Picross S brings everyone's low-key favorite puzzle series to everyone's major-key favorite console: the Nintendo Switch. I'm sure I'm not alone in being wholly surprised by the announcement, and its relative quickness in releasing after its reveal. Last Thursday on September 28th, alongside 18(!) other Switch titles (including the adorable sports-RPG Golf Story), Picross S arrived on the console for a measly $7.99.
There's not many ways to spice up the Picross formula. No matter what, players will have a decent sized grid, some numbers, and will do magic in their heads to figure out which squares need to be filled according to said numbers. (Describing this game, itself a shorthand for "Picture Crossword," I've now learned seems impossible.) The first Nintendo Switch version doesn't do much to mix things up, aside from implementing a co-op mode that has also made its way to past entries. And while the latest entry is just as mind-numbingly addictive as its predecessors, it's missing something integral that the 3DS and DS always offered. A touch screen.
The Switch, of course, technically is outfitted with a touch-compatible screen. One game in particular, Voez, is the rare title for the console that only uses the touch screen to tap along to its pop rhythms. Controlling the game with the touch screen is its one and only control option. Whenever I load up Voez, given that it's really the only decent rhythm game on the platform currently, I forget for a mild second that using buttons or even pressing the plus sign to kick things off does nothing. I must tap my way through it, and tap alone.
When I downloaded Picross S on the Switch the night before I flew across the state of California and back, I wondered if it would have touch capabilities. After all, this game was announced and released in under a week; I knew nothing about it, beyond its promise of co-op. For the many 3DS and DS iterations of the bite-sized puzzler, using the dual-screen touch pad with a stylus was part of what made it work so well. It felt meditative, in an odd way, quietly poking at squares to fill them up and craft impractical 8-bit-esque images. There was something soothing about the experience, kind of like Brain Age's singular appeal.
Picross S, while a solid Picross entry with superb puzzles of its own, has none of that directly tangible appeal. Instead, the game is relegated to the directional pad and proper face buttons, like its early virtual days on Nintendo's Game Boy. Picross S still works well as a solid puzzle game, cramming 300 puzzles into the less-than-$8 entry. And yet, I found myself missing poking at a screen with a stylus.
I thought of two possible ways touch screen compatibility would work. In my first scenario, the device could be flipped to be vertical, giving the player dual screens in a similar way that the mobile port of the 3DS game Layton's Mystery Journey functions with technically-two screens. Alternatively, let's call this scenario two, the game can offer touch controls with its usual horizontal viewpoint, making it a toggleable option so that players who prefer the button controls have that option too. (Like in other Picross games.)
Touch controls, at least in my experiences with games, mostly feel gimmicky. In some cases, like with many inventive DS games, rhythm games, and the Etrian Odyssey series (with its map-making feature), using a stylus to control the experience defines how we think about the game. Picross wouldn't have taken off as a niche puzzle series that everyone whispered about loving if it wasn't so easy to just pick up and poke away at. That can be credited to its inherent portability, sure, but it can also count utilizing the stylus in a tantalizing way as helping its almost-cult status too.
In the end, Picross S on the Switch is a nice entry for the beloved series. But without touch controls, I almost feel like I'm not intellectually engaging with the game as much as I have in the past. Maybe it's a silly nitpick, but for me, I miss pecking at the screen and building mathematical images of 8-bit mustaches. I can only hope Picross S-2 brings my favorite poking and prodding back one day.