Sudoku was invented in the late 70's and introduced to Japan in the mid-80's, but it waited nearly thirty years to become a worldwide phenomenon. Newspapers publish sudoku puzzles even more prominently now than the crossword puzzles that have held dominance for nearly a century, and there are sudoku books, toys, and games everywhere you look: everyone is looking to cash in on the popular puzzle fad any way they can. There have been over fifteen different sudoku-based games published for the DS so far, and there are two others already available in DSiWare form: Sudoku Student and Sudoku Master. EA threw their hat into the ring in the middle of 2008 with their Sudoku iPhone app, and now they've brought it straight from the App Store to the DSi Shop. In a world already awash with sudoku mania, how does EA's foray into the well-known stack up?
If you've already downloaded EA's Sudoku for your iPhone, you should know that there's nothing new here gameplay-wise at all. It looks the same and buttons, stylus, and multiple screens aside, it plays almost identically as well. Sudoku promises 'thousands' of grids generated at random for the player and allows you to use either the stylus or buttons to play the game - during play, each button and game icon's function is laid out at the top of the screen in case you forget which does what, though the layout is pretty straight-forward and easy to learn. A selects cells and numbers to fill them with, B takes you back or undoes your last step, L and R turn Annotation on and off, X performs the Auto-Fill function and Y the Get Hint function. Using the buttons instead of the stylus for input would be great for being in a moving car or on a bumpy train ride, as the cells are naturally somewhat small, though the stylus is also excellent and easy to use for input as well. There are also hints and information that display above the button/icon explanations as you play, though if you decide you'd rather not see them, you can turn hints off entirely in the Options menu. The Annotation function allows you to fill in potential numbers (called Candidate Numbers) for each cell so that you have an idea of what's left to choose from. If you're in a lazy mood, the Auto-Fill function will annotate each cell for you. Even lazier? Choose 'Get Hint' to have the game fill in a cell for you at random.
There are three modes of play available to you: Normal, Newspaper, and Puzzle Solver (located under the 'Newspaper' option). 'New Game' starts up a brand new puzzle for you, and you may choose your difficulty: Easy, Normal, or Hard. Very Hard and Insane are also available, but are grayed out at first - they must be unlocked via playing grids on other difficulties and earning 'Journey Points'. For every grid you complete in Normal mode, you earn Journey Points: Easy gives you a maximum of 50 points per grid, Normal gives you 70 points and Hard gives you 150, with the points going toward unlocking the Very Hard and Insane difficulty levels. If you choose to Auto-Fill or Get Hint during play, you are docked points, but the game will give you a minimum of 20, 25 or 30 points respectively per grid you complete, no matter how many hints you take (fill in the entire grid using Get Hint if you like, you'll still earn points toward unlocking the harder difficulty levels). Very Hard requires 300 points before it will be unlocked, and Insane requires 600 total.
Before beginning your puzzle, you have the option to turn on Error Checking. This option will stop you from entering the wrong number into a cell (as well as tell you why at the top of the screen). If Error Checking is on, and it has to stop you from making a mistake, Journey Points will be docked from your end score; if Error Checking is off, you may change and rearrange numbers as you please (though you'll have to figure it all out for yourself). Note that you cannot turn this option on or off once you have started a grid; you must either play it through as-is or start a new puzzle. Thankfully you may stop your game at any time and pick it up as you please with the 'Resume' option on the main screen.
Under Newspaper mode, 'Enter Grid & Play' allows you to enter sudoku puzzles from magazines, newspapers or other games into this one, or even for you to make up your own grid if you like (though the player must be able to solve it logically; the game will tell you if guesswork is required, there are too few 'given' numbers, or if multiple solutions are available, and it will not allow you to play that grid until it's fixed). You may take a puzzle from a newspaper, enter it into the game and then take it along with you to play at your leisure without having to bother with pens or pencils or having to keep your newspaper from being crushed at the bottom of your purse or bookbag. You may also choose to use Error Checking once the game has decided a grid is valid, though it's worth mentioning Journey Points are not awarded for completing Newspaper grids. In 'Puzzle Solver', the DSi will solve the grid for you after you've mapped everything out, which is good for generating solutions to newspaper or magazine puzzles immediately (instead of waiting for the next day or next month for the solutions to be published).
Saving is a minor issue in this game. You have three profile slots available to you, but each profile is only able to have one game saved or in progress at a time (the 'Resume' option allows you to pick up a grid right where you left off). For example, if you have a normal game suspended already, but you had been playing a newspaper puzzle and wanted to have the game solve it for you, the game will warn you before entering Newspaper mode that you will lose your saved game should you continue. There is no option to write down a code for a particular puzzle (as in 'I'd like to try #322 again today because I couldn't solve it last week') either, so you will have to solve them as they come, play the profile-switching game, or hope the grid you were playing shows up again at random some other time. You could even write down the given numbers and enter them into Newspaper mode when you're ready to give that particular puzzle another try, but that's probably going a little far. People obsessed with solving every single sudoku puzzle they come across may find this irksome, especially if they get stuck and do not want to resort to hints.
The other bad thing about saving is that you cannot save puzzles after entering them into the DSi. If there is a particularly challenging newspaper sudoku grid you want to play through again a few months down the line, you will need to save the clipping and re-enter it when you want to play it. It's confusing at the very least, considering one of the features of this game is touted as 'build[ing] your very own collection', which can't really happen thanks to the lack of a save feature other than auto-suspend.
Under 'Statistics', for each difficulty level (and also for Newspaper mode) you can see how many puzzles you've completed versus how many you've started, your best time, and your average time for each. You can also see how much time you've put into the game total, as well as how many Journey Points you've earned so far.
At the title screen, the game is presented as if you are sitting within a building, looking out over the water and onto a Japanese-inspired landscape with a lone, gnarled tree, a few buildings to the left and a majestic mountain fading into sun-touched fog as a lone bird flaps its way across the top of the screen. Which is nice. Visually, the game is very clean and adult-looking compared to the aforementioned Sudoku Master and Sudoku Student: the colors are muted and fit well into the sunset-inspired scheme, and the fonts are crisp and elegant. There are no fuschia-fro'd assistants here to hold your hand, nor are there any cute little gloves or childish patterns and colors to distract you; this is a rather professional-looking game you would feel totally comfortable playing at work or showing off to your adult friends.
While the sound effects are nice and fit the atmosphere well, the music in this game is pretty terrible. It, like the visuals, are very Japan-inspired, with synthesized nature, koto, and flute sounds, but where the koto and birds are relaxing and monotonous enough to fade into the background and provide ambiance, the flute absolutely kills the mood. It is shrill and tinny, even coming from the speakers of the DSi, and every time it starts up it shatters any semblance of concentration you may have had going at the time. Thank goodness turning the music off is available to you in the Options menu.
How does this ported iPhone app fare as DSiWare? Surprisingly well. The controls are easy to pick up, the visuals are pleasing and you can turn off the music whenever you get sick of it. Though you'll probably spend most of your time playing in Normal mode, the Newspaper and Puzzle Solver modes are available if you get the itch to play different puzzles on your DSi. It's easy to unlock the hardest difficulty levels too, so it's not as though the game is deliberately keeping content from you, and the issues with saving are minor in the long run. Accessible to sudoku beginners and old hands alike without being too heavily focused on either skill level, and with those 'thousands' of grids available for a mere 200 points, you can't beat that with a stick.