Review: Wordmaster (Nintendo DS)

Wordmaster
Genre: Word Puzzle
Developer: Sarbakan
Publisher: ZOO Games
Release Date: 08/12/08


So, sometime in 1970, a man by the name of Mordecai Mierowitz invented the boardgame Mastermind, which was itself based off of similar games that, until then, had been played with a pencil and paper. The gist of the idea was that one player was given a shielded area in which they could place four colored pegs, called a code, and the other player had to decode the code in a limited number of guesses. The player trying to decode the code is given the indication of whether or not they have placed a peg correctly or placed a peg of the right color in an incorrect position, but not WHICH pegs they have correctly placed, making the game a series of logical deductions to determine a correct answer, with the limitations of how many guesses may be made resting only upon the players participating in the game. It’s a pretty neat board game that has stood the test of time and still remains a whole lot of fun to play, even nearly forty years later.

So someone thought this was a neat idea for a word game, and so was born Wordmaster. Taking the basic of idea of Mastermind and combining it with the concepts behind something like Wheel of Fortune, the idea is meant to be an experience that test both your logical deduction skills and your knowledge of words. In theory, the idea sounds pretty awesome and could easily be something that would interest the sort of person who might enjoy such a thing, but in practice, the actual experience doesn’t quite match up with the expectation.

There are four basic gameplay options in Wordmaster: Wordmaster, Practice, Anagram, and Time. Wordmaster itself is the major selling point of the product, and works as noted above, while allowing you to play through various difficulty levels in attempt to clear a series of words per level, essentially. Practice lets you play a set difficulty level of the Wordmaster mode, as a way of allowing you to practice more complex difficulties at your leisure. Anagram presents you with a scrambled word, with the idea being that you’re expected to decode said word in only a set amount of guesses. Time mode presents you with several words which are missing one or more letters and asks you to fill in the missing letters to complete the words (though it is locked by default, and requires you to play through Wordmaster mode up to, well, Wordmaster difficulty). You’re also offered basic game instructions from the main menu, and the game allows up to three profiles to be saved at any time in case you want to share the game with others. Each of the four main game modes draws from the same pool of words, by all indications, but the pool of words seems to be rather large, as no words noticeably repeated across numerous game sessions.

Visually, you’re staring at a bald Asian man and a scroll of blank and filled letter spaces. That’s it. It looks okay and has a cute artistic style about it, and the little flashes when words and letters are submitted are cute and such, but the overall game is the exact same thing with some mild color variations with little to no changes otherwise. The visuals are clean and uncluttered, and the artistic style is nice, but there’s not really a lot to it. Aurally, the experience is much the same; you’re given a few different Asian-themed musical tracks to listen to while you play the game, and there are various sound effects used to indicate if a letter is correct or incorrect, but otherwise, the audio experience is very minimalist, and you can turn the sound off and not really miss it in any case.

Regardless of what mode you choose to play in Wordmaster, every mode in the game is mechanically similar in how they are played: the DS is held on its side, like a book, with the touch screen on the right and the top screen on the left. You use the right screen to either draw a letter in a sandbox or pick your chosen letter from the displayed list, both of which work well and are easy to use. In most modes, you can use the arrow buttons on the right screen to switch between placed letters on the left, and if you have drawn a letter wrong or made a drawing mistake, you can use the rake icon to erase what you’ve drawn and start over. In most modes you will also be offered a “submit” button to accept the letters you have chosen when you have fulfilled the requirements to do so (IE you’re written out every letter you can on the left screen). Basically, actually playing the game is simple, easy to understand, and works well enough, no matter the chosen mode. Each mode, however, has its own different rules that makes it worth playing, so let’s address those separately:

– Wordmaster mode sees you going through five different difficulty settings, from Novice to Wordmaster, in a series of stages. Each stage requires you to complete five words in it to move on to the next stage, and if you fail a word, it’s Game Over. Each difficulty changes the amount of guesses you have at the word (9 for Novice, 8 for Apprentice, 7 for Adept, 6 for Master, 5 for Word Master), as well as the difficulty of the words presented, and after each stage, you’re offered a bonus round, where you’re presented mostly filled in words and have to fill in the missing letters. Each bonus round features nine words, each with one or more letters missing, depending on the difficulty. Your score across this mode depends on how many guesses it takes you to solve a word, though each word also comes along with a clue to help you in solving it, to a point.

– Practice mode is an extension of Wordmaster mode, only you can play the same difficulty consistently as long as you wish. This allows you to play, say, Wordmaster difficulty to try and appropriately determine what words might be coming at you when playing the Wordmaster mode, or might allow you to pick a difficulty level you feel comfortable playing and just fool around with it as you see fit, though no scores are retained from doing this and it’s really just here for your own amusement.

– Time mode is essentially the bonus game from Wordmaster mode as its own gameplay option; you’re given five difficulty levels and five stages per level, and you have to fill in missing letters in words to complete the scroll. You’re timed for each set of words, and incorrect guesses reduce the time you have to complete the remaining words (sort of a penalty for incorrect guesses), while correct words add to your score. Higher difficulties present both more obscure words and more missing letters in the words themselves, IE one per word in Novice, two in some words in Apprentice, two in more words in Adept, etc. As one might expect, there is no bonus round in Time mode.

– Anagram mode presents you with a jumbled word, a clue as to what the word might be, and three guesses as to the correct order of the letters. While Wordmaster and Practice give you an indication of what letters are placed correctly, Anagram does not, meaning you have to figure out the word all on your own. Other than an increase in the obscurity of the words provided, there’s no noticeable difference from one difficulty level to the next, and while the rounds are presented similarly to other modes (five difficulties, five rounds), there’s also no bonus round to Anagram mode.

You’re also given a chart to track your performance from one game to the next, though only Time, Anagram and Wordmaster games affect this chart, as it measures your score from one game to the next, so Practice does not count on it. You can also unlock various trophies for accomplishing various things, like making it to certain difficulty levels in the game modes or attaining a certain amount of points in a game mode or what have you, if this interests you at all.

That said, there is one cardinal flaw with Wordmaster that makes it far less exciting than it might seem, and that’s the fact that the game is really only entertaining if you have a virtually encyclopedic knowledge of six-letter words (and pluralized five-letter words), because anything beyond Adept difficulty in ANY mode will throw some of the most obscure words in existence at you with some of the most RANDOM clues imaginable associated with them, to the point that you’d have to be some sort of world scholar with a huge knowledge of both intellectually stimulating and hideously banal trivia in order to be successful. For instance: in early sections of the game modes, the game will throw clues at you like “Girl’s names”, with a solution of “Martha”, or a clue of “Bedtime” and a solution of “Pillow”. This is fine. Later you’ll see “Education” with a solution of “Papers”, or “Occupation” with a solution of “Cooper”, which is confusing, but still manageable to a point. But then you start being handed “Comparative” and “Wilder”, or “Superlative” and “Safest”, or “Construction” and “Drains”, or “Oil and Mining” and “Mining” (no, seriously), and you begin to maybe wonder what the developers were thinking here, as the former and the latter either do not go together in any sort of rational way that the average person might consider, or they’re so blatantly obvious that one wouldn’t POSSIBLY think the answer is what it is.

And then you get “Famous Author” and “Balzac”, or “Exotic Language” and “Magahi”, or “God/Deity” and “Renpet”, or “Baseball” and “Kaline”, or “Famous Actor” and “Culkin” (has he done ANYTHING of note in the past decade, I mean really?), and you seriously stop and wonder exactly who this game is being marketed to. Jeopardy is less of a pain to understand than this.

Now, this might not be a huge deal to some folks; hey, you can still kinda make guesses at the words, sure, and you can muddle your way through for a while, especially if you know all sorts of obscure trivia, but then there are other, smaller problems that make the game annoying in its own right. The game doesn’t seem to know as many words as one might expect, for one; it knows “Kelvin”, but not “Melvin”, for instance, when the former is generally more obvious to the average person than the latter. The six-letter setup for all of the game modes is also rather limiting, seeing as how many of the puzzle solutions are plural words; a setup where there could be variable letters (say, somewhere between three and seven) would have served the experience better and made it less uncomfortable than it presently is. Anagram mode also seems fairly pointless, as the game gives you no assistance for incorrect solutions, but there’s no timer either, meaning there’s no reason to guess until you’re absolutely certain, removing any challenge from the mode unless one is absolutely stumped at what the word could possibly be (which, with the clues provided, is likely). There’s also no left-hand support, meaning that if you are left-handed, you’ll either have to play with your right hand or you’ll have to have your hand over the left screen the entire time you play (and laugh all you want at that complaint, but speaking as someone with a left-handed friend, this is a completely serious complaint and seriously hurts the game, I’m sorry).

All told, Wordmaster isn’t a bad game so much as it is a neat concept for a game that doesn’t work as well as it could. The core concept is neat, the execution works to a point, and the game is easy to play and simple enough to be useful as a quick time-waster, especially if you have the trivia knowledge such a game demands. But between awkward, unhelpful clues and bizarre word choices in later difficulty levels, a strict adherence to a six-letter format that still omits certain words for some odd reason, the fact that of four game modes one isn’t exceptionally challenging compared to its peers and another is, at most, a diversion, and the fact that the game is going to cheese off left-handed people, and Wordmaster really ends up not being a game for everyone, even with its bargain price. Some more options and flexibility would have made this a desirable purchase for crossword puzzle or word game fans, but as it’s designed now, they’re about the ONLY people who will play this more than an hour or two.

The Scores:
Game Modes: ABOVE AVERAGE
Graphics: MEDIOCRE
Sound: ABOVE AVERAGE
Control/Gameplay: GOOD
Replayability: MEDIOCRE
Balance: MEDIOCRE
Originality: GOOD
Addictiveness: POOR
Appeal: BAD
Miscellaneous: BAD

Final Score: MEDIOCRE.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Wordmaster displays a particularly neat “Crosswords meet Mastermind“ concept that is, unfortunately, not as well implemented as one would hope. Between an original concept, easy to operate controls, a good amount of words (so that you’ll be unlikely to see repetition for a while), and a budget price, this might be good for you if you’re looking for a mild diversion or a mentally challenging time-waster. But for everyone else, unhelpful clues and bizarre word choices, a dearth of useful game options, a strict six letter word requirement that hurts the variety of the experience, and a lack of support for left-handed gamers make the whole somewhat less than the sum of its parts, and leave the long-term viability of the product minimal for all but those who desire the most obscure word choices in their word-puzzle experiences. With a little more variety and a little less of the blatantly obtuse clue/solution combos, Wordmaster would be a highly recommended experience, but as it is, word puzzle fans will probably be the only people to get anything from this beyond their first hour of play.

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