Puzzles are better on paper

Have intellectual challenges suddenly become sexy?

Earlier this summer, the National Spelling Bee scored good ratings on prime-time TV. Crossword fanatics are the unlikely stars of the new documentary “Wordplay.” Sudoku puzzles have gained a foothold in newspapers and bookstores around the world.

Some video-game publishers have taken notice, offering games that appeal more to our desire to solve puzzles than our itch to blow things up. Nintendo, in particular, has been at the vanguard, creating somewhat of a phenomenon with its “Brain Age,” an addictive mix of rapid-fire math problems, memory tests and sudoku.

I love puzzles, but in all honesty I prefer to solve them with pencil and paper. Video games have to provide something more; otherwise, why would I spend $20 or more on an electronic game when I can get a good puzzle magazine for five bucks? Someday a developer will create a game that requires the perfect combination of wit and reflex, but until then, puzzle games provide a nice change of pace from the usual mayhem.

“Big Brain Academy” (Nintendo, for the Nintendo DS, $19.99): Nintendo’s second “Brain” game takes a more colorful approach than “Brain Age,” adding goofy cartoons and a broader selection of challenges. The new title starts with the preposterous premise that it can measure the size of your brain by testing your skill at puzzle-solving. Fifteen types of problems are divided into five categories: compute, identify, think, memorize and analyze. In the “think” section, for example, you might be shown a group of objects on scales and asked to identify the heaviest, while an “analyze” puzzle may ask you to figure out how many cubes are in a three-dimensional stack. Depending on how well you do in all five categories, “Big Brain” will suggest a suitable career. (I’d make a good diplomat, it turns out.) “Big Brain” may be completely unscientific, but it delivers the kind of entertainment that anyone in the family can enjoy. HHH

“Puzzle Challenge: Crosswords and More!” (Crave, for the PlayStation Portable, $19.99): It may be impossible to translate crossword puzzles to a video-game console. The issue, of course, is that you need a keyboard, and cycling through letters with a joystick takes much too long. “Puzzle Challenge” makes no effort at all to solve the problem, using a clunky interface that requires you to use almost every button on the PSP just to type in a single letter. It might be worth the effort if the puzzles were interesting, but even the most die-hard wordplay addict will be bored by the games here. The crosswords, from the library of British publisher Puzzle.tv, appear to be computer-generated, with bland vocabulary and witless clues. Besides crosswords, “Puzzle Challenge” includes word searches, “kriss krosses” and other variants that don’t demand inputting individual letters, but the puzzles, again, are so drab that you won’t want to solve more than one. H

“Magnetica” (Nintendo, for the Nintendo DS, $34.99): “Magnetica” is a more traditional puzzle game; in fact, it’s an updated version of the 1998 arcade game “Puzz Loop,” which also inspired the popular casual PC game “Zuma.” Whatever the title, the game features a string of marbles moving inexorably toward a target. You have to shoot more marbles at the string; matching three or more of the same color eliminates them. In the basic version of the game, called “Challenge,” you just try to keep the marbles away from the target for as long as possible. In “Quest,” the path of the marbles changes from level to level, while in “Puzzle” mode you have just a limited supply of marbles with which to completely clear each level. The latter two modes include dozens of levels, and the DS touch-screen offers a satisfying new way to play. Still, $35 is a lot to pay for a game that hasn’t changed much in a decade. HH

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