Review: Crazy Machines Elements

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It must have been interesting to be Rube Goldberg, to always see a Bunsen burner, a rope and a catapult where everyone else saw a simple light switch. Of course, it must also have been annoying to be Mrs. Goldberg, always tripping over bowling balls and bashing her shins on corkscrew ramps on the way to answering the phone.
Our fascination with Goldberg-ian chain reactions has a longstanding history that’s still rocking the modern era: It shows up in the board game Mousetrap, Doc from the “Back to the Future” series, and even Macaulay Culkin’s nefarious booby traps in the “Home Alone” flicks.

For gamers, it’s mostly shown up on the PC, where would-be Goldbergs have been able to get their contraption-creation freak on in the long-running The Incredible Machine and Crazy Machines series. The console crowd has had to wait about two decades longer, but their patience is finally rewarded in Crazy Machines Elements, an unassuming little Xbox Live Arcade download with a surprisingly large amount of puzzling depth.

The game’s intro cutscene gives the impression that we’re in for some kind of Pixar-style affair—the little robot messing around with switches looks like a cutesy cross between the Pixar robot lamp and the minions from “Despicable Me.” But while Elements’ puzzles and challenges dabble in the sorts of bright, cartoony color palettes Pixar prefers, the game itself is much more straightforward, dispensing with niggling things like narrative and character. In the game’s puzzle mode, you’re presented with a series of more than 100 incomplete machines, an objective, and an inventory of bizarre tools and objects that, when placed in proper position, will complete whatever it is you’ve been tasked with doing (igniting fireworks, smashing a vase, etc.) Hovering your cursor over each inventory object gives some brief info on what it does and its drawbacks—the boxing glove will punch anything that gets close to it, while the seemingly inert shopping cart can actually conduct electricity, zapping the action along.

Beyond that, you’re basically on your own. Unlike some puzzlers, Elements deploys no Professor Layton-style hints to help the process along, although it’s not exactly rocket science to figure out that you’ll probably need to use the wooden platform to cover the yawning gap in the slide. In most cases, you’ll be relying strictly on trial and error—sometimes lots and lots of trial and error—to figure out what you need to put where and which pieces need to be connected by strands of rope and gear cogs. Simply solving the puzzle by the simplest means will net you a certain number of golden nuts. In some of the puzzles, said bolts are placed in positions that seem to require some kind of teleportation device to collect; trying to nab them, luckily, is entirely optional. Unless, of course, you’re a leaderboard-hawking freak.

The lack of hand-holding is tolerable in the puzzle mode, where single objectives can usually be managed after a misstep or two. The “okay, now what?” feeling starts to sting a little more in Elements’ challenges mode (unlockable after you’ve completed 50 puzzles) where you’re given an objective, a blank palette and a budget to buy pieces from a dizzying items menu.

Like a lot of puzzlers, Elements is a mixture of frustration-–proper placement of objects can be a tad finicky–and “YES!” moments when everything suddenly falls into place. The latter are surprisingly satisfying, and go a long ways toward encouraging you to click “next puzzle.” Don’t be surprised to find yourself letting each machine’s completed-objective loop run a few times before moving on to the next. Scientific discovery is meant to be savored, after all.

Some of the puzzles and challenges are breezy affairs, but there are a lot of them to wade through, and that’s before you break out the awesome mode that lets you create your own challenges to play. It’s a crime against science that you can’t share your creations with other players over Xbox Live. (Apparently, the cats at FAKT Software were too busy creating colorful contraptions to have heard of a little game called LittleBigPlanet.) Still, if you’re the sort who prefers to pour your cup of morning coffee using rope weights, a turkey-head metronome, and a funnel, you’ve found your next download.

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Pros:
+ Simple presentation makes the puzzles accessible
+ Puzzles use actual principles of physics. Science is fun!
+ Build-your-own chain reaction mode easy to pick up and play

Cons:
– Placement of objects is very specific and finicky
– Lack of any sort of hint system equals frustration in challenge mode
– Jaw-dropping inability to share created chain reactions with others

Game Info:
Platform: Xbox 360 via Xbox Live Arcade; also coming soon to PS3 via PSN
Publisher: DTP Entertainment
Developer: FAKT Software
Release Date: 8/24/2011
Genre: Puzzle
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Players: 1
Source: Review code provided by publisher

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About the Author

Aaron R. Conklin has been writing about games and games culture for more than 15 years. A former contributor to Computer Games Magazine and Massive Magazine, his writing has appeared on IGN.com and in newspapers and alt-weeklies across the country. Conklin's an unapologetic Minnesota sports fan living in Madison, Wisconsin, home of the Midwest's most underrated gaming vibe.