Are crossword puzzles fun? They're certainly good for killing a spare twenty minutes here and there, and suffice as an adequate distraction in dentist's waiting rooms, but how much fun can a crossword provide? With The New York Times Crosswords, surprisingly, the answer is 'quite a lot'. It's a particular flavour of fun, fair enough, but once you get into the swing of things, TNYTC turns out to be a very addictive addition to the DS game library.
To state the thunderingly obvious, The New York Times Crosswords presents 1,000 crossword puzzles from The New York Times. There are no other types of word game included. The vast majority of the puzzles have been written, or co-written, by Will Shortz, the closest you'll come to finding an actual celebrity in the crossword world - take a look at the fascinating documentary Wordplay to see him in action. The puzzles are grouped by day, with Monday puzzles being the easiest, and Sundays being the most difficult. If you can complete a whole week's worth of puzzles, you'll unlock one of the fearsome Brain Buster puzzles.
You don't have to play straight through from Monday to Sunday. Challenge mode lets you pick any puzzle of any difficulty, and Quick Puzzle mode will choose a puzzle for you, either completely randomly from the entire pool of puzzles, or up to pre-set level of difficulty. There are also two DS-to-DS multiplayer options in which up to four players can either co-operatively solve a puzzle, or compete to see who can finish it first. Suffice to say, TNYTC lets you approach its puzzles in pretty much any way you fancy.
The puzzles are presented on the touch screen, with clues shown on the top screen. A small box in the lower right of the touchscreen lets you write letters, in either upper or lower case, and features solid, reliable character recognition. If, however, you've been blessed with the kind of handwriting that makes doctors weep, there's an optional keyboard that you can use to hunt and peck out letters with your stylus. A double tap of the stylus on the puzzle will switch you between going 'across' and 'down', or you can use the d-pad to do the same thing. If you want to erase a letter, simply draw a short horizontal line through it. The whole interface is impeccable, and does a perfect job of getting out of the way and leaving you to the puzzling.
The actual puzzles are where the game really begins to shine. Beyond the standard clues, there's usually some sort of a theme to discover within a puzzle. It might be that a significant number of words have triple letters in them, or several clues might refer to the books of Dr. Suess, or sitcoms of the 1970s, and so on. It's tremendously satisfying to crack the 'code' of each puzzle, and then use this new insight to finish it off in record time. Or, quite possibly, not.
The difficulty level of each puzzle is largely tied into how cryptic its clues are. Monday puzzles generally have straightforward clues that hint directly at the word needed - 'pre-stereo sound' being the clue for 'mono', for example. Other clues are more centered on trivia, and there's quite a heavy emphasis on pop culture. Expect to be dredging your brain cells for the names of forgotten movie stars of the eighties. The more difficult puzzles require you to first of all work out what the hell the clue is trying to tell you, before you can even begin guessing what the answer might be. We stalled for ages on a five letter word for 'a spot for sweaters'. Some sort of closet? A clothes shop? Ah, hang on... sauna! It's that kind of forehead smacking revelation that makes solving one of TNYTC's puzzles such a satisfying experience. It's the kind of moment where you want to turn to the person next to you on the bus and let them know just how clever you are.
Still, after we'd spent nearly an hour on a Friday puzzle, with only a handful of clues solved - and most of those being wild speculation - that self-satisfied aura of smartitude began to fade quite rapidly. In our defence, many of the clues demand a thorough knowledge of uniquely American subjects, such as baseball, politics and geography, so we didn't feel too bad for not having a clue about, for example, the 1972 World Series. It's surprising, though, to find out how much of this stuff is squirreled away in the dusty cupboards at the back of your brain. And we can't really criticise a game from the New York Times for being too American.
If you do get utterly stuck, a quick stab at the X button will fill in a letter for you. Doing this puts a dent in your score once you eventually finish the puzzle, but it can be an irresistible sanity saver. Also, once you're done, any letters that you've got wrong will be highlighted and you can go back to have another crack. We'll admit to filling in a few clues with random letters just so we could flop over the finish line, which goes a long way to explaining our extensive collection of D- scores.
So, yes, The New York Times Crosswords is difficult, mind-bogglingly so at the pointy end of the week, but then that's the whole point. These puzzles are supposed to make you sweat. If you were disappointed by the simplicity of CrossworDS, then give The New York Times Crosswords a go. You might end up sinking your teeth into your DS and curling up into a little ball under your bed as you once again fail work out what a 6-letter clue for 'passage preventer' could possibly be (we have no idea), but at least you'll be getting your money's worth.