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Wot I Think: Fantastic picross puzzler Pictopix

Pixel perfect

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The PC is oddly bereft of decent Picross/Nonogram puzzles. Could Pictopix [official site] finally be the version that lets us put down our 3DS? Here’s wot I think:Quickly, in case you haven’t before, here’s what a Picross/Nonogram puzzle is: a usually square or rectangular grid of empty square cells, with each row and column accompanied by instructional numbers. A single ‘1’ means one cell in that row or column must be filled in. Something like ‘2 3 7’ would mean distinct groups of cells in that row or column must be filled in a run of two, three, then seven, with gaps between. Using just that, you can fill in or blank out every square in the grid to create a pixel drawing. The joy is in interpreting this scant information such that you can work out which cells the numbers apply to, each correctly deduced fill or blank giving you more clues for the next.

I am permanently on the search for a good Picross game. I was introduced to the puzzle by Mario’s Picross for the GameBoy, which sounds more hardcore than it is – I played it via an emulator on an R4 cart on the DS back in 2005 or so. But wow did I play it. And its sequel. And the Wario variants therein. As Nintendo projects so often do, it got the format absolutely and perfectly right, in a way that I’d argue wouldn’t be repeated until Mario’s Picross creators Jupiter put out the ‘Picross e’ games, sold on the 3DS store, starting some sixteen years after their GB original. (Sidenote: their Picross DS released in 2007 enormously missed the mark of both the Mario games and the ongoing ‘e’ titles.)

In the meantime, the puzzle (you may know then as Nonograms) has seen a renewed popularity in print form, in the wake of the explosion of Sudoku. This has reached the point where large, difficult Picross puzzles appear in newspapers like the Telegraph on a weekly basis, surely pushing them into the broad mainstream. So the obvious place to see that popularity exploited is the smartphone. And people have tried. Except absolutely no version I’ve ever tried (and I’ve tried so many) has been vaguely worthwhile, and it’s for one simple reason: Picross needs more than one button.

Phones just can’t do it. To satisfactorily fill in a Picross you need a shortcut for choosing whether you’re painting in a tile or X-ing it out. On the DS, that was so ideally handled by the shoulder button, but on a phone, until someone figures out a version that uses the volume button or similar, it requires laboriously tapping back and forth between the two options, slowing the whole process down far too much to be smooth or fun. Which eventually brings us to the PC.

The PC is obviously an ideal home for Picross! The two buttons on a mouse takes care of every issue, it should be a done deal. But every version of the puzzle I’ve tried has made enormous mistakes, messing up really obvious features, or gone out of its way to be awkward to play. And all this brings us to Pictopix.

It’s brilliant!

At last I’ve got myself a nonogram puzzler for PC that ticks every box, doesn’t have that one feature missing. Although for a moment I did worry.

Pictopix does everything right. A simple, unobtrusive presentation, a plain (but pleasant) blue screen, the grids presented clearly, no nonsense or animations or needless attempts to dress up a concept that shines brightest when least obscured. Left click to paint, right click to X, done. But it also requires getting some other more subtler things right for a good Picross game, and it achieves those too.

For instance, something too many forget is that a player is going to want to be able to fill in a long line as easily as possible, especially when some of its cells have already been filled one way or the other. Say in a 15×15 grid, you’ve got a row with (1 1) as its instructions, and you’ve painted in both those cells, you now want to X out the rest. Far too many versions of the puzzle would have a drawn line of Xs overwrite what’s already there. Not this one, letting you quickly and simply fill in the rest of the line in one move.

Another similarly specific but vital element is ensuring that it’s easy to draw in a single line, without accidentally slipping out and putting in incorrect entries elsewhere. And this is where I thought I was going to be writing a review that said, “so close”. But the silly twerps have perfectly implemented this feature, then had it switched off by default. Once flipped on in the options, you’ve everything you need to being ploughing through its collections of 10×10 up to 25×25 grids.

It has its idiosyncrasies. Most variants of the nonopuzzle have star ratings for completion, based on mistakes made and time taken, and Pictopix is no different. How it measures such things is a little strange. The game doesn’t react to wrong moves, and your response to that will vary – I often find it frustrating when games do, because if anything it’s an unwanted hint. But the absence of a reaction when you paint in the wrong tile is definitely odd. It notices, however, and make too many of these unmentioned mistakes and it’ll downgrade your score. (Which reminds me way too much of a driving test, weirdly. That silent condemnation revealed at the end.) More odd is how it won’t give you anything over one out of three stars if you have any of the hint modes on, despite one such “hint” being a bog-standard feature of the genre. That is, having instructional numbers fade once that row or column has them filled in. It’s usually used as a form of convenience for the player, rather than as a clue for progress, and while absolutely not necessary, it does seem a strange thing to penalise a player’s score for having switched on. Other hint features like showing which rows or columns can currently be deduced are there too, which is always the sign of a good Picross game (it means that you won’t be encountering badly designed puzzles where guesswork becomes necessary), and obviously having that switched on is blatant cheating.

And as if all that weren’t enough, it comes with a puzzle creator too! And soon a Steam Workshop to share creations on, meaning it’ll hopefully (if enough people pick it up) become an endless supply of puzzles, of which hopefully some won’t be crude pictures of boobs.

This is all the work of one man, Thomas Lerdy, and he’s absolutely nailed it. If like me you’ve been craving a good implementation of the puzzle for PC, then you’ve found it in Pictopix. If you’re looking for a fun, brain-using puzzle presented splendidly, then now is the time to discover why Picross/Nonograms are quite so great.

Pictopix is out now on Steam for £4.25/$6/€6.

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John Walker

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One of the original co-founders of Rock, Paper, Shotgun, I'm now a senior editor and hero of humanity. Old and special.

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