Version tested: DS
I had to be forced to play it. Forced, because my life had been taken over by 1994's Mario's Picross, run on a Gameboy emulator. This was November last year, and it was my first encounter with the block filling puzzles, each so perfectly formed and satisfying to complete. What more could I want from my spare-time fiddling?
But the good Reverend Campbell in his liturgical wisdom forced me to take a break from the Picross frenzy and check out Hudson's fifth game in their Japanese Puzzle Series, Slitherlink. I had a quick look, found the concept less immediately obvious than Picross, and immediately went back. I was on Picross 2 by then, and taking on the huge grids of Wario's puzzles, where wrong answers were ignored to make the challenge even more tough. I can't remember what it was that had me give Slitherlink another go, perhaps more reverential pestering, but, well, I haven't done a Picross since.
I've completed 241 of them so far. While the earlier puzzles can be completed in less than three minutes, I'm now in the fourth difficulty level, due to start puzzle 22, and they're now up to about an hour per grid. Factor in going back to re-do earlier puzzles for the satisfaction of proving how much better at them I am now, and there's been at least 150 hours spent with this wunder-game over the last three or four months, with at least another 100 to go.
Meet the family
What are they, you ask? You might well have seen them before. They occasionally appear in the newspaper puzzle pages, alongside the vastly inferior Sukodu. My mum was visiting at the weekend, and as ever had a book of Suckodu puzzles in her handbag in case she got bored. I had my DS in my pocket for the same reason. It's not that my family's boring - it's that we have a very low boredom threshold, and are always prepared for the worst.
Er, there was a point to this. Her book contained the occasional Slither Link, under some idiotic name like, "Loop the Loop". They're around.
You begin with a grid, with a few numbers scattered about in the squares. The task is to fill in a single connecting loop that touches the edges of each numbered square the number of times that, er, the number on it says. So, say there's a 3, the square it's in will need three edges to be filled in. If it's a 0, then none, obviously. Fill in the red lines, X out the rest. Put a 0 and a 3 next to each other, and you know which three sides of the 3 must be filled in, right? And that's how it works: you start to see these patterns, these techniques, and the logic of your available moves becomes gloriously apparent.
Hudson have taken this simple puzzle, and put it on the DS in the most perfect way imaginable. It is, without hesitation, the best puzzle game I've ever played.
When I first began, ploughing through the first 20 games - the 6x6 grids - was fairly elementary. It only took me four or five minutes to complete each, and I felt like the master of the gaming world. Then came the 10x10s, which were a shock. Suddenly, with so much extra space (over twice as big, see), it wasn't quite so elementary to dump the lines in where they belonged. How I laugh at my poor, innocent self as I reflect on those days. What I previously knew was no longer good enough. I had to learn new methods, new techniques. And before I had these mastered I was experimenting with the dotted blue lines it lets you draw in. I was guessing, learning by trial and error. Each puzzle took between 10 and 15 minutes, and my brain was getting bigger.
By the time I'd made my way through 90 of these, they were only taking 5 to 10 minutes, and the blue lines were history. And then suddenly it was 18x10. (The levels don't in fact divide by grid size. It's somewhat ambiguous as to how exactly the split is made). Then the third section changes from 18x10 to a whopping 24x14 two thirds of the way through. By now a grid had more white spaces than numbers, and each was a 15 to 20 minute task. More than a bus ride. But now I was discovering even more fantastic techniques for approaching the puzzles. Cranium swelling.
The game gives you tips like: if two 3s are diagonally next to one another, you can fill in the opposite corners on each; or: two 3s alongside each other will have their three vertical edges (including the shared one) filled in, plus Xs above and below the middle line. But there are loads more. They're horrible to explain in text. Proof: If you have a line pointing to a 2, with a 3 diagonally next to it, then you can fill in the opposite corner of the 3. As odd as they sound, they became instinctive, my eyes scanning the screen like a puzzling hawk, spotting recognisable groupings of numbers, or spaces I could eliminate to prevent the line from looping too soon, then swooping down, stylus in my talons, and attacking my prey.
Come puzzle 18 of the final block and - surprise! - 36x20. Twenty times bigger than the original puzzles, and each taking between 45 minutes to an hour. These are my current foes, most nightmarish because a single mistake is near impossible to spot, meaning finding yourself in a dead end often means restarting.
But when I go back to those 10x10s, they take less than two minutes, and that's only because it's as fast as I can tap. What I know now dwarfs what I knew then. I've learned. I've grown as a person. I'm your king! Well, I'm especially good at Slitherlinks.
Farflung lurch technique
These little boxes of joy never disappoint. They never fail like a high difficulty Suckodu might, forcing you to guess. Instead there's always a logical next move. You either didn't spot it yet, or you didn't learn a technique advanced enough to spot. Hundreds of puzzles in, I'm still learning new tricks. They're ludicrously elaborate now, based on groupings of 3s and 1s on an edge, or 2s in corners of 3s and 1s, where I spy the correct conditions and leap upon it, hoping it will open up another section of lines to fill in. Seeing one you've missed is like discovering the box of expensive chocolates you were given in fact has another layer underneath. This is how puzzles should always be - so perfectly constructed and utterly rewarding to complete. Even completing the Telegraph cryptic crossword (a feat I've only ever managed in a team with my mum) doesn't match the satisfaction of seeing the loop link up and the "COMPLETION!!" appear on the screen.
More peculiar is the anthropomorphism I've developed when I view the numbers. Numbropomorphism as someone suggested (I rudely forget who, so fail to award credit). 3s are greedy, boisterous, and definitely male. They bully the other numbers, barging their way through queues and spilling pints. 2s are the very opposite, prim and polite, sensible, and certainly female. They are business-like, efficient and tidy, but remarkably clever. They tolerate the 3s, but find the 1s tiresome. And indeed the 1s are tiresome. Needy cowards, they feebly sit in the way, refusing to help.
So yes, I've gone insane. But what do you expect after spending at least an hour a day with this game for the past third of a year? It kept me sane over Christmas, and more importantly, keeps me sane on the bus. It fills awkward gaps in a busy day, and adds the required extra entertainment when watching a mediocre television programme. And yes, it's fighting with Private Eye for my Special Morning Sit-down entertainment.
If you're not convinced at this puzzling perfection, there are all sorts of flash games scattered around the internet, and various newspapers occasionally print them next to the sillier puzzles. But, and here's why this Hudson release is so damned perfect, none compare to the ease with which it can be played on the DS. Unlike Sudoku, Slitherlink sits far more comfortably with a stylus and touch-screen.
For one thing, the different colours make it far easier to spot patterns, with red lines, yellow Xs and white numbers. To recreate this in the newspaper would require a box of crayons and more patience than Robbie Williams' therapist. And for another, you can make mistakes, with the game remembering every move you've played and letting you take them back one by one. And the first time you play it, it will take you through the most remarkably comprehensive tutorial, all pictorial, that will make sure you have the basics from the very beginning.
The design gets even better. The red lines you draw, when connected up, have a rainbow pattern gently running around its course. It's a tiny detail, but it's a fantastic visual demonstration of the intricate looping structure you're building. Then the top screen shows a full display of the grid, very useful when the puzzle is too big for the touch-screen. Every shortcut you could want has been thought of - double-tapping takes it from a line to an X, and another clears it away, rather than having to switch between each as you go along. It's neat, sleek, and astonishingly clear. If every puzzle game could only be so wonderfully built.
Japanese to Eurogamer Dictionary
The catch? It's somewhat in Japanese. But this doesn't present a problem once the menus are fathomed. For your merry convenience, here's a quick guide. To start tap the top-left box, then the top box on the right. Then the four options that appear are the four difficulty levels. Once in a game, The three buttons on the right at the foot of the touch-screen are as follows: Tips, switch unfinished numbers to red, and options. And in the options, all that matter are the top-right to start a puzzle over, and just below it to give up completely. (Oh, and you can turn the horrid music off here too.)
It's taken over my life, and it's currently taking over Tom's, as he pops up in IM windows to alert me to his latest speedy solving times. It's so perfectly implemented, never fiddly, always smooth. It does, it must be noted, start to struggle once you're at the very end of a 36x20, when managing all the data on screen, but that's the most minor of gripes. While the Hudson Puzzle series has contained some gems, especially the joyful Honeycomb Beat, none match Slitherlink's ease of use, intuitive controls, and blissful perfection in puzzle design.
10 / 10