Recently, as I competed in a group online challenge, a player presented me with the following puzzle:
I had no concept or instructions of how the puzzle worked, so I turned to my husband and asked if he had any idea. He exclaimed, “It’s Picross!”
Picross, short for picture crossword, is a Japanese logic puzzle game known also as a griddler or nonogram. Each puzzle contains a hidden picture revealed only after the player fills in squares based on the numbers listed above and to the left of the grid. The numbers tell the player how many squares can be sequentially filled in, and there is always a blank space in between each number. For example, look at the fifth row in the illustrated puzzle, which has the number nine written along the side. This means the player must fill in nine sequential boxes. But there are 15 boxes total in that row, so the player must use deductive logic based on other rows and columns to figure out which nine to mark.
Two men independently developed picross-style games almost simultaneously. In 1987, graphics designer Non Ishida created grid-style pictures by flashing lights on a skyscraper. The name nonogram is derived from him. That same year, Tetsuya Nishio, a professional Japanese puzzler, used the same concept to design a grid-based pencil and paper puzzle game. The following year, Ishida published three puzzles based on his skyscraper images under the title, Window Art Puzzles. But the popularity of these puzzles didn’t just remain in Japan. In 1990, the UK paper The Sunday Telegraph began publishing weekly picross-style puzzles for readers to solve. Soon the game gained international recognition.
Despite worldwide interest in the puzzles themselves, video game versions gained popularity outside Japan only recently. Mario’s Picross, released for the Game Boy in 1995, failed to capture the U.S. market due to the game’s extreme difficulty and strict time limits for each puzzle. Nintendo did not release the game’s two sequels, Mario’s Picross 2 and Mario’s Super Picross, in the U.S. until the latter became available on the Wii Virtual Console in 2007. The game finally took hold with Nintendo’s Picross DS, which has a wide variety of difficulty levels to cater to the absolute beginner, as well as the seasoned veteran, and also provides hint options for all puzzles. Nintendo released a second DS version, Picross 3D, in the U.S. earlier this year. The puzzles in this new game follow the same mathematical concepts as previous picross puzzles, but instead of a flat grid, players must solve a three-dimensional cube.
Although I found picross a difficult game to grasp, its addictiveness led me to play it often enough that I’ve worked my way from a 5x5 grid to a 20x20 in a few short weeks, and I’m still having a blast. If you want to try one of these puzzles to see if it’s something you’ll enjoy, check out Griddlers.net, which allows you to play games of all levels for free. Just don’t blame me if you find yourself hooked.