satisfactory. Picross DS had already went the extra mile. It had already delivered not only unexpected extra content, but additional puzzles that were, quite possibly, the shining gems of the game, all as a magnificent ending. It's hard to think of any modern game delivering such a wealth of treasures simply for the hell of it in this day of bloated budgets and front-loading, where games try to sell themselves as much as possible in the introductory levels, latter levels be damned, but I'm glad Picross DS did so. Thanks for over-delivering Nintendo, and thanks for saving the best for last.