Please remind me, readers. Remind me not to get another picross game. Even if it’s free. These games suck up hours of my life that I won’t get back.
Picross - The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess is not, actually, a good game. I can’t recommend it really. What it is, is a study in reward/effort dynamics and how to subvert them.
Burning the Midna Oil
I won’t explain the mechanics of picross here. If you don’t know them already, you should go play Picross DS. In-game, there is the option to have Midna explain them achingly slowly to you, her usually endearing Simlish coming so frequently that the game risks souring your feeling towards one of the great Zelda characters from the get-go. Not a good start.
But by slicing out the mechanics, there’s not much of Twilight Picross to discuss. You complete a series of picross puzzles to make pixel arts. There are two extra variants of picross, which I’ll get onto later, giving you 90 small puzzles and a big one in total. That’s really all there is to it.
The music and aesthetics come from LoZTP proper. They’re alright I guess. You don’t exactly get the best tunes, and the ones on offer get pretty repetitive after a while. And LoZTP’s aesthetic has never exactly been held up as an exemplar of beauty. Like that man in a suit who barged you out of the way to get on the train this morning, they do the job and no more than the job.
And having exhausted the material the game proper gives me, I’m going to go on a tangent that is actually the meat of the article, about the aforementioned reward/effort dynamic, and why I stopped enjoying this stupid thing fairly early on - and yet kept playing.
Seek And Ye Shall Find (Maybe)
We like getting rewards (says tabloid in shocking new exposé).
Games give us a way to while away an hour, but that wouldn’t be any good if they didn’t offer rewards that make us want to play them. A new tool, like in the Zelda and Metroid games; the feeling that we’re getting more powerful, like in JRPGs; a new and beautiful landscape to explore, like the Xenoblade series; or just the jingle and feeling of triumph from a Mario star.
Of course, these games have fun gameplay as well. If they didn’t, in most cases, these petty rewards would not be worth getting (less so for JRPGs, in this reviewer's humble unsubtle and often wrong opinion). In many of the best games, the gameplay itself is reward enough.
And here’s the thing: picross is, once you get above a certain level, not terribly fun.
Completing an easy or mid-difficulty picross puzzle is almost beautiful in the way it unfolds. Completing a hard picross puzzle is like a Where’s Wally game. You struggle to find where that one cross can be placed that will change everything. When you do, and the solution unfolds smoothly from that, it’s a relief.
A relief. It’s not fun. It boils down to that search for the progression point. And maybe that on its own is rewarding enough for some, but about halfway through the puzzle selection, I couldn’t help thinking about all the more productive things I could be doing. Like playing another game.
So if the gameplay’s not fun in and of itself, it boils down to what rewards the game gives you. And here Twilight Picross drops the ball (and chain) big time.
The “rewards” are, much like the Picross-e series that obviously spawned this offering, static pixel drawings. Only this time, they’re of things from LoZTP. Bombs. Ooccoo. A Bokoblin. You get the gist.
Picross DS’s cute pixel .gifs, and to an extent Picross 3D’s animations, can’t have taken much longer to create, and were infinitely more rewarding. But sure, there’s still something quite nice about seeing your picture filled in with colours at the end.
Then we get onto the extra modes.
“Mega picross” consists, theoretically, of 45 more slightly harder puzzles, which require a bit of 2D thinking. Theoretically. Except the Mega puzzles have exactly the same pixel art “rewards” as the standard picross puzzles. So there is no reward for completing them, beyond the puzzling themselves - which, as mentioned above, is not overly rewarding. Even the Picross-e games didn’t pull this kind of trick.
“Micross”, meanwhile, gives you several picross puzzles to do to make up a picture. So you need to complete about thirty puzzles to get the same reward as one normal picross puzzle. That, my friends, is what we in the reviewing trade call “a kick in the scrotum”.
So why did I keep playing this rewardless game-esque thing? Because I did. I finished it. I got all the gold medals. I got the pointless congratulatory Midna speech that TP’s scriptwriters wouldn't touch with a Dominion Rod.
Because it was fun, certainly, towards the start. Picross always is, initially. It’s been a while since you played it last, and you feel smart for completing a puzzle.
Because it filled a minute or two, in the middle. You can finish the longest picross puzzles in about six minutes, making it perfect for a tube journey.
But towards the end, I kept playing it was because it was nearly finished.
You read that right. I finished Twilight Picross because I wanted it out of my semi-animate writhing hair forever. Which is never, ever, ever a good sign.
I was addicted by that point. The little rush of intellectual smugness I felt when I outsmarted those bloody number columns had diminished. The reward I got on finishing them, reduced to nil. But they were short enough that this one would be the last, look, I’d almost finished the game now.
You don’t see many positive reviews of nicotine.
Four-Warned is Four-Armed
Picross - The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess is free, so to some extent its quality has to be measured in hours spent. Not to earn it, necessarily: you’ll clock it up in a handful of weeks from eShop and Miiverse visits, shorter if you jumped on the Miitomo bandwagon. But in opportunity cost. What else could I be doing? Would I enjoy it more?
Yes. Almost certainly I would. And yet I didn’t stop playing until I got Midna’s patronising “congratulatory” message at the end. So it gets marks for that, I suppose.
+ More picross!
+ Free! In the monetary sense
- Just more picross
- Not terribly rewarding
- Tries to ruin Midna