["Beyond Tetris" is a column from Tony "Tablesaw" Delgado about puzzle games that transcend mere abstract action and instead plunge deep into the heart of problem-solving. This installment looks at a fondly remembered reincarnation of a pencil puzzle: Mario's Picross.]

Computers get into everything, even puzzles that seem more suited to the page. Crosswords, cryptograms, word scrambles, acrostics, and all manner of pencil-and-paper–based have been implemented on computers. Usually, these puzzles only appeal to the kind of people (like me) who are already fans of the static puzzles. But occasionally, a print puzzle makes a flying leap into videogames, and very occasionally, that game can be considered "hardcore." Mario's Picross is one such puzzle game.

Mario's Picross is Nintendo's version of a puzzle that goes by many names. It was independently invented in 1988 by both Non Ishida, who called hers "Window Art Puzzles," and Tetsuya Nishio, who called his "Oekaki-Logic." When James Dalgety brought Ishida's puzzles to the Sunday Telegraph in the United Kingdom in 1990, he renamed them "Nonograms." The Telegraph later changed the name again, to "Griddlers." As other publishers across the world started printing their own versions, more names were born for the same puzzle: Edel, Pic-a-Pix, Tsunami, and others. But when the puzzle was brought to the U.S. (and to me) by Games Magazine, it was called Paint by Numbers.

[Click through for more.]

Every Man a George Boole

An example of a paint by numbers puzzle being solved, by Juraj SimlicThe answer to any Paint by Numbers puzzle is a picture in the squares of a grid. But when you start the puzzle, the grid is blank. On the margins of that grid are lines of numbers for each row and column. Each number represents a string of filled-in squares in that particular row or column. More than one number means those strings are broken up by at least one white square. By working back and forth between the rows and the columns, you determine precisely which squares must be filled in to make that pixelated picture.

Wikipedia's page on Paint by Numbers currently has a very good guide on how PBN solving techniques work, though many people prefer to learn the basics on their own. Wikipedia also provided the animation shown with this article (Juraj Simlac created it and made it available under the GNU Free Documentation License). Even if the logic of the puzzle is confounding at the moment, you can see, watching the animation, the appeal of Paint by Numbers. Like a jigsaw puzzle, you start with pieces that mean nothing, and slowly you build to something beautiful (or, in some less elegant puzzles, something sort of recognizable). Unlike crossword or sudoku grids, there's a satisfaction that's greater than merely knowing that you filled everything right. There's actually a finished product.

Picrossing Over

A completed level of Mario's PicrossIn 1995, Nintendo decided to capitalize on the popularity of Paint by Numbers in Japan by moving the puzzle onto the Gameboy. Mario's Picross had hundreds of puzzles and one very popular license. But even if I'd known then about the game, I probably would have turned my nose up at it. The grids are small at 15x15 (Games had been printing puzzles four times that size for a while), and for the majority of Mario's Picross, you are penalized for filling in a square that isn't part of the solution. If you're a person (like me) who tends to go one pixel over a few times too often, the time limit becomes a frustration more than a challenge.

In the U.S., the game was passed over by most mainstream gamers and puzzle fans. Though Japan saw the Picross series continue on the Gameboy, the SNES, and the Satellaview, the series stalled in America. And yet, it became something of a cult classic. It's not necessarily a well-organized cult. Picross fans don't seem to be very aware of each other, and they usually don't realize that Paint by Numbers puzzles exist beyond the sheltering shadow of Mario's bountiful moustache. But whenever I meet a fan, they're bursting with excitement to tell me about their favorite game that "no one else has heard of."

The World Wide Grid


A GSW puzzle designed by Tony Delgado, shown at the Paint by Numbers Homepage
But Picross is not the only videogame version of Paint by Numbers. The Paint by Numbers Homepage was started by Mitsuhima Kajitani in 1998, and despite a change in servers and URLs, it's still going strong with the same elegant Java interface. The puzzles are all provided by users; and for the occasion of this article, I added the Game Set Watch–themed grid shown here. (It's currently pending approval in the "Storage Room," but it's still solvable). For those who want frills, Griddlers.Net has a more complicated applet, but it features full-color puzzles in a wider variety of shapes and sizes.

For the Picross fans who don't want to sully their hands with PC puzzlers, there's still good news. Paint by Numbers puzzles can be imported on the region-free Nintendo DS under other names, like "Illust Logic" and "Oekaki Logic." And Nintendo is itself reviving the Picross brand in Japan—Mario no Super Picross will appear on the Wii Virtual Console this month, and Picross DS comes out in January.

And if worse comes to worst, there's always paper and pencil.

[Tony Delgado is a member of the National Puzzlers' League, and a solver and creater of puzzles of all sorts. He also works as the copy chief of The Gamer's Quarter.]