Saturday, April 29, 2006


Name: Cubrius
Author: Digital Seed Entertainment
License: Commercial

I download and try a lot of games. I can usually tell pretty quickly about a game. I recently decided to give Cubrius a spin and got a surprise. Five minutes in, my thoughts were "seen it, done it, easy, nothing new." Then I hit Training Level 1 and was thrown for a loop. This turns out to be one demandingly difficult game with some very interesting puzzles.

Cubrius is a curious combination of Rings of the Magi and sokoban. Your goal is to remove all of the cubes. As in Rings of the Magi, when similarly colored cubes are pushed next to each other, they are eliminated. Unlike Rings of the Magi, you cannot push any cube you want. Like sokoban, you can only push cubes which your character has access to. In order to make certain moves, you may have to open areas up with careful planning.

Cubrius also adds some interesting twists. There are anchor cubes which cannot be moved. Puzzle cubes can only be eliminated by moving them next to another puzzle cube of the same color. After a pet cube gets eliminated, any later pushes of a cube of that color eliminates the cube. This can both help and hurt. Finally, joker cubes destroy cubes of their color and other joker cubes of any color.

There is a free flash version of Cubrius which contains two stage packs and 33 levels. Then there is a downloadable version which you can purchase. It contains two additional stage packs and 30 levels. I am guessing more stage packs are in the works.

The good: nice graphics, nice audio, no bugs, and some really tough puzzles. The bad: only 30 additional levels in the purchased version, no level editor, slightly confusing menus (hint: use the space bar), and in each stage pack you have to complete level i to access level i+1. Given the difficulty of the puzzles, this last one really hurts Cubrius. Reading some forums, I am sure it has cost them sales. When will game designers learn?

The really interesting question about Cubrius is why are the puzzles so hard? Actually, why are they so hard for humans? I do not have a good answer. I am willing to bet that solving Cubrius puzzles is NP-complete. However, I wrote a quick and dirty program to get solve Cubrius levels and found that the search space is quite small. Hmm???

The more practical question is whether you should buy this game? First play through the two stage packs which come with the flash version. Then decide if 30 levels are worth $17 to you. Or wait to see if more stage packs are in the wings.

Friday, April 21, 2006


Name: Rocks'n'Diamonds
Author: Artsoft Entertainment
License: GNU Public License

While I am not a huge fan of BoulderDash like games, I do admire Rocks'n'Diamonds a great deal. It is the ultimate BoulderDash collection and a surprisingly flexible game engine. What I like most about it is its large fan base. Using the level editor, Rocks'n'Diamonds fans have created some very interesting levels.

In traditional BoulderDash, you control Rockford. Why do these sort of games always name the little sprite? You have to run Rockford around and gather enough gems (emeralds, diamonds, and crystals) and then make your way to an exit in order to complete a level. To gain access to the gems, you may have to gather and use keys or find some dynamite to blow up walls. All the while, you have to avoid clearing the ground from underneath a boulder and having it fall on your head. On many levels, there are also monsters which can kill you.

Rocks'n'Diamonds implements traditional BoulderDash perfectly. It comes with two tutorial level sets containing a combined 66 levels which introduce the many game elements: acid, amoeba, balloons, butterflies, bombs, etc. There are a total of 184 items listed in the docs\elements directory. Then there are 4 levels sets included in the default download containing a total of 363 levels. These include the original BoulderDash levels. Then there are level sets containing levels from the BoulderDash clones Emerald Mine and Supaplex. Finally, there is a level set containing Sokoban levels. I do not know how closely these level sets match those in the corresponding original games, but they form a fine challenge. I personally liked the Supaplex levels the best.

There is much about Rocks'n'Diamonds which I do not like. You can cut and paste all of the complaints I made about SubTerra here. Many levels require frantic finger work and careful timing. This just is not my thing. Next, there are way too many game elements. Keeping track of how they interact is difficult. And, on many levels, you cannot see the entire board at once. This means that there is often a bit of exploring to do, and you have to repeat a level sometimes when you realize you missed something.

Despite all of these complaints, you should play Rocks'n'Diamonds because of the flexibility of the game's engine and the creativity of the level designers out there. There are more than 10,000 user-made levels. There is also alternative audio and artwork available. You can start by going to Artsoft's download page. If that is not enough, more levels are available at Zomis Productions. They group levels by category and allows users to rate levels allowing you to find good levels which suit your tastes. New levels are posted almost every week.

There are some really odd levels out there. The one shown above is an implementation of mastermind! Another level allows you to play the old arcade game defender. This is what amazes me about Rocks'n'Diamonds. These sort of levels show incredible creativity. I have really enjoyed going through the odd levels.

I have one last thing. The menus are a little confusing, but be sure to run through all of the options. You can turn off of the time limit and give yourself access to any level. I would suggest against using fullscreen mode. It does not do well when you minimize and restore when in fullscreen mode.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Japanese Puzzles

When I have a few minutes to kill, I often turn to what are loosely called Japanese Puzzles. This week, I am going to share some of my favorites. I hope there is something new on this list for you. Most of my links are to freeware sites. I want to thank the authors and programmers of these sites for the time and energy they have put into creating and maintaining their websites and programs.


Sudoku is currently the in thing in the United States. Despite having been in Dell Magazine for years, sudoku's popularity took off in the last year. I guess people found Japanese name exotic or something. All you have to do is fill in the 9x9 grid with the numbers 1 to 9 such that no number appears twice in any row, column, or 3x3 subregion. There are a ton of sites and programs available for sudoku fanatics. The one I like best is a freeware program written by Angus Johnson called Simple Sudoku. It generates random sudoku puzzles. There are five levels of difficulty. The interface is simple and clean. Plus, it is free. I cannot imagine a better a sudoku program.

Actually, the sudoku fad is starting to fade right now. The next big thing is kakuro. They have also been around forever under the name cross sums. I have not found a great freeware kakuro program. Yoogi Games has a freeware program with 30 puzzles, but I do not like the interface. There are several commercial programs such as Kakuro Master and Kakuro Cross Sums. Unless you crazy about kakuro, they probably are not worth the cost.


Slitherlinks are my personal favorite among the puzzle types I am mentioning today. Here you have to find a closed loop about the given grid in such a way the number of edges adjacent to each numbered squares equals the number displayed within the square. These can get pretty challenging, and I get a great deal of pleasure out of solving them. has a collection of 300 slitherlink puzzles for you to play in your browser using java.

If this is not enough, has 35 more. The site also contains many other puzzle categories. I also really like bridges or what they call Hashi. Finally, there is a flash based game called Express Maze which is somewhat similar to slitherlink.


Nonograms also go by the names paint by numbers and griddlers. Some people use the term "Japanese Puzzles" to refer only to nonograms. Given that nonograms seem to have actually originated in Japan unlike sudoku, I guess that is fair. In a nonogram, the numbers on the top and left give the run length of the black and white segments in that row or column. Vadim Teriokin has a site with 265 nonograms for us to play. Andries Brouwer also has a site 237 nonograms.

Neither has a perfect interface. Japon Cross is a freeware program which allows you make and play nonograms. It looks very good, but I have not played it enough to give it my full recommendation. There are many commercial nanogram games. The best is probably Griddlers Deluxe.

Friday, April 07, 2006


Name: Hex-a-hop
Author: Tom Beaumont
License: Freeware

I have one word to describe Hex-a-hop: game-lock. I have not experienced game-lock recently, but Hex-a-hop did it to me. It felt so good. This is a nearly perfect logic game. It has simple rules and wonderful, tricky, ingenious levels. The presentation is flawless. I cannot say enough good things about this game. You should stop reading this right now, download Hex-a-hop, and start playing.

For some reason you are still reading. I don't understand, but so be it. Hex-a-hop is played on a hexagon grid. The objective of each level is to eliminate the green tiles. You control the little girl and direct her about the grid. Each green tile can only be walked on once. As you step off a green tile, it disappears. You have to choose your path wisely so as to avoid being trapped, because you cannot walk on water.

As you progress through the levels, new tile types and power ups are introduced which yield some really interesting puzzles. The light blue tiles, of which there are none in the screen shot, can be walked on twice. The first time you step off one, it becomes a green tile and then has to be walked on again in order to complete the level. The purple trampoline tiles bounce you over the next tile or water, and you land the tile two away. Walking a red spinner tile causes the six neighboring tiles to rotate clockwise about you. Stepping on a yellow tiles causes a laser to fire in the direction you just stepped. With a couple of exceptions, this destroys the next tile. There are ice tiles which you slide on until you hit a tile or slide off into the water. There are a few more things which you will discover as you play the game.

There are also raised tiles, both green and light blue. You cannot climb up onto raised tiles. However, when you eliminate all of the regular tiles of either color, the raise tiles of that color lower. You then have access to them. You have to plan just right so that you are in the correct place to eliminate these new green tiles. Another way to gain access to raised tiles is via dark blue elevator tiles.

There are 100 levels. As you complete levels, neighboring levels on the map screen become available. Most of the time, several levels are available. The unfinished levels are denoted by a black ball on the map screen. If you are stuck on one level, you can work on the others and come back to that tricky one later. This is a good design choice and gives the game a sense of exploration as you work through the levels, unlock new areas, and are introduced to new tile types without ever feeling that you are stuck. The quality and pacing of the levels is excellent. The level design, the heart of any puzzle game, is as good as it gets. I had many a-ha moments playing Hex-a-hop.

Just when you think you understand the game, Hex-a-hop throws in a new wrinkle. After completing 75 levels, you are told your score on the levels you have completed along with the par score for those levels. Your score is essentially the number of steps you have taken. Levels for which you have matched the par score appear in gold on map screen. When you have completed a level, but did not match the par score, it appears as a silver ball. Now the hard core Hex-a-hoppers have a new challenge: make par on every level and turn all those silver balls gold.

A sure way to tell that a game is good is look at the fan reaction. There is an active forum at Caravel Gams. This is a good place for hints. And one fan has created a web site where you can upload your save game file and see how you rate against the world. There are a couple of levels where fans have done better than the Hex-a-hops par score.

There are a few minor flaws in Hex-a-hop. Actually, these are not flaws, just parts of the game which are not perfect. One is that raised tiles partially obscure tiles behind them. Occasionally, this caused me to misclick. However, Hex-a-hop remembers your last eight or so moves. With right mouse clicks, you can undo any such mistakes. The ability to undo moves so easily is an obvious but brilliant design choice. Next, some of the rules are a little unclear. The effect of a laser on ice is one example. It does not destroy the ice because light goes through ice. Instead, the laser is split into two, 120 degrees to the left and the right. You have to learn how the various tiles interact. Another minor flaw is that the game does not have any audio. This did not bother me in the least, but it might be a negative to some. Lastly, there is no level editor. Looking at the levels.dat file with a hex editor, it does not look difficult to decipher. On the other hand, I am not sure anyone could make better levels.

There are several similar games to Hex-a-hop. Although, none is nearly as good. Here are four. All of them are played on a rectangular grid. I previously reviewed MASRDBE. Pozzo is a fun game. Although some of the later levels require some careful timing. Using Macromedia Flash, you can play Pyramids of Ra in Iso in your browser. Tilox is another web based game. It adds in jumps.