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OUT OF THIS WORLD

New York Times, Sunday, July 24, 2016

Author:
David Steinberg
Editor:
Will Shortz
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1.645163
David Steinberg

This puzzle:

Rows: 21, Columns: 21 Words: 140, Blocks: 81 Missing: {JQWX} Grid has mirror symmetry. There are unchecked squares This is puzzle # 52 for Mr. Steinberg. NYT links: Across Lite PDF
David Steinberg notes:
The inspiration for this puzzle was a dinner with other young constructors at the ACPT. A whole group of us went out to an Italian restaurant in Stamford (called Zazu, which inspired us ... read more

The inspiration for this puzzle was a dinner with other young constructors at the ACPT. A whole group of us went out to an Italian restaurant in Stamford (called Zazu, which inspired us all to try constructing mini puzzles with ZAZA at 1-Across after our meal) one night and then to a Mexican restaurant the next night (whose name was regrettably much less interesting from a crossword constructor's standpoint). We had a lot of fun talking shop and tossing around crossword ideas on the spot! I'm quite sure I'm forgetting some names, but I know the group included Kevin Der, Sam Ezersky, Joel Fagliano, Neville Fogarty, Josh Knapp, Natan Last, Kyle Mahowald, and Finn Vigeland. There wasn't a single person at the table whose work I don't consistently admire, so it was truly an honor to be included!

Anyway, I believe it was Natan who brought up the idea of puzzles themed around games. As a group, we recalled that Frogger, Pac-Man, Clue, and Monopoly puzzles had already been done. At the time, none of us could think of any games that hadn't been done and that might lend themselves well to puzzles. Nonetheless, the idea stuck in the back of my head, and I continued to think about other possibilities throughout the tournament. Finally, on the journey from Stamford to Stanford, the idea of doing a Space Invaders puzzle suddenly came to me! I also decided on the spot that the puzzle would be a Sunday rather than a daily. When I got back to my dorm room, I probably should've focused on making up all the schoolwork I'd missed while at the ACPT. But I felt inspired, so I set to work on the puzzle instead! (The work did eventually get done, of course.)

Right off the bat, I knew I wanted to represent the aliens as ETs, though I wasn't sure how many to include or even how they would work thematically. I tried several other arrangements before settling on the one you see. My most compelling alternative was having four ETs in each row, but I didn't like how short all the ET entries would have to be (since the grid is only 21 columns wide). I also wasn't finding enough ET entries that were legit with or without the ET using any other arrangement.

Next came the MOTHERSHIP at the top. For the longest time I was convinced it wasn't going to work as I experimented with block pattern after block pattern! I tried having the M where the P was and even having the word read counterclockwise. Then somehow, by a stroke of luck (which I partially credit to having happened to have added SKI BOOT to my word list just a few months earlier), I found this solution. I was relieved to see that the surrounding fill in the upper center wasn't a complete disaster. Next came the safe zones at the bottom. I was originally shooting for three such zones, but that just wasn't working—I didn't want any "extraneous" blocks to mess up the visual and I also wanted to squeeze in the revealer SPACE INVADERS. I was initially distressed about the unchecked squares, but once I realized that SAFE would fit into them, they became an asset in my book! I then stuck in the CANNON and started filling.

The LASER was actually a complete coincidence. One of the fills I was looking at happened to include PRESALE. Looking more closely at the fill, I was ecstatic to notice that it contained LASER backwards! So that fill ended up being the keeper for the upper left. Another challenge was that the grid originally had 142 words. Knowing that Will's word limit is 140 and that he prefers even lower word counts, I knocked out a pair of blocks in the second-to-bottom row of the grid. As a result, I was no longer able to keep other ETs out of the fill (and the short fill got a bit yucky in places—I'm looking at you, EEE, SSR, and RET!), but I figured these were small prices to pay for the awesome ROCKET FUEL. Getting the semithematic ROCKET FUEL and AIRPORT BAR to fit symmetrically in the lower part of the grid was yet another lucky coincidence!

The hardest part for me was the middle right. I really, really didn't want to get stuck with EARED SEALS at 45-Down, especially since I already had the obscurish (to me, at least) ALGREN in that area and several other weaker entries. I lowered the minimum score in my word list as far as I could, and all of the sudden, I hit upon a fill with ELDERBERRY! The reason it wasn't showing up before was A GUT, which I'd given a really low score for being a partial that didn't feel particularly in-the-language. I mean, no one my age ever says "bust a gut." It's always LOL, LMAO, Hahaha, or even Bahaha (that one's for you, Sam Ezersky!) these days. In any case, this reminded me of the value of not deleting anything from your word list, because you never know when it might rescue you from the dreaded EARED SEALS.

Despite all the trouble I had with this one, the construction process proceeded quite rapidly, and I was soon ready to work on the clues. For me, the biggest cluing challenge was the ET entries. I wasn't sure whether I should, say, clue both PRETEEN and PREEN or just one of the two. I ultimately decided to clue only PREEN so as to get the idea of SPACE INVADERS across as cleanly as possible. Will and Joel changed more of my clues than usual this time, which I totally don't blame them for, especially since I'm much more used to writing clues targeted at Friday/Saturday audiences than at Sunday ones. I was disappointed to see "Center of the high school pot scene?" for ART ROOM disappear, but my "Place to get drunk before getting high?" for AIRPORT BAR fortunately made the cut!

Well, I could ramble on for hours about any crossword puzzle, but I'll stop boring you now. I would like to mention, though, that I realized from the get-go that this puzzle would be quite polarizing. In other words, solvers were either going to know the game and get the theme or not know the game and be confused. I also realized that some of the visuals were a little off in terms of size when compared to those in the original game. For these reasons, I tried to insert as much liveliness into the nonthematic fill as I could so that there'd hopefully be something for everyone!

With that, I hope you enjoy my puzzle!

Jeff Chen notes:
SPACE INVADERS! One of my childhood favorites; it was fun to see all the elements David incorporated. I have fond memories of the ETs marching down in their zig-zag patterns, the music ... read more

SPACE INVADERS! One of my childhood favorites; it was fun to see all the elements David incorporated. I have fond memories of the ETs marching down in their zig-zag patterns, the music accelerating, the frustration of the aliens always winning, the horrible obsessive need to start over once again … okay, it wasn't all good.

David packs in a ton today. Not only is there the CANNON shooting a LASER (the Space Invaders Wikipedia entry confirms that it is indeed a LASER CANNON the player controls), but there's four of the "shields" formed by odd-looking sets of black squares — and those four individual squares spell out SAFE, very appropriate for shields.

And then there's the HIP MOTHERS! I mean, the MOTHERSHIP. I imagine it's normal to read from 12 o'clock going clockwise, but I stared at HIP MOTHERS for the longest time, wondering what the heck that had to do with SPACE INVADERS. Interesting how the eye is drawn to that northwest region first.

Finally, there's the gimmick: ETs "invade" the grid and take up "space" by hiding inside entries to masquerade as other fine words. I particularly liked the longer ones that resulted in huge changes, like PREEN to what looked like PRETEEN, and MARKING to MARKETING. DOH looking like DOETH and ABS to ABETS weren't quite as interesting, but still fun.

What with so much theme material, it's natural to need some glue to hold the puzzle together. The CANNON could have been shifted to the left or right (if there only were a way to animate a crossword …), but it's still hard to work with a set of letters so rigidly fixed into a pattern. It's unusual to see EEE and SSR in one corner of a Steinberg puzzle, but I think the end result is pretty good, especially what with ROCKET FUEL in there.

Some other bonuses like ALT TAB window-switching, CHEAP DATE, BIG DIG, RED TAPE, SPORTS BRAS more than make up for some OSS, A GUT , SSE, etc.

All in all, a ton packed into one puzzle. Perhaps a bit too much, feeling slightly scattered/unfocused to me, but a nice facsimile of the game.

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© 2016, The New York TimesNo. 0724 ( 24,365 )
Across
1
Note in the B major scale : ASHARP
7
Platter letters : RPM
10
Boston megaproject completed in 2007, informally : BIGDIG
16
Semiformal jacket : BLAZER
17
Item of winter gear with multiple straps : SKIBOOT
21
Touch down, say : ARRIVE
22
Bro's greeting : YODUDE
23
Sarcastic "Wonderful!" : OHGREAT
24
Word after smart or sugar : COOKIE
25
Some female athletic gear : SPORTSBRAS
27
Pinstriped team : THEYANKEES
29
Cybercrime target, for short : SSN
30
Newsman Brown : AARON
31
___ manual : USERS
32
Sacramento-to-San Diego dir. : SSE
33
Grade to be concerned about : DPLUS
34
Pass, of sorts : BYE
37
Bothers : TODOS
39
Admire oneself a little too much : PREEN
42
Homer Simpson exclamation : DOH
44
- : MINUS
48
Healthy yogurt mix-ins : OATS
49
One not looking for an expensive night on the town : CHEAPDATE
52
Precollege : ELHI
53
High degree in math? : NTH
54
Bris official : MOHEL
56
Approached aggressively : RANAT
59
Scout group : DEN
60
Expired : DIED
62
Occupied, as a seat : TAKEN
66
"___ over" (dispiriting message) : GAME
68
Latin for "of the sun" : SOLARIS
70
They can sleep if you play with them : YOYOS
71
Arctic lights : AURORAS
72
Washington suburb : MCLEAN
74
Palindromic elemento : ORO
75
PC task-switching combo : ALTTAB
76
Twosome : DUO
78
Stripe on a zebra, e.g. : MARKING
81
The pack in a six-pack : ABS
84
Legendary Bruin : ORR
85
A kid may exchange it for money : TOOTH
87
Capone rival : MORAN
89
P : RHO
90
"Silent Spring" subject : DDT
91
1970s-'80s craze that's the theme of this puzzle : SPACEINVADERS
95
Radio format : RAP
96
Anise-flavored drink : OUZO
98
Bettering : ENHANCEMENT
99
Loch Ness monster, e.g. : MYTH
100
Lat. or Lith., once : SSR
102
One who's been tapped on the shoulder? : SIR
103
Big name in electronics : RCA
106
Cry from the enlightened : AHA
108
Defunct spy org. : OSS
110
Response on un questionnaire : OUI
112
Mission requirement : ROCKETFUEL
116
Place to get drunk before getting high? : AIRPORTBAR
121
Inspiration for "Lolita" : ANNABELLEE
122
Alfredo, for one : CREAMSAUCE
123
"Never ___ Give You Up" (1988 #1 hit) : GONNA
124
Sometimes-sung pieces : ODES
125
Scraped (out) : EKED
126
Ball to keep an eye on : EIGHT
Down
1
No miniature gulf : ABYSS
2
Pours poorly : SLOPS
3
Wore : HADON
4
Color of la Méditerranée : AZUR
5
Some complications : REDTAPE
6
Event for select customers : PRESALE
7
Ocean eyesores : RIGS
8
Six-pack inits. : PBR
9
Chandon's partner : MOET
10
Common Coke go-with : BACARDI
11
Affixes, as a patch : IRONSON
12
Grasp intuitively : GROK
13
Sights in New Orleans : DIKES
14
Prestigious school group : IVIES
15
Noisy flight crew? : GEESE
17
George on an annual Forbes list : SOROS
18
___ Academy (means of online education) : KHAN
19
Iolani palace locale : OAHU
20
Statistical tool for comparing means : TTEST
26
It may start at 10 : BRUNCH
28
Buckingham Palace guards : YEOMEN
33
Detoxing hurdle, for short : DTS
34
Tree hugger? : BOA
35
"You betcha!" : YEP
36
It may change because of weather, in brief : ETD
38
Not let bygones be bygones, say : SUE
39
Golf course obstacles : PONDS
40
24/7, for instance : RATIO
41
Friend of Lucy Ricardo : ETHELMERTZ
42
Live broadcast feature, oxymoronically : DELAY
43
Symbols of speed : HARES
45
Fruit used in wines and syrups : ELDERBERRY
46
Trig angle symbol : THETA
47
Trig's law of ___ : SINES
50
Agitated, with "up" : HET
51
Beach shade : TAN
54
Popular reds : MERLOTS
55
Yellow dog of the funnies : ODIE
57
Bust ___ (guffaw) : AGUT
58
Highlands designs : TARTANS
61
Politician's asset : TACT
63
Palindromic nut : KOOK
64
Literary governess : EYRE
65
Palindromic blast : TOOT
67
Biblical kingdom : MOAB
69
Language with only 14 letters : SAMOAN
71
Nelson ___, "The Man With the Golden Arm" novelist : ALGREN
73
"You betcha!" : NATCH
75
Jumper cable connection : ANODE
76
Dummy : DODO
77
Language that gave us "punch" : URDU
79
Sister of Cronus : RHEA
80
Eastern ecclesiastic : IMAM
82
Unnamed object : THAT
83
10th: Abbr. : SOPH
86
Manage : OPERATE
88
Sketchy place? : ARTROOM
92
Parts of sneakers : INSOLES
93
Spinoff series with two spinoffs of its own : NCIS
94
Luxury Italian label : VERSACE
97
Certain Honshu resident : OSAKAN
99
Umbrella holder, maybe : MAITAI
101
Queen of ___ : SHEBA
104
Sleeping Beauty was under one : CURSE
105
OB/GYN's prefix with -gram : SONO
107
"___ Lang Syne" : AULD
109
Advertising buzzword : FREE
111
Apiece : EACH
112
It may collect dust : RAG
113
Fareed Zakaria's channel : CNN
114
___-Jo ('80s track star) : FLO
115
Specialty shoe spec : EEE
117
Bother : IRK
118
Digs : PAD
119
Bother : BUG
120
Not working anymore: Abbr. : RET

Answer summary: 6 unique to this puzzle, 3 debuted here and reused later, 2 unique to Shortz Era but used previously.

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