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OUT OF THIS WORLD

New York Times, Sunday, July 24, 2016

Author: David Steinberg
Editor: Will Shortz
David Steinberg
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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 all to try ... more
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 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 accelerating, the ... more
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 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 Down
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
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: 7 unique to this puzzle, 2 debuted here and reused later, 2 unique to Shortz Era but used previously.

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