Sudoku is the Rubik's cube for the new millennium. Everyone and their sister seem to be on the bus with a Sudoku puzzle in hand these days. Is it a fad, or is it here to stay? I don't know, but I can say without a doubt that until the Sudoku money well dries up, there will be publishers competing for your Sudoku buck. Eidos' Zendoku is definitely one of the cleverer and more inspired takes on the game to come down the pike.
I need to get this off my chest right now. Before popping this cart into my DS, I had never done a single Sudoku puzzle in my life. I've seen people do it, I understand the rules (numbers 1-9 have to appear once and only once in each column, row, and 3 X 3 square), but I never got around to devoting myself to one. So my first step before trying the kooky quest mode in the game was to play the game's Classic Sudoku mode. Right when the cart boots up, you're given the choice between Zendoku and Classic Sudoku. After completing my first easy puzzle in fourteen minutes, I definitely began to see the appeal of the game. Sudoku is easy to learn, yet difficult to master. It's a good way to keep your problem solving skills sharp, and make you feel like you're good at math, even if minimal mathematical skill is actually required.
The controls are streamlined and extremely easy to use. Unlike Brain Age, which relies on handwriting recognition, Zendoku takes the more practical approach of having all the available numbers located on the sides of the board. Simply tap the number you want, and then tap the square you want to enter it in. It's easy as pie, and impossible to screw up.
Once I got my Sudoku feet wet, it was time to try the quest mode. The quest mode is essentially Sudoku with a goofy anime coat of paint. Instead of placing numbers in a 9 X 9 grid, you're placing 9 different symbols such as a Yin-Yang, a sumo wrestler, a sword, and so on. There's no option to swap the symbols with numbers which may turn some Sudoku purists off.
After selecting a character with differing martial arts styles, you go off in a tournament bracket against other warriors much like you would in a fighting game. You're not actually racing the CPU to solve a puzzle, but rather, you're trying to solve your own puzzle while the CPU launches attacks at you which distract you from the game board. Without notice, you may be asked to unroll some parchment, blow out candles by blowing into the microphone, or blocking attacks by tapping the screen with the stylus. The farther you go, the faster and more frequent these attacks become, adding a sense of urgency to the usually placid Sudoku experience. The CPU's health is determined by your speed and effectiveness at solving the puzzle. Your health drops whenever you place the wrong symbol in the wrong part of the grid, if you take too long in solving the puzzle, or fending off CPU attacks.
The game has a goofy sense of humor to it, and is always flaunting it at the player. All the characters have different quests that they are trying to complete, and apparently pseudo-Sudoku is how they intend to accomplish them. Each character is of a different fighting discipline, my favourite of which is the Samurai Musashi. Before each battle begins, the characters engage in a short dialogue in which they trash talk each other, trying to extol the virtues of their chosen fighting style over their opponents'. It's silly, and yet strangely appealing in that b-level anime sort of way.
The game features a few other modes like Practice, Zen (A timed version of the symbol-based Zendoku), Attack Box (Which has you practicing fending off the various CPU attacks), and multiplayer. The game supports both single and multi-card modes, but there's no online play to speak of. Multiplayer essentially plays the same as the single player quest mode, with each player sending off attacks every time a row, column, or grid is completed.
The game is as visually and acoustically appealing as Sudoku can be. The game is colourful, full of personality, and the grid is large and easy to read. Where you expecting anything else? The music is standard, soothing Japanese instrumentals that I eschewed in favour of my iPod.
If you don't like Sudoku, first; why did you read this far down? Secondly, this game won't change your opinion of Sudoku one way or another. If you're looking for a cheesy alternative to the pen and paper version, Zendoku isn't a bad way to go at all. I personally prefer the touch screen over the pen and paper version. If you're jonesing for some goofy Sudoku action for your DS, you've definitely come to the right place. Zendoku has made me a believer in the power of Sudoku, and you can count me among the millions who now enjoy a quick Sudoku puzzle on their commute to work. Odds are Zendoku will do the same for you, crazy fad or not.