Released in 2005 by German game developers FAKT Software, Crazy Machines was a cult classic that just recently began to breach the barrier to "fan-favorite" status among casual gamers. Publicized mainly by word of mouth, this unique puzzle game staked its claim as the next-generation leap from The Incredible Machine, which reached its height of popularity almost a decade earlier. The common theme in both games is the use of Rube Goldberg-inspired machines and contraptions to solve a puzzle or obstacle in each level. What's that? Rube who, you ask? If your early childhood includes memories of playing the classic board game Mouse Trap, you're already familiar with the concept that bears his namesake: accomplishing the simplest of tasks (like dropping a cage on the floor) by using complex, over-elaborate contraptions and mechanisms in a obscenely indirect, unintuitive way.
Crazy Machines embraces the concept in a way it can be applied to a video game, just like the classic The Incredible Machine showcased a decade earlier. Although popular among puzzle-loving gamers, The Incredible Machine series was beginning to feel somewhat dated. Crazy Machines hoped to fill that void with better graphics, emulated 3D levels and a prettier UI. Today, Crazy Machines is finally starting to get the recognition that a lot of fans feel it deserves.
Gameplay mechanics are fairly simple once you get used to them, although you might not anticipate that from glancing at the screenshots. But you'll get plenty of help from the game's Einstein-looking mascot as he guides you through the tutorial and level progression. You primarily use the mouse to interact with the puzzle area and interface, taking objects from your workspace and manipulating them in various ways to find solutions to each level's "experiment." (Armadillo Run is an excellent recent example, if you remember that gem.) With over 200 levels of experiments in all, there are lots of different toys and gadgets to play with, some of which you'll need to use in multiple ways. You've got your average variety of simple items like boxes, pipes and balls; and more advanced tools like conveyor belts, electrical sources, pulleys and wires. You'll even be offered exotic gadgets like zeppelins and robots in later levels, with many other surprises. And those surprises are part of the game's strategy; being able to use critical thinking to deduce the fastest solution in each experiment.
In each level, you're presented with a task or goal to complete, and you're given all the necessary tools and items to work with. Time and space are frozen until you push the "Ready" button, giving you time to examine each experiment and put all your objects in place. Sometimes you'll need all of them, sometimes you'll only need a few. It's how you work with them that determines if you'll succeed or not, and the quicker you your experiment completed its task, the better you did. Many of the items you'll use and the steps you can take are open-ended, meaning there are different ways to use gadgets to accomplish your goal, and some are more efficient than others. In the quirky spirit of Rube Goldberg-like contraptions, you'll have to think ahead and predict how each step will influence the next... "Will a lighter ball have more rebound on impact, allowing it to bounce far enough to trigger the next action? If I place a magnet right here, will that make a difference in an object's trajectory?" These are the kinds of questions you'll be asking yourself as you fine-tune your experiment to accomplish each goal.
If you're a quick study, or you happen to be pretty sharp when it comes to spatial thinking and logical reasoning, you might find yourself successfully rushing though some of the levels quicker than intended. With a partially open-ended game mechanic comes the possibility beating levels with less-than-fulfilling techniques, like using only a small number of available items, or making only the smallest choices in placement. But no matter how smart you are (maybe with the exception of your occasional certified genius), there are plenty of brain-teasing levels to figure out before you reach the end. And when you do, there's a "create-your-own-experiment" mode so you can build your own levels, or download user-created experiments and load them into your game.
Crazy Machines probably won't heat up your graphics card, but the level design and animation is pretty adequate for an almost four-year-old puzzle game. Music and sound rates about the same; nothing extraordinary, but lively and fitting. If you're an old-school Incredible Machine fan or you just enjoy puzzle games in general, give the Crazy Machines demo a spin. It might just be the most fun you've had with ridiculous contraptions since Mouse Trap.