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Joystiq presents

DS Fanboy Review: USA Today Crossword Challenge

Despite the fact that Nintendo's own Crosswords DS will no doubt outsell USA Today Crossword Challenge, due to the "Nintendo" on the front (and the Gamestop-exclusive release of USA Today), Destineer, developer Mercury Games and original engine developer Sanuk Games should feel very lucky that Nintendo released their own crossword game when they did.

It means that, in the DS crossword genre at least, Destineer can claim superiority over Nintendo. It may not have the extra modes that Crosswords DS does, but it is a much more pleasant crossword experience.

USA Today Crossword Challenge is a collection of crossword puzzles from the USA Today newspaper, based on the same Sanuk Games engine used for Mercury's The Sun Crossword Challenge in the UK. It features 300 puzzles in English, which is low compared to its competitors (Crosswords DS and New York Times Crosswords have around a thousand puzzles each). However, USA Today also has 300 Spanish puzzles, which is simply awesome for native and amateur Spanish readers alike. The option to play in English or Spanish was the most admirable feature in Destineer's Homie Rollerz, and it's nice to see the company continuing to offer Spanish-language DS content.

The puzzle display puts the hints on the top screen and the main puzzle view on the bottom. Tapping a square enables you to fill that square, which is done by writing in a small box on the side of the touchscreen. Tapping squares also switches the highlighted line from "across" to "down," which changes the movement of the cursor after finishing a letter. Basic stuff.

Other options on the screen include a "hint" button, which fills in a letter at the expense of clock time, buttons to switch between pencil and pen mode (a puzzle is not considered "complete" until filled in with pen, and words are not judged incorrect when written in pencil), undo and redo, and an eraser. The handiest button on the screen actually swaps out the handwriting input for an onscreen keyboard, which reduces the visible puzzle area onscreen but significantly speeds up gameplay while eliminating handwriting recognition errors (which are less common than in Crosswords DS but still present). You can also switch over to a screen that displays all the clue for the puzzle, with a mark indicating if a particular clue's space has yet to be filled.

The interface does exactly what it needs to do and nothing more. The buttons are small and unobrusive, and even the tiny handwriting input window is more than adequate, which calls into question Nintendo's use of the entire touchscreen for input.

The puzzles are somewhat more difficult than expected from USA Today -- I can generally complete an online USA Today puzzle in between seven and fifteen minutes, but without exception, the DS puzzles I tried took thirty or more, not counting the severe penalties exacted for mistakes and misread inputs. The slower speed of text input relative to typing can account for some of the slowdown, as can the apparent age of some of the archival puzzles. I don't know when these were first devised, but one asked Nancy Reagan's maiden name. Would USA Today expect you to know that off the top of your head? These puzzles are still easier than the infamous New York Times crossword.

I can't help but continually compare this to Crosswords DS. While USA Today may not be revelatory, it is leaps and bounds better than Nintendo's game, for reasons that have more to do with the awkward design of Crosswords DS than anything Sanuk did exceptionally well. For example, when you write a letter in Crosswords DS (handwritten only, of course, because there's no keyboard), it takes about a second for the game to parse the letter, flip over a tile, and then scroll down to the next letter. One second doesn't sound long, but that's one second for each letter in the entire puzzle, after you've written it. USA Today, on the other hand, fills in the letter immediately and moves a cursor over to the next one. No animation, no scrolling, no waiting. It basically feels like the game is staying out of your way.

USA Today Crossword Challenge is a collection of crossword puzzles, and that is all. If you want to play crosswords on the DS, it's a good buy. If you want to play Spanish crosswords on the DS, it's an exceptional buy. If you're looking for some kind of transcendent AAA gaming experience, this isn't it, nor does it try to be. Without being flashy, it does exactly what it sets out to do.

Final score: 7/10

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