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Suddenly Sudoku is everywhere (how many people did you see scribbling numbers into boxes on your last plane flight?). And now it's also on Nintendo's handheld game console, the DS. Sudoku Gridmaster is the first exclusive Sudoku title on the DS, and it's the subject of the third in a series of reviews of promising new titles (see BusinessWeek.com, 7/5/06, "Table Tennis to the Max"). Nintendo gave players a taste of Sudoku on the DS with its earlier Brain Age: Train Your Brain in Minutes a Day, which included a very well-executed and sizeable Sudoku section.

In case you haven't been following along (or you've been stranded on an island for the past several years), Sudoku is the Japanese abbreviation for a longer phrase that means "the digits must remain single." The game consists of a three-by-three grid of boxes, each box itself a three-by-three grid of squares, resulting in a nine-by-nine grid. The player must fill in each row, column, and box with the numbers one through nine, using each number only once. Sounds simple, but there's quite a bit of strategy involved.

SCRAMBLED NUMBERS. For the experienced Sudoku player, the 400-plus puzzles—many of them at advanced levels of difficulty—in Gridmaster should be more than challenging. But the beginner will need to adjust to a pretty steep learning curve. I found even practice-mode puzzles (where incorrect entries are highlighted) to be more difficult than actual "easy" puzzles in Sudoku books. There are a few tutorials, however, making the title a little more accessible to newcomers.

The DS lends itself well to the game. It's easier to input numbers in the touch screen on the DS than, say, using a joystick to navigate a virtual keyboard of a conventional game console or handheld system.

Still, I found the game frustratingly unable to recognize certain figures. To input characters, the player draws numbers in a small area to the right of the Sudoku grid on the bottom screen (there are two). But after 10 minutes of repeatedly drawing a perfectly crafted 5 on the touch screen, only to have an 8 show up on the Sudoku grid, I finally figured out that the screen couldn't recognize a 5 unless I made it in two separate strokes—which was very disappointing to say the least.

Inputing other characters worked better, but was still buggy at times. After learning this early on, I switched over to "Touch" entry mode, which displays a small keypad on-screen rather than a text-entry area, making number-entry flawless but less fun and intuitive.

HELPFUL HIGHLIGHTING. In many key ways, the Sudoku portion of Brain Age trumps Sudoku Gridmaster. Most important, Brain Age has nigh-flawless handwriting recognition. As far as layouts go, Gridmaster displays the same Sudoku grid on both the top and bottom screens of the DS, whereas Brain Age has the whole Sudoku grid on one screen and a zoomed-in view on the other. This intuitive and easy-to-use system makes fair use of the DS's features, while in Gridmaster, you don't ever really need to look at the top screen, making it a wasted display.

Those quibbles aside, some of Gridmaster's extra features are genuinely helpful. On any square in the Sudoku grid, the game lets you highlight the box, row, and column to which that square belongs, allowing you to see what numbers are ineligible for use. You can also double tap any number on the grid to instantly highlight every instance of that number. I found the latter highlighting method the most useful, and necessary, method for ruling out numbers.

The player can pick between three colors of backgrounds and three different tunes for listening during game play. They're nice afterthoughts, I suppose, but not a big deal. None of the three Muzak-sounding songs was that great.

In spite of the drawbacks, Gridmaster still delivers a plethora of Sudoku puzzles, giving fans of the game 70 hours or more of the number-filling puzzles they crave. Completing puzzles quickly gives you more points, allowing you to complete time-limited "rank tests" and—surprise!—unlock even more Sudoku puzzles.

For those interested in playing Sudoku on the go, the choices boil down to scribbling into a cheaper Sudoku book, buying the $20 Gridmaster, or opting for the earlier $20 Brain Age. Given the travails of the entry system, Gridmaster doesn't stack up well next to good old pen and paper—particularly for a gamer who's short on cash. If you really want Sudoku on the DS, I suggest starting with Brain Age. And if that doesn't satisfy your Sudoku urge, Gridmaster is definitely a viable option.


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