As Nintendo extravagantly celebrates Super Mario Bros.’s 35th birthday, I keep coming back to one thought: But what about the greatest of all the Mario games, Mario Picross?
2020 isn’t only the 35th birthday of Mario’s Super era—and what kind of anniversary is 35 anyway?—but it’s also the 25th anniversary of one of the finest puzzle games ever crafted. A game that, apart from a brief resurgence on its 3DS Virtual Console re-release in 2011, barely gets a nostalgic mention. I want to put that right. It’s time to celebrate Mario Picross’s 25th birthday. Please bring cakes.
I shall admit to having something of a bias. It was via Mario Picross that I discovered the nonogram puzzle itself, so my view of this 1995 Game Boy game is perhaps somewhat skewed by its introducing me to what is almost certainly one of the finest logic puzzles ever conceived. There’s a square grid, with numbers above and to the left of all the rows and columns. With this information, you shade in or cross out cells, and if successful a little pixel picture appears.
There’s no doubt that when I fondly remember MP, I’m crediting it with the entire conceit. But hey, you’re doing that with Super Mario and platform gaming, so there. But this is not to take away too much, because Mario Picross is a pretty damned fine rendition of a puzzle that’s proved tricky to present well.
It was created by Jupiter, the developer that continues all these decades on to put out absolutely fantastic nonogram games, most recently the four editions of Picross S for the Switch, as well as all nine volumes of Picross e for the 3DS. And indeed it was they who developed the break-out success of Picross DS, that finally had Western audiences accept the puzzle format in a way that had never worked before. (Which I’ve always found bizarre, since Picross DS was the only duffer they ever created, with its ridiculous unwieldy interface.) Because, goodness gracious me, Mario Picross was a complete flop in the English-speaking world.
Don’t blame me. I didn’t even have a Game Boy. I arrived late, when I played the game on... er... there was some weird glitch with my DS, and for some reason it started playing Game Boy games. Let’s not dwell. Anyway, it was love at first click.
I love so many things about Mario Picross. I love that it has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with Mario, but for his head sporting an archaeologist’s hat appearing in the top left corner. You’d think it’d be all Mario-themed puzzles, but no! Instead they’re the next thing I love: completely banal objects. “Buildings”! “Mud”! “Bicycle”! Most couldn’t be less Mario-related, albeit with the odd inclusion like Bullet Bill or a Goomba, and the whole thing is so utterly incongruous as to be a delight. Mario’s an archaeologist, and he’s chiselling away at these stones, to carve out patterns depicting... modern-day everyday objects? Love it.
I also really enjoy that there’s a time limit. That might sound odd, for a genteel logic puzzle, but here the time limit is enormous, a full 30 minutes to solve a challenge that shouldn’t ever take more then 10 or 15 at most. But the catch is, every time you chisel an incorrect tile, two minutes is deducted from that total. Which stops you just randomly chipping away, and gives you that “oof” feeling that is all-too-often missing from such games.
There’s more love available for the 1996 sequel, rather oddly just called Picross 2 (ピクロス2), despite featuring not only Mario, but Wario too! The original MP has an impressive 250 puzzles, but P2 somehow crammed 850 of them onto a GB cartridge! And in Wario’s levels, there were no hints, and it didn’t tell you when you’d made a mistake. Because Wario’s like that, isn’t he? Always making your logic puzzles slightly trickier, the scoundrel. You can remove the time limits from his levels, but do so and you’ll miss out on one in ten of them. That Wario!
I must confess, I’ve never played the more colorful Mario’s Super Picross, also released in 1995, only on the Super Famicom. But it was very much the same, including Wario’s impish ways, and nearly all of the puzzles having the nothing to do with the Mario franchise. But somehow featuring Marilyn Monroe, the Grim Reaper, and an “Exercising Rabbit”. But I want to. I even bought it for the Wii Virtual Console when it re-appeared there for its Western exclusive, but then I guess I was distracted by a bee.
Sadly, none seems to have been remembered since Nintendo’s briefly nostalgic period in the early 2010s. There’s no sign of any of them getting a well deserved Switch release, despite their quarter-centennial anniversary. Ooooooh no, it’s all jumpy up-and-downy Mario, even though 35th isn’t even a thing. You know what a 35th anniversary gift is? It’s coral. CORAL. Sea rocks. 25 is silver, goddammit.
It is of course possible to play all of the games through emulation, so long as you travel back in time and purchase the original cartridges while on a holiday to Japan you never went on. That done, you’re dubiously good to legally go. And it’s well worth it, because while Jupiter continues to produce absolutely stunning picross games on every format Nintendo thinks up, there’s something really special about these originals. They’re charming in their simplicity, but simplicity is key when delivering nonograms right. (And more usefully, if you’ve a picross craving, then the only decent version ever made for a PC is 2017's splendid Pictopix, that is still getting free updates three years on.)