Curmudgeon Gamer
Curmudgeoning all games equally.
14 May 2008
NYT Crosswords vs CrossworDS
It's possible to take it for granted these days that, if it's a casual kind of game made for the DS and it's not published by Nintendo, then it's a sucky piece of trashware produced solely to cash in on the system's huge user base. And conversely, that Nintendo has produced a similar game that is much better.

That had been the case with Nintendogs (as opposed to Catz, Dogz, Horsez, and the horrifying "Babyz"), with the severely underrated Clubhouse Games, with the two Brain Age games... heck, the Sudoku applet in Brain Age is so clearly better than every other version of the puzzle on the DS that it brings one to a kind of despair. Why is Nintendo's Sudoku minigame so well-made when others' full Sudoku applications are so crappy? Putting these things together is not brain surgery. It's enough to make one wonder if Nintendo doesn't have a patent on non-stupid number grid entry on portable gaming computers (USPTO # 951827364).*

It would be easy to assume that Nintendo's version would be better than Majesco's. It is not, by a long shot.

From looking at the games, initial impressions would seem to indicate the usual first-party upstaging. Crossword DS has a brilliant interface nearly as good as Brain Age Sudoku, and with better character recognition despite having 16 more glyphs to distinguish. It's not obvious at first that Majesco's game HAS character recognition. Furthermore, that game's color schemes range an odious gamut from ugly to unreadable, while Nintendo notices that a crossword game that's not black boxes on white squares is a slight against the memory of Arthur Wynne.

Majesco's game commits a few other grave offenses, although they're only obvious compared to Nintendo's interface. NYT Crosswords shows only Across or Down clues at a time; Crosswords DS shows them both at once. NYT uses a thin-stemmed, seedy newsprint typeface for clues and what looks like hateful Comic Sans for entered letters; Crosswords DS uses sharp, thick-lined sans-serif characters for both. NYT uses annoying button assignments that make it far too easy to accidentally receive an irrevocable hint, and only offers one type of hint at that; Crosswords DS uses the book orientation popularized by Brain Age, ignores button presses in favor of a visual interface, and will give stuck players the option of seeing a single letter, a whole word, or even providing alternate, easier clues, ala GAMES Magazine's World's Most Ornery Crosswords. And while both programs offer more than a thousand puzzles, Crosswords DS also provides Word Search puzzles and Anagrams.

And yet, of the two, despite Nintendo's typical meticulous attention to usability, their product is far inferior where it counts. Ultimately, in a collection of crosswords, the quality of the puzzles is
paramount. The New York Times is just about the most respected source of puzzles out there, and Majesco's inclusion of several years of their output shows that, while they may not be the best at putting together an interface, they care about the puzzles themselves. And once gotten used to, the interface isn't really so bad.

The handwriting recognition particularly turns out to be pretty good when used, even if the drawing area is restricted to a small input box. The ugliness of the interface can be remedied by entering a code. This essential code is "up up down down B B Y Y," and instead of being hidden away on GameFAQs, it should be printed in large, boldface type on the front of the very box, just beneath the title. Thankfully, once entered it's saved to the game file, allowing players to forget the low-contrast sins of the original color scheme.

While NYT Crosswords features years of top-notch puzzles, ranging in difficulty from a relaxing pastime to uncommonly challenging, Crosswords DS's puzzles... well, to be honest, I don't really know how hard they become. You see, in the same way that Brain Age Sudoku starts out with only a selection of low and medium-difficulty puzzles available and a bunch more that must be unlocked, Crosswords DS also forces players to begin with easier puzzles before letting him tackle harder ones.

This wouldn't be so bad, except that the easy puzzles are grievously simple! We're talking 4x4 grids here, progressing up to 11x11 for the harder ones available at first. You should know that these puzzles are included in the game's puzzle count, so when the back of the box says over 1,000 puzzles, a good percentage of them is this slight fare. Even the New York Times Monday puzzles, the easiest of the lot in Majesco's title, are full-sized grids.

Furthermore, while the NYT clues are filled with the wit and cunning for which the Times crosswords are famous, Nintendo's clues honestly read like something better suited for elementary school students. Fill-in-the-blank clues are over-common, as well as slipshod "partial word" clues along the lines of "the farmer in the d _ _ _". While it's possible, should the player persevere through the featherweight stuff to get to the harder puzzles, that the package redeems itself, it is unlikely to match the New York Times' Will Shortz-edited output.

Yet even one of the subgames in Nintendo's package fall prey to this kind of shoddyness. The very first Anagrams puzzle accepts, and in fact requires, "lase," which is a real if obscure word defined by in regards to lasers, yet rejects "ale." The Word Searches seem to be okay, although they are hampered by the fact that they're word searches, the decaffeinated coffee of word puzzles.

Were this a perfect world, or at least one less encumbered by exclusive licensing, we would have a game that combined Nintendo's wonderful interface with Majesco's formidable puzzle assortment. It's possible that the problems with Nintendo's game has to do with them trying to play to both kid and adult audiences, which would explain the near-beer clues and word search inclusion. I usually dispute claims that Nintendo's efforts to keep most of their games friendly to children ruins them for adults. For insecure adults, maybe. But in this case it certainly has.

* Don't look that number up; it's a joke.

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--John Harris at 06:31
Comment [ 1 ]

Comments on this post:

Thanks for this. I've been looking for such a comparison. I played the demo for the Nintendo version and the "hard" puzzle available was anything but.
I wonder if there will be DLC.

By Blogger Alex, at 16 May, 2008 13:19  

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