Publisher: Majesco Games
Developer: Majesco Games
Release Date: April 16, 2007
Puzzle fans have long sought a way to take their interests to a portable medium. Whether it's Tetris ported to the original Game Boy so that the legions of Tetris addicts could have something to do while waiting for their rides home from school, pocket-sized books filled with crossword puzzles to ease the burden of a protracted and overcrowded subway ride to work, or trivia games brought to cell phones for a small premium, gamers have long sought a means to get their mental juices flowing in a way that allows for a busier, more active schedule without resorting to actually speaking to another living person. Even Sudoku, that mind-twisting, engaging sensation that's swept the country has found its home in titles like the world-renowned Brain Age. Surely, if a game that does all of the other things Brain Age does can do Sudoku so well, a game dedicated solely to this engaging pastime should do an exemplary job, right? If you only have to do one thing, you can do it really well, right? Well ... apparently not.
Toon-Doku takes the widely appreciated phenomenon of Sudoku and applies a new twist to it; players can now use pictures, rather than numbers, to complete the puzzles set forth to them. In theory, this should be an interesting new way to play the game, a means of spicing up a format with some intrinsic limitations. In reality, the pictures on the DS screen are so excruciatingly small thanks to the all-important picture of your badly deformed character taking up a sizeable chunk of your screen and bouncing up and down like he desperately needs to use the restroom that the actual icons themselves are pixelated into near-indecipherability. Which one of the vaguely peach-colored smudges does this piece represent? Does the purple thing or the red thing go here? These are questions that you will find irritatingly commonplace in this title, questions that will drastically drag out the total play time of each puzzle, artificially inflating the time you need to spend with the painfully poorly executed interface without actually adding any fun to the experience.
"But, Istanbul!" I can already hear Majesco exclaiming, hoping to salvage the appreciation I held for them after they helped to publish Psychonauts. "You can choose to use numbers instead of pictures!" And yes, that much is true. You can indeed go to the options screen, elect to get rid of the largely indistinguishable pictures, and use numbers that are actually legible in their stead. The issue is this: Players should not have to remove one of your gimmicks to make the game playable! An option to remove the picture of your "character" would have been extremely welcome and would have done a great deal to fix the gameplay issues and still allow this title to stand out as an interesting Sudoku variant. Shrinking the enormous "undo" button on the right side of the screen would have offered even more screen real estate, and that is the chief problem with the graphical element of Toon-Doku: overcrowding.
This is not to say that the visual elements are the only problem with this title. While it does feature marginally passable background music on the majority of the levels, the songs range from a peaceful, placid tune that encourages the careful contemplation of the game board to an urgent, driving song that makes it virtually impossible for the player to concentrate on what he is doing. This particular knife is driven further into the gamer's back by the fact that there is a very limited selection of songs, meaning that you will almost constantly hear the same few tunes. Because the songs aren't selectable, you are almost certain to repeatedly hear the song you personally dislike over and over again. Anyone who is unfortunate enough to receive this title as a gift should turn off the volume after the first 10 minutes; by that point, I assure you, you'll have heard all of the audio that there is.
In terms of replayability, Toon-Doku tries to make up for its serious problems with some collectibility. You can collect different items to use as Sudoku pieces by finishing different levels, and there are even unlockable characters for anyone who can stomach this game long enough to open them for play. This is not to say that the different characters will offer any significantly different single-player experiences; only multiplayer action will reveal that these characters are distinctive from each other in any way other than the graphical representation.
Yes, that's right; if you know someone else who was unfortunate enough to receive Toon-Doku, you can engage in a multiplayer game of Sudoku with him or her. Why, you could play as the boy named "Boy," and your friend could play as the girl named "Girl"! (No, I'm not making that up. No, you can't change their names.) That's right, multiplayer Sudoku, where two players race to see who can finish a puzzle the fastest. Players can send over "distractions" to the other player's board, little miniature icons of themselves that conceal numbers, but getting rid of these icons is as easy as dragging them to a spot on the screen and releasing, offering no actual advantage. The simple fact is that Sudoku shares a distinction with activities like solitaire, meditation or clipping your toenails: These are things you are meant to do by yourself. Multiplayer Sudoku is sort of like New Coke; there's nothing wrong with the original, and fiddling with the formula you have only makes it worse.
As a longtime fan of Sudoku, I was sincerely looking forward to this title in hopes that it would introduce me to a new, entertaining way to enjoy one of my favorite time-killers. Toon-Doku fails on all fronts, delivering a painfully unpleasant experience that I would not wish upon anyone without an iron constitution; I grieve for the children who receive this game as a gift from well-meaning parents this holiday season, only to discover that this attempt to make Sudoku "fresh and cool" has utterly spoiled its appeal.