I’m not a big Sudoku player. It’s not because I don’t enjoy working through the insanely popular logic puzzles – I do – but rather that I never seem to have a Sudoku puzzle handy when I have 15 – 20 minutes that I’m looking to fill. Well, that’s all changed with the release of Electronic Arts’ Sudoku game for the iPod. In this review I’ll take a look at why the iPod version just may awaken my inner Sudoku addict.
A Little Background
Contrary to popular belief, Sudoku is a relatively recent game of American origin, which was first published in 1979 by puzzle magazine publisher Dell Magazines (no relation to the computer maker) as “Number Place.” During the mid-80s it became popular in Japan, where it was renamed Sudoku. It wasn’t until The Times newspaper in Great Britain began publishing the puzzles in late 2004 that Sudoku found an international following. In the months since, Sudoku has become a regular feature in the puzzle section of almost every major newspaper. Hundreds of Sudoku books and websites have also been created, to help meet the public’s growing demand for new puzzles.
How To Play
Sudoku is a fill-in-the-blanks logic puzzle which is laid out on a 9×9 square grid, divided into 9 smaller 3×3 squares. The object of the game is to fill in all of the empty spaces with numbers 1 – 9 so that no single row, column, or 3×3 section contains more than one of each. Each puzzle starts with certain spaces already filled in with “clue” numbers, and it’s up to the player to figure out where the other numbers should go. A true Sudoku puzzle will only have one solution which can be arrived at by logical analysis, requiring no guesswork. Even though numbers are used to solve the puzzles, no math is required. The numbers are just an easy-to-remember set of nine unique symbols. Sudoku puzzles come in various difficulty levels, determined by which numbers are given at the start.
Getting Started With iPod Sudoku
The opening menu lets you choose from two modes of play: Normal and Newspaper. Normal Mode is a series of pre-made puzzles separated into five difficulty levels, Easy, Normal, Hard, Very Hard, and Insane. The first four are available at the outset, but the Insane level must be unlocked by accumulating “Journey Points” for completing puzzles.
Once you’ve chosen your difficulty setting, you can also choose to turn error checking on or off. When error checking is on, the game will check each number as you enter it, alerting you when you’ve made a mistake. If error checking is off, the game will wait until you’ve finished the puzzle to tell you how many errors you’ve made (if any). You can then choose to go back and find the errors yourself, or let the game clear the erroneous cells so you can try again.
Newspaper Mode gives you a blank grid allowing you to fill in the “clue” numbers from a printed puzzle, such as one from a book or daily newspaper, or construct a puzzle of your own. After the clues are filled in, you can save the puzzle to take with you and solve on the iPod. This is a valuable feature, ensuring that you can still play Sudoku on the iPod long after you’ve finished the thousands of included puzzles. There’s also a Puzzle-Solver feature that will automatically validate and solve any puzzle manually entered.
One of the biggest plusses for iPod Sudoku is how easy it the controls are to use. You use the scroll wheel to move around the grid, highlighting the space that you land on. Pressing the center button selects the space and brings up a list of numbers from 1 – 9. Again with the scroll wheel, you scroll down the list to highlight a number. Clicking the center button selects the number and fill it into the space you selected.
There are even three different modes of using the scroll wheel. Scroll Mode lets you use the wheel to scroll horizontally across rows. When you come to the end of a row, you automatically move to the beginning of the next row. This works in reverse, scrolling back to the top of the grid, as well. Four-Way-Touch Mode lets you move up and down, left and right around the grid by touching the corresponding location of the scroll wheel. For example, touching the top of the scroll wheel (Menu) will move you up one square. You don’t need to actually click the wheel; just touching it will do. I’ve found this to be the fastest way to get around the board, and if you’re used to playing Sudoku on a cell phone, it will probably be the most comfortable for you. Lastly, you can choose to have both scrolling methods enabled at once.
An essential component of solving a Sudoku puzzle (especially the more difficult ones) is being able to make notes to yourself as you rule out possible solutions for a particular space. In the iPod version of Sudoku this is called Pencil Mode. You can switch to pencil mode while solving a puzzle by holding down the center button for two seconds.
A small pencil icon will appear, and when you select a number it will be entered in a very small font along the edge of the space you selected. You can keep track of several possible solutions this way, changing them as you get new information. Once you’ve decided on a permanent solution, switch back to Pen Mode by holding the center button again, and enter it as usual. Your “pencil” notes in that space will disappear.
Hints are available at any time during play in Normal mode. When you click the Hint button, the game will determine the most easily solved space and automatically fill it in for you. Selecting Auto-Fill at any point during a game will fill in Pencil notes of possible solutions for all empty spaces. You can toggle the auto-fill on and off as needed.
Journey Points are earned as you complete puzzles in Normal Mode (no points awarded for Newspaper Mode). You get more points for solving more difficult puzzles, but using Hints reduces the number of points you’re awarded. As you accumulate more points, the game’s background image will change. Earn enough points and you will unlock the most difficult game mode, Insane.
One nerd-friendly feature that you don’t get with a printed Sudoku puzzle is the inclusion of statistics tracking, which can be viewed from the main menu screen. In addition to keeping track of your total playing time and total Journey Points, the game also keeps track of how many grids you’ve started and finished, as well as your best time and average time for each difficulty setting. Good stuff!
If you don’t have time to finish a full puzzle in one sitting, you can save your game and pick it up again later. You can only save one game at a time, however, and can’t start a new one until you’ve either completed or abandoned the old one.
The first thing you notice upon starting a new game is how bright and clear the graphics are. The numbers on the grid are bold and should be easy-to-read for most people. Even the small pencil notes which you can enter into a square are surprisingly clear, though they’ll have a lot of people reaching for their glasses. The given “clue” numbers are black, and the numbers entered by the player are red. When you complete a row, column, or 3×3 square, the entire section flashes briefly as a visual indication of your accomplishment.
As I’ve found with all iPod games, the sound is hit-and-miss (which is unfortunate for a device that is primarily a music player). The included background music is a pleasant, Japanese-inspired theme that isn’t gratingly repetitive, and doesn’t seem to interfere with my concentration. The sound effects are a combination of birds chirping in the distance, and gentle clicks, bells, and drums. Unfortunately, several unintentional clicks and pops occur, especially when selecting menu options or changing screens. You can choose to play music from your iPod, instead of the in-game background music, by starting it prior to selecting Sudoku from the games menu. But be careful, because as soon as the game begins to boot up, the audio volume will jump sharply. This is a bug which occurs on all iPod games for me, so I’ve had to learn to lower my iPod volume prior to starting any game. There are also in-game volume settings which let you control the mix of sound effects and background music.
Playing Sudoku on the iPod is a very enjoyable experience as is, but there are a few things I would love to see added. First, while I applaud the ability to manually enter new puzzles into the game, I would love to also be able to download new puzzles from the Internet, and upload my own puzzles to share with others. And second, building further on the idea of an iPod Sudoku community, it would be great to be able to share and compare statistics with other Sudoku players, create challenges, etc. Kind of like the Nike+iPod community does for runners. This is a concept that could easily be applied to all of the current iPod games, and would help build a sense of community for iPod gamers (in advance of the day when we’ll be able to play head-to-head with other iPod gamers via a wireless Internet connection). Lastly, as of now, iPod games are only playable on the 5th generation iPods (iPod with video). It would be nice if they were at least playable on our computers, as well.
EA’s iPod Sudoku has gotten me into the Sudoku spirit in a way that the printed version never could. I’m sure it has a lot to do with having a puzzle handy anytime I want one, but the polished, easy-to-play interface don’t hurt either. And at $5 (less than a typical Sudoku book), there’s a lot of value there. Anyone with a even passing interest in Sudoku would do well to check this version out. For long-time fans, it’s pretty much an essential iPod addition.
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