Over the many years I’ve been collecting games, I’ve always found particularly unusual game show games. Besides the common Jellyvision/Jackbox collective, I’ve found stuff like Outburst, a board game that decided to become a poor man’s You Don’t Know Jack; Another Jack clone that was endorsed by MTV’s TRL… I even have Pat Sajak’s Lucky Letters – I’m probably one of the 34 people who bought a physical copy – which I might write about sometime. But this one’s a bit different. It comes from across the pond, and features one of the most notable fad games of the mid-2000s…
It’s Carol Vorderman’s Sudoku. A somewhat obscure Sudoku game, this came out courtesy of Secret Stash Games, a weird Eidos Interactive imprint. Though Empire Interactive is also credited on the box and in the game itself, which mostly published games in the UK (and were the original distributor there, presumably).
So you’re probably asking: Who the heck is Carol Vorderman, and why is she endorsing a Sudoku game?
I’m going to assume the people reading this post are not from Britain and/or game show nuts, so I’ll give the skinny on who she is: Carol Vorderman is a long-standing television host, being the co-host for a British game show called Countdown.
Countdown is a fairly simple game show where players either try to come up with the longest word from a semi-random pick of letters, or solve a mathematics puzzle by hitting a target number with six randomly chosen set of numbers.
Vorderman was well known especially for the latter, sometimes getting solutions to the math problems that even the players couldn’t figure out. She was on the show for a very long time, from the show’s early beginnings until 2012. She’s almost like Britain’s Vanna White, but with much more to do.
As for Sudoku, it’s a little more complex. A long standing game that got an unusual resurgence around the mid 2000s, the game involves placing the numbers 1 through 9 on a 9×9 grid split into 3×3 subgrids. The goal is to make it so each row, column, and subgrid have one of each number without any duplicates. It’s a nice mental puzzle that gained traction in unusual ways, and it’s one of the mini-games in Nintendo’s then-popular Brain Age games. It’s certainly more enjoyable than Jumble or Crossword puzzles, anyway.
So here’s the first problem I have with this game. Carol Vorderman doesn’t have the name recognition that someone like Gordon Ramsay or James Corden has outside their native England. Had I not told you who Carol Vorderman was, you would probably assume she was a fictitious entity a la Mavis Beacon. But I assure you, she’s a real person who endorsed a Sudoku game, and for some reason somebody thought it was fitting to bring it here without any context of who she is or where she’s from.
Even though I’m American, I am familiar with who Vorderman is thanks to watching episodes of Countdown on YouTube, as well as knowing about Countdown years ago thanks to finding out about it on sites like UK Game Shows. Being the game show nut I am, I am fascinated how American shows get translated in other countries with varying levels success. For example, Jeopardy! is a television institution over here in the US and has been for decades; however it’s mostly unknown in the UK. Countdown and even other British-centric game shows like Mastermind or Pointless are mostly unknown unless you live in England. We’ve gotten British imports before – such as The Chase, Who Wants to be a Millionaire? and others – but unless you actively seek them out they’ll be relatively unknown to the average game show viewer here in the States.
Anyway, let’s get back to the Sudoku game endorsed by the numbers lady of Countdown. The version I’m playing is on the PS2. Though it did get a PC release, I couldn’t get it to work on Windows 10. I assume both versions are identical in terms of content, but then again, when it comes to Sudoku you can only change so much.
Presumably this was sold for a pittance, since this was around the time Phoenix Games were churning out sub-par budget games, especially if you lived in Europe. Though in my case I only paid a few bucks for it at a gaming convention, so it’s no big loss.
Me being the jokester I am, I’m asked to input a name and fittingly, “Countdown” is just enough letters to fit as a profile name. Once set, you can do random Sudoku puzzles, play two-player Sudoku (how the heck does *that* work), make your own puzzles for someone else to solve, or do predetermined challenge puzzles.
The controls are simple: Use X to input a number by selecting the grid and then using the d-pad or left stick to move to the right number and press X again to confirm it. You can also press Circle to pencil in the possibility of what number fits in if you’re not sure. Square deletes what you put, and Triangle undoes the last inputted number. You can also select the numbers with the shoulder buttons, but I found that useless over pressing X twice.
Thankfully if you’re like me and find puzzles like these mind-numbing after long periods, you can turn on hints to see if you have conflicting numbers, and even have highlights. Though this only works on the standard random puzzle mode, it doesn’t work on the challenge modes, which I’ll get to in a bit.
As for this game’s looks… well, it looks like a mid-2000s flash game. There’s minimal background changes, the music sounds like ambient muzak you’d hear while on hold with tech support, and Carol only shows up in the game’s menus.
Though they did use Carol for other purposes, and by that I mean “give the history of Sudoku and some tips and tricks while computer graphics.” On the PC version these are literally WMV files that you can watch any time outside of the game. While they do give some helpful tips on how to play the game, that’s all the interaction you get with her. She’s hardly a host, and doesn’t give any tips while playing, which would’ve at least made her feel like she was being helpful rather than just eye candy.
So while there’s random puzzles in the game, it also has the equivalent of a “career” mode. Two, in fact: One where you must solve the sudoku puzzle within 20 minutes, or you can “Challenge Carol” with more difficult puzzles in under 15 minutes.
Here’s the problem with this mode: They’re still randomized puzzles, just on the harder difficulties. Since they’re not predetermined puzzles, you don’t learn anything if you fail. If you fail a puzzle, you’re just given a new one, forcing you to roll the dice and hope you figure it out, rather than try to hash out the existing puzzle until you successfully solve it.
Oddly, these use martial arts terms to refer to the challenge tiers. Naturally you start as a white belt and try to climb towards getting a black belt, but again, since the puzzles are random it’s all rolling the dice and hoping you get an easy one. Even challenging Carol mentions trying to be the “4th Dan” and becoming a true “Sudoku Master.” It took me a while to realize that the martial arts terms are supposed to be a silly reference to Sudoku being a Japan thing, even though it’d been popular long before that. It’s a weird metaphor that doesn’t fit in a game being endorsed by a British woman.
Alas, my Sudoku skills are pretty bad, and I could only get to Yellow Belt before quitting. I couldn’t even solve a “1st Dan” challenge, and I figured that with how little involvement Vorderman has with the game, there’s no reason to brute force my way through solving difficult Sudoku puzzles for a weak reward. It’s not like I’m gonna get a congratulations video or something, it’ll probably be the same as this image:
Surprisingly, there is a high scores board that shows the number of puzzles solved and the points given, but it doesn’t explain how the points are tallied in game. It’s incredibly pointless unless you’re just itching to beat Carol’s high score, which is a waste of time and patience.
Carol Vorderman’s Sudoku is a fairly unremarkable Sudoku game. It’s been superseded by much better sudoku games, and Carol Vorderman only appears for a small bit. This is a budget game through and through. While I didn’t pay a lot for this, it just made me want to go play Sudoku online while playing the Countdown theme on loop. At least that would be more entertaining.