Written by: Stoo

Date posted: April 15, 2001

Ball goes through hole on right. Simple!

Ball goes through hole on right. Simple!

Ever seen those cartoons by Heath Robinson? They depict incredibly complex machines designed to carry out simple everyday tasks like boiling an egg or letting the cat out, and could quite possible have been the inspiration for this interesting little item from Sierra, a bit of a sideline from the company in the days when they were mainly known for the ‘Quest’ adventures.

On each level of the game you’re presented with an objective, such as putting a ball in a hoop or lighting a candle. Some pieces of structure and apparatus will already be laid out on the screen and are fixed in place, but you also have a limited number of certain items to arrange as you wish to complete the machine. These range from from goldfish bowls, to ropes and pulleys, to conveyor belts and electric fans. At any point you can hit the “go” switch, at which point time unfreezes and everything springs to life. Objects fall, switches are hit, machinery starts working etc. It’s unlikely it will all work first time, so you can reset the machine, freeze time again and continue tinkering. There’s no real sense of urgency in creating the machine; you can take as long as you like, the only penalty to delay being a drop in your points score for that level.

There is of course a lot of fun to be had in playing with the various components, and planning a sequence of actions. For example, to a send that ball flying sideways, mount it on a conveyor belt, driven by a mouse on a wheel. Except you need to somehow set the mouse running first; a gentle tap on his cage from any moving item might do. A nearby balloon would be useful but there’s an obstacle blocking it; you could blow it across the screen with a fan, but that needs an electric generator, which in turn must be powered by some rotating object. Or maybe you need to run an electric generator to power a bulb, which when held up to a magnifying glass produces a focused beam to light the touch paper on a rocket. You’ll find that even¬†cats exist as a component; they can be encouraged to move with a mouse, or by giving them a bit of nudge. With bowling ball, perhaps.

Something painful is about to happen to that poor monkey on the right.

Something painful is about to happen to that poor monkey on the right.

Trial-and error is very much the way to go about solving each task, until all the components knock, nudge and fling each other in exactly the desired way. Sometimes there’s also timing to take into account – you might have two processes going on at once which need to meet together. For example if you want a bowling ball to take longer before falling into the bucket, give it a longer path to follow. Everything behaves in quite a realistic manner with a reasonably solid physics engine behind the scenes, though there is the odd dodgy bit of behaviour such as a ball on a trampoline rising higher with each bounce, i.e. miraculously gaining energy. (Before people complain at me for nitpicking the realism in a game that’s supposed to be a bit wacky to begin with, I should point out that there’s a difference between the implausible and the physically impossible). Anyhow, for the most part the behaviour of your machine is pretty convincing, leading you to sometimes believe that just maybe these contraptions could be put together in real life.

The Incredible Machine is a bit of a rarity. It’s addictive and entertaining you see, but also even slightly educational, pushing you to think logically and devise a system of component parts to get a desired output. Note that, as well as facing a specific challenge, you can let your imagination run wild in free-form mode. Here you’re given a blank arena and unlimited access to all the components, and can build a machine to do whatever you like. For example, lure out cats with a mouse and then rain heavy objects on them. Which is perhaps not what the developers had in mind. Maybe this is the dark side of education –¬† Doom might encourage mindless violence in kids, but ‘educational’ games like this encourage clever violence. Doom never taught you how to catapult a cat through the air.

In my experience puzzle games aren’t something I play obsessively for hours on end, like I would a with a good RPG or strategy game. Instead they work best when I want a break from work, but am looking for something a bit more mentally stimulating than a arcade-style blasting session. In this capacity Incredible Machine rates alongside Lemmings as a time-waster of choice. There were a couple of sequels featuring spruced-up SVGA graphics and an irritating cartoon ‘professor’ but I’d advise you stick with the original.