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Review: New Puzzle Games for Nintendo DS Mostly Fall Short

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A screen shot from 'CrossworDS,' which features more than 1,000 crosswords for portable gaming. (Nintendo)

School's out, the pool's open and in much of the country it's already too hot to think.

Unfortunately, most of us have kids or parents or spouses who insist on dragging us out under the unforgiving sun. And if you have to go outside, you might as well bring your brain with you — along with some games that will help keep the old brain cells from melting.

"Brain games" have been a big part of the Nintendo DS lineup since 2006's innovative "Brain Age."

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A lot of publishers have hopped aboard the brain-training bandwagon, but few of their games have had any staying power.

Instead, I find that I keep going back to games built around specific puzzles, such as Majesco's "The New York Times Crosswords" and Ubisoft's "Platinum Sudoku."

I was hoping to replace those old favorites with some of the games reviewed here, but none of the new releases is quite as addictive.

You're probably better off buying a puzzle book and a box of pencils.

— "Crosswords DS" (Nintendo, $19.99): Nintendo has brought some great brainteasers, like "Sudoku Gridmaster" and "Picross DS," to its portable system, so I had high hopes for its crossword game.

It looks great, with a nice, clean interface that makes it easy to fill in those little white squares. And the handwriting recognition is decent, with a few quirks (like reading a capital "I" as an "L") that you can adapt to.

Experienced solvers, however, will find it infuriating that they can't tackle harder puzzles right off the bat; instead, you have to solve 100 (!) medium puzzles first.

Few players will make it that far, because the puzzles themselves are just awful, violating every rule of crossword design.

They appear to be computer-generated, which means they're flat-out dull, with none of the clever themes or witty wordplay you'd expect from a contemporary puzzle.

Here's just one example of the ridiculous clues: "Halloween —-tume" for COS.

"Crosswords DS" could have been great if Nintendo had just hired one professional puzzle editor to work on the grids and clues.

Instead, it's a fiasco, falling far below the high standards of Nintendo's other "Touch Generations" releases.

One-half star out of four.

—"USA Today Crossword Challenge" (Destineer, $19.99): USA Today may not have the best crosswords in the United States — The New York Times and The New York Sun far outclass it — but it does serve up a solid, if somewhat bland, brain teaser every weekday.

This package assembles 300 puzzles from "The Nation's Newspaper," and they're far more satisfying than those in "Crosswords DS."

The interface, however, isn't nearly as elegant, crammed with a bunch of unlabeled buttons whose uses remain mysterious.

The handwriting recognition is awfully quirky, but you do have the option to call up an onscreen keyboard that makes entering letters a lot faster.

Since an entire daily-size puzzle won't fit on one screen, you need to use the stylus to slide the grid around.

Such a seemingly simple process becomes needlessly frustrating, since the game seems to have trouble recognizing the sliding motion.

"Crossword Challenge" is sloppily programmed, but the core puzzles are solid enough to satisfy most solvers.

Two stars.

—"Brain Voyage" (Eidos, $19.99): This trip around the world is a diverting anthology of 16 puzzle genres.

Some are adaptations of popular board games like Yahtzee and Battleship. Some test your memory and logic skills. There are mazes to explore and math problems to solve.

"Brain Voyage" was designed by Reiner Knizia, the legendary German board game designer who also created the Xbox Live game "Lost Cities." (An animated Knizia serves as tour guide, and he's, frankly, a little creepy.)

The biggest disappointment here is the lack of any truly original challenges; most puzzle fans will recognize most of the games.

Still, there are only a few duds, like a level where you have to count fish. Most of the puzzles are more challenging, and "Brain Voyage" motivates you to keep getting better scores.

The graphics are unobtrusive and the controls are tight, so you only have yourself to blame if you can't conquer a particular test.

Two-and-a-half stars.