Erector Set Squared
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The game mousetrap always conjures up fond memories for me. Watching the steel marble (the kind that would be a safety hazard to put in board games these days) travel through the maze of twists and turns for something like a minute just to make a cage fall over another character was impressive.
Games like that have always been popular on the PC, possibly because of young people's fascination with building contraptions, circuits and other science fair type products. Then again, I remember when I was a child watching several adult engineers who were working for IBM at the time banding together to try and solve levels in Rocky's Boots. (This was an early version of this type of game popular on the IBM PC and PCjr.)
So these have been around a while. Crazy Machines is the latest of these contraption building titles, and is likely the best of the bunch so far.
You have a work area in the middle of the screen where you have to complete the various challenges given to you by a professor whom you apparently apprentice under. The tasks start off extremely easy, but quickly ramp up in complexity.
To start you off, you only have to get a basketball into a box. The basketball starts suspended in mid air and not directly over the box. When you start the level, gravity as well as any other physical forces like heat or magnetism are applied. So when you start the first level, the ball drops off the screen. To fix this, you are given components alongside the screen. In this case a couple of boards are all you have to work with. Simply drag and drop the boards to where you want and tilt and rotate them as well. You keep trying until you get the ball to bounce into the box. Simple.
It seems pretty easy, but eventually you will have to work with boilers that when heated produce steam, which in turn can be piped across your workspace to power generators that can drive belts and gears to turn conveyor belts. Bombs can be lit and exploded. Blimps fly across the screen. Balloons are pushed by fans. Crossbows fire. And robots move forward in single-minded determination. How you complete your task is up to you and what components are available.
Most of the time you are given just enough components to solve the given puzzle. But I have found a few times where if you really use your noggin, you can complete the given task and not have to use all the components. If you do this, you are given a large bonus to your score for each object left over.
As you think, a timer ticks down. The timer is also your score, so the longer you take to complete a level, the lower your overall score. So there is a bit of an urgency to your experiments, though I finished quite a few well after the buzzer. At least then the pressure is off.
The game does a good job of slowly ramping up the difficulty throughout the 200 levels that come with the game. Each level either slightly increases the difficulty level or introduces a new concept like electricity into the game. So you will never end up with a component that you don't know how to use.
The biggest letdown with the game is the sound. The idea of a professor telling you things is a good idea, but he just says generic stuff and is not really helpful at all. You are given text that tells you what to do, but the professor just says something like "my last assistant could not figure this one out" over and over again. Thankfully there is an option to turn him off. But he could have done so much more.
Also, some of the levels are extremely difficult. The game is certainly suitable for children eight and up, but show me one that can get through all the puzzles without any help and I will show you the next valedictorian at MIT. The addition of a help key that could perhaps place hints in the workspace for you or even an "I give up" key to see the solution might save a lot of people quitting too early in frustration.
Still, this makes the game ideal for parents and kids to play together. Just don't be surprised if you as a parent get stumped a bit on some of these levels. I admit I had to refer to the reviewer's guide on occasion.
If you solve all 200 puzzles there is a sandbox mode where you can create new ones. And the Internet has a thriving community of people who have built wonderful puzzles on their own and uploaded them. You can download them for free, and some of them are down right diabolically difficult, while others are incredibly funny or clever.
For any children interested in science and generally how things work, Crazy Machines is a perfect gift. It comes on a hybrid CD that works on both a PC and a Mac and happens to be on sale for just $20 from publisher Viva-Media. You won't get more bang for your buck than that.
Karen Rosenberry is GiN's Educational Reviewer. She has a Masters Degree in Education and enjoys using computer games to teach her students while they're being entertained. She can be reached at