'Looks aren't everything' is the sort of wisdom a dutiful mother bestows on her pasty-faced offspring. It might be good for their self-esteem, but it shouldn't give them too much heart when trying to chat up the prettiest totty on the Friday night dance floor.
When it comes to the latest instalment in Nintendo's extraordinarily popular 'Touch! Generations' series though, it's fair to say one of the plainest games ever released on DS demonstrates hidden depths. Picross DS is so devilishly addictive, it could carry a government health warning.
Picross DS takes its inspiration from Nonogram puzzles. Another of those Japanese brain-improving inventions, these present you with a blank grid that you have to fill in to reveal a hidden image.
It works like this: Running along the top and side of the grid are sets of numbers that divulge vital information about how many blocks are contained within each column or row. For example, if a column has '3, 2, 1' at the top, sudoku-like it means it contains a chain of three blocks, a chain of two blocks and a single block, in that order. By cross-referencing the numbers on top of the grid with the numbers on the side, you can logically complete the puzzle.
Still awake? Good.
Now, this might sound as nightmarish as the maths homework you forced the dog to eat, but playing Picross DS brings its pleasures into sharp relief. After a couple of hours you start to become adept at logically confronting the challenges. In the process of completing each grid (which you'll need to do within one hour to gain official completion status), you'll pinpoint that immensely gratifying moment where the cloud of confusion lifts and you begin to successfully piece together more and more of the puzzle.
Once you've worked out what the image is, you can even get funky and start to take a gamble about the remaining blocks to be filled in. In terms of 'feel good gaming', there's little to rival it.
Everyone needs to start small, so you're broken in gently with some simple five by five grids, but before long epic conundrums are thrown in your general direction. These larger puzzles (maxing out at 20 by 20 grids) are so big they don't even fit on the screen, and a zoom function is called into play that grants a complete view of the entire grid.
Unfortunately you can't mark blocks when fully zoomed out, which leads to one of the game's few unfortunate niggles. On some of the grander puzzles, it's easy to get disoriented as you constantly switch viewpoints in an attempt to keep track of your progress. Thankfully, with a little practice and perseverance this problem becomes inconsequential.
The presentation is much better when it comes to the game modes. One of the key ones is Daily Picross, which presents a range of easily manageable challenges doled out in 24-hour doses to give your grey matter a workout. Playing this mode on a regular basis generates the sort of performance chart seen in Dr Kawashima's Brain Training, and eventually leads to rewards such as mildly distracting score-based mini games.
Taking the creativity another step meanwhile, the My Picross mode lets your juices run riot as you can craft your own wicked picture puzzle masterpieces. These can then be inflicted upon friends (or enemies) via wi-fi, either adhoc or using the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection.
And if the stupefying amount of grids contained within the game (300 at the last count) isn't enough, you can also download extras, including classic cuts from previous games in the Picross series. To round things off, there's an excellent multiplayer mode where up to five Picross addicts can compete against each other in a race to beat the clock.
Despite its rather abstract styling and a limited music palette that you'll probably turn off before too long so you can concentrate on the job in hand, overall Picross DS is a highly accomplished piece of DS entertainment. It's not slick or flashy, but as long as you're prepared to make the initial introduction, it will certainly provide long-term companionship.