Zendoku takes the classic pattern-matching game of Sudoku and really kicks it up a notch. Just to give you some background, here’s a little information about Sudoku. Sudoku has spawned quite a number of variations, but the central game is essentially the same. There is a grid of nine squares, each made up of nine smaller squares, giving you a 9x9 grid. Within each smaller 3x3 square, you place one of each of the numbers one through nine. In addition, each column gets only one of each number, and each row gets only one of each number. To start you out, there will be some quantity of squares already filled in. Easier games will have more squares filled in to begin with. You use logic to fill in the rest of the grid. Sometimes, you’ll have letter or pictures instead of numbers, but it’s the same game. I’ve also seen children’s versions that have 2x2 squares within a 4x4 grid and use cartoon pictures instead of numbers.
Zendoku offers a few different modes of play. Classic Sudoku is the game you would expect. There is an explanation of the rules, and you can turn the music and hints on or off. You can choose to play a timed game (you’re given a set amount of time to finish the game, and you earn a score and bonus points as you progress) or a classic game that is not timed (except that it does keep track of how long it takes you to finish). Each of these options has the same five levels of difficulty: Easy, Normal, Hard, Expert and Master. While I enjoy Sudoku and have been doing the pencil and paper version for some time, I have not been successful past Easy mode in Zendoku. I think the hardest thing for me is that there’s no mechanism in place to let you enter maybes into a square. In a hard-copy game, if I’ve narrowed a square down to one or two numbers, I’ll pencil in both and then work the puzzle from there. This simply isn’t possible on the DS — and I refuse to get out a pencil and paper to make notes. To me, that defeats the whole point of playing on a handheld game. If I wanted to use a pencil, I’d buy one of the million or so Sudoku books in print.
The real aim of Zendoku, however, isn’t playing your classic pen and paper Sudoku with a stylus. Zendoku is a fighting game. And how does one do that, short of smacking someone else with your DS or poking them with the stylus? In Zendoku, you choose from a stable of eight initial characters (and you can unlock seven more characters through gameplay). Each character has a favorite fighting style and a lucky character. Once you choose your character, there is a bit of background story leading you to your Zendoku match. You and your opponent share one Sudoku grid. You’ll be using pictures instead of numbers in this version. Each character has his (or her) own lucky picture. You’ll place pieces into the grid as quickly as possible while your opponent tries to do the same. Fill in an entire row, column or grid, or place all nine of a given character, and you launch a special attack at your opponent. Each successful play by you lowers their health (and potentially stuns them), but they are right back at you. If they stun you, it drops you into a mini-game. You’ll need to block attacks with the stylus, break little bricks, clear coins from the screen, blow away mice or blow out candles, for example, to remove the stun and return to the game. I found it pretty funny to be fighting Lorraine the French fencer. She talks about wanting to finish you off so she can go shopping, and if she stuns you, she lobs croissants that you have to block with the stylus.
After you’ve chosen your character, you proceed to the main Zendoku screen. You can see the rules of the Dojo, do the Quest, practice attack and defense using the Attack Box, control music and hint options, start a multiplayer game (if another Zendoku player is in wireless mode nearby and doing the same thing) or try Zen mode. Zen mode is much like Classic Sudoku. The differences are that you’re using the characters instead of the numbers, and if you make a match with your lucky symbol, you get a special effect. Musashi has a lucky sword. Making a combo with a sword caused the timer to freeze in its countdown.
Never fear — you can practice the special mini-games ahead of time using the Attack Box mode. These games can be truly brutal on either lungs or forearm. The blowing game has you blow out a series of candles (to start with) using the microphone. I was lightheaded by the time I got through the 10 challenges. There are also challenges for turning wheels, breaking progressively harder series of bricks and unrolling a series of scrolls, to name a few. You definitely aren’t going to want to do too many of these at one sitting. They can start out tough enough, and it just gets harder.
Given how fast and furious the Zendoku battles get as you progress through the game, I’m glad there’s kind of a little hint mode. If you’ve mentally narrowed it down to one or two spots where one of the pieces might go, go ahead and place it there. If you guessed wrong, the piece will be outlined in yellow. If you guessed right, it’ll look fine. I think you may take a small hit point penalty for guessing wrong, but I’m usually too busy at that point to check my health bar all that closely.
Yes, the whole idea of combat Sudoku is kind of silly, but I’m having a lot of fun playing — both wild and wacky Zendoku, as well as the more traditional Sudoku. I may have trouble with the more difficult game levels, but that gives me a goal to work toward. If you like Sudoku in its various forms, and you’d like to give it a try with a lightening-paced twist, I highly recommend Zendoku.