A crossword-meets-jumble-meets-mini-meta puzzle today. First, we have 10 familiar phrases with circled strings of letters:

  • 23A: [They often fly during pride parades] is RAINBOW FLAGS. Just in advance of Pride Month.
  • 25A: [“Back so soon?"] is “YOU AGAIN?”
  • 39A: [Dirty martini garnish] is GREEN OLIVE.
  • 54A: [Process that may end with a remainder] is LONG DIVISION.
  • 61A: [Well-worn path] is BEATEN TRACK.
  • 75A: [Language expressed in books rather than in speech] is WRITTEN WORD.
  • 81A: [Robert De Niro’s role in “Taxi Driver”] is TRAVIS BICKLE. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen this movie, but he’s the source of the famous line “You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me?” It’s kind of amazing that this turned out to be such a memorable line since he didn’t even say it to another character; he rehearsed it to himself in front of a mirror.
  • 95A: [Start of a proverb about deception] is FOOL ME ONCE.
  • 112A: [Social for a child and teddy bears, perhaps] is TEA PARTY.
  • 115A: [Single guys’ dwellings] is BACHELOR PADS.

The note for today’s puzzle says, “Change this puzzle’s beasts back to their original form to spell an apt two-word phrase.” The circled words are scrambled animals, so let’s unscramble them (if it’s tough to do just by staring at them, there are several handy anagramming sites like this one and this one):

  • OWLF --> WOLF
  • UAGAIN --> IGUANA
  • NOLI --> LION
  • ONGDI --> DINGO
  • EATENTRA --> ANTEATER
  • TENW --> NEWT
  • ISBI --> IBIS
  • LMEO --> MOLE
  • EAP --> APE
  • ELORPAD --> LEOPARD

The last step is to use a strategy from meta-solving 101: Take the first letters of the unscrambled words to spell WILD ANIMAL. It’s sort of a cryptic description of the animals being jumbled, as well as a callback to the title “Altered Beast.”

Speaking of which, “Altered Beast” is the name of a side-scrolling video game that I played a lot when I was a kid. It’s an unintentionally hilarious old-school beat-'em-up game where you have to collect power-ups in each level to transform from a normal-sized human to a much beefier strongman and finally to a powerful beast (a werewolf, a dragon, a bear, or a weretiger, depending on the level). One of those beasts ended up being transformed in this puzzle (the scrambled WOLF in RAINBOW FLAGS), and a couple more of them ended up in the clues. 41A: [Dragon’s habitat] is LAIR, and the bear sort of shows up a few times with 34A: [Trees bearing cones] for PINES, 112A: [Social for a child and teddy bears, perhaps] for TEA PARTY, and 7D: [Make more bearable] for RELIEVE. I carelessly left out the tiger, but that’s because I never thought to specifically include the beasts from the game in the puzzle. I guess my mind just naturally went there while I was writing the clues since the title made me nostalgic. I still laugh about the game’s funny sound rendering of Zeus saying “Rise from your grave” and the villain shouting “Welcome to your doom!” at the end of each level.

Anyhow, the title was mostly an inside joke for family and friends, some of whom I introduced to the game during the pandemic. But I was pleasantly surprised when one of my colleagues at The Post told me a couple of weeks ago that her husband “also reports he played that Sega werewolf game back in the day.” So maybe there are a handful of other Post solvers who remember it fondly, too.

Also, I have to give a shout-out to the brilliant young indie crossword constructor Adam Aaronson, who built a fantastic online app earlier this year called Wordlisted. It’s a search engine where you can look up phrases that have very specific properties with their letters. It really came in handy for me when I built this puzzle. There are other sites I’ve used over the years that have helped me generate good theme answers for puzzles. There’s OneLook, which has a simple wild card search function across multiple dictionaries, and that’s been a weekly resource for me for several years. There’s Quinapalus, which has some additional useful tools when I’ve needed a more rigorous search, but also some very complicated coding functions that I’ve never gotten used to.

What makes Wordlisted such a game-changer is that you can cull through your own word lists to find specific phrases with an array of different functions. If you need phrases that contain a limited set of letters, or pairs of words where some letters get replaced with others, or (as in today’s puzzle) phrases that contain the scrambled letters of WOLF or LEOPARD or ANTEATER in any order, Wordlisted can find them immediately. Before, I’d have to use a scattershot method, typing random scrambled letter strings into OneLook one by one and hoping something would turn up, which could take several hours. Wordlisted found basically everything I needed in minutes. Most importantly, it’s user-friendly, so you don’t have to be an expert in computer programming to take advantage of its resources. Adam’s written some crosswords of his own that you can solve free on his website. Check them out.

A few other answers and clues:

  • 6A: [Treats with a limited-edition Lady Gaga variety inspired by her 2020 album “Chromatica”] is OREOS. A few days after I submitted this puzzle to The Post, I had to laugh when I saw that a very similar clue appeared in Kameron A. Collins’s New Yorker crossword on May 17. A total coincidence, but I guess we were both amused by the fact that Lady Gaga was an influencer for everyone’s favorite crossword cookie.
  • 21A: [Payment before getting a raise?] is ANTE. Maybe it’s a bit of a stretch, but I’m a fan of this one. There’s another card game-based pun at 29A: [“Wanna bet?” reply?] which is “I PASS.”
  • 89A: [“Kids, you tried your best and you failed miserably. The lesson is: Never try” speaker on “The Simpsons”] is HOMER Simpson. Last week I mentioned his “stupid sexy Flanders” line, so I followed up with another gem from his imagination.
  • 52A: [Fun activity that stimulates your mind] is BRAIN GAME. We also would have accepted CROSSWORD or ALTERED BEAST.
  • 59D: [“Chess” team, e.g.?] is CAST. That would be the musical “Chess.”

What did you think?