Solving puzzles can be a quiet and comforting exercise, whether you’re working a morning paper crossword at the breakfast table or sitting in bed and wrapping your head around a Sudoku grid. Puzzle video games act as a way to emulate that feeling of relaxation and mental stimulation, all while adding audio and visual filters to add to that mood. In searching for more of these comfort games, CROSSNIQ+ from Max Krieger has emerged as one of the more curious discoveries in this genre.
CROSSNIQ+ (pronounced “cross-nick-plus”) is a very high-concept game, with the objective being to create matching color crosses in a grid of squares. The set dressing for this puzzle game is one centered in the “Y2K aesthetic,” a style defined by “digital” colors, organic shapes, and an overall optimistic vision of humanity’s symbiotic relationship with technology. As I explored what the game had to offer, it became more evident to me just how defined fashion and aesthetics in the aughts were compared to the present.
Looking at recent trends in entertainment, nostalgia has been marketed as a source of comfort more than ever, especially with so many pieces of entertainment focusing on eras like the 80s. As we enter the 2020s, we’re due for throwbacks to the late 1990s and early 2000s, and CROSSNIQ+ could provide an interesting template for what’s to come.
“The set dressing for [CROSSNIQ+] is one centered in the ‘Y2K aesthetic.’”
Gameplay in CROSSNIQ+ is relatively easy to wrap your head around. In a grid of tiles with three different colors, you’ll shift and move rows and columns to make crosses; create a full row of one color and a full column of the same color and you earn points, changing those tiles’ colors to be ready for the next crossing. Rounds are time-based and making crosses will add time; running out of time will end the round, after which you submit your score and enter your name as you would at an arcade machine.
Eventually, some modified tiles on the grid will provide additional challenges to players. Locked tiles limited movements in rows and columns, stopping them at the edge of the grid. Even more of a nuisance are freeze tiles indicated by an X, restricting any sort of movement in any row and column that it’s in. Those can be knocked out by forming them as part of a cross, but usually, the presence of these tiles will force players to shift whatever plans or strategies they were already working with. Inversely, bonus tiles with a star will provide players with bonus points if they’re part of a cross.
CROSSNIQ+ feels like a time-sensitive version of playing around with a Rubik’s cube. You may only need one square in the right place, but getting it there will require large shifts of entire rows and columns for it to reach the intended destination. As such, you’ll have to think ahead and make the proper adjustments, so you won’t be playing yourself into a corner. This brain teaser provided the mental stimulation that I seek out from puzzle games as of late, but it was the looks and sounds of the game that further enhanced that feeling.
Much of my time playing CROSSNIQ+ recalled Tetsuya Mizuguchi’s Lumines, which I got into this year through the remastered edition on Nintendo Switch. Lumines felt like a natural next step from Mizuguchi’s Tetris Effect, one of my favorite 2018 titles and a game that I credit for getting me into the puzzle game hole that I now find myself in. What I found in Lumines was a bit surprising after Tetris Effect, but how that game approaches visuals is more clear to me with CROSSNIQ+ in mind (and also remembering that Lumines originally released in 2004).
Both games dabble with minimalism, but not exactly the same sort of minimalism that we’re used to in the current decade. CROSSNIQ+ is plated with round geometry, defined texts and fonts, and bold colors. The menu itself is meant to represent a navigation system for some sort of neo-futuristic subway system of “St. Terra,” with the colors of the train lines and neon animations popping from the white background, all while happy, upbeat electronic music plays in the background.
There’s an appreciation of a certain tactility of technology presented as you play the game. As you enjoy the tunes that play as you shift those tiles, a sort of futuristic yet vintage looking music player serves as the backdrop. The overall aesthetic of blending concrete and abstract creates a similar mood to the works of Mizuguchi (Rez, Space Channel 5) and a number of other Japanese music and puzzle games that inspired CROSSNIQ+, and it’s easy to find yourself in a zone as you play it.
“There’s an appreciation of a certain tactility of technology presented as you play the game.”
Anyone who’s attended a college with students that regularly party has probably gone to a shindig themed after a particular decade. The 1960s and 1970s certainly had their time to shine, but the resurgence of 1980s nostalgia during the late 2000s and 2010s as part of the era’s throwback zeitgeist is what I familiarize with the most; I’m sure the lot of you have seen or at least heard too much about Stranger Things.
In my head, society and popular culture has to be at least two decades removed from something before it can be marketed as “nostalgic”; we’ve only started to get into the 1990s in the mid-2010s, with a number of television revivals (i.e. The X-Files and a number of Saturday morning cartoons) and “period pieces” that take place in those eras like the Aubrey Plaza comedy The To-Do List or action blockbuster Captain Marvel. As we inch closer to the 2000s, I long wondered what visually and tonally defined that era that may return very soon in modern games (and other media).
To me, it all goes back to that Y2K aesthetic that conveys optimism about technology. The 1990s is when our technological dreams were beginning to be realized with computers and the internet, but in its early days, consumer products had a sterile look. As society eased into the use of that technology, it became “hip,” “punk,” “chic,” and so on. While technology today is designed to blend into our daily lifestyle, technology then looked and felt more like a statement.
Look at the colors from Apple products before they went all grey and white; look at the curves, the blobs, the futuristic text in marketing and products, the colorful outfits from pop stars and celebrities, all contributing to the idea that technology was cool. Tech was a novelty, and should society and pop culture still be working from the same timetable as we do now, that era of novelty is due for a comeback.
I suppose that a large part of why I enjoy CROSSNIQ+ is because it is far away from the corporate exploitation of nostalgia; rather than poking at players and making direct references to that period in time, it instead invokes the feel of media from that era by emulating it in looks and sound. It is proof that nostalgia can still be comforting without being pandering. With that, CROSSNIQ+ has acted as a lovely casual companion in between the more intense portions of everyday life.
Having the game on my Switch and enabling touch control has made playing it a comforting experience before bedtime. Like any puzzle game that I’ve enjoyed, whether it’s on paper or on a screen, CROSSNIQ+ hits the right parts of my brain by being easy to pick up while having a number of complexities and considerations as I navigate through gameplay rounds. And like some of my other favorite puzzle games as of late, the visuals and audio design serve more as a visualizer and more of a reflection on where we’re at in popular culture.
So be sure to get those 2000s costumes ready for those upcoming throwback parties.