Contraption Maker Review
The Incredible Machine was one of my favorite games growing up, one that left such an indelible mark on me that I wound up looking for it more than a decade later despite having nothing to go on outside of a few vague elements and its premise of creating Rube Goldberg devices in order to solve puzzles. I eventually found it, but it had aged quite a bit by that time, sporting a kind of uncomfortable choppiness inherent to many DOS games that took away from its charm somewhat. It was a complete coincidence that I later ended up stumbling on Contraption Maker, a spiritual sequel by the original team that takes the familiar elements from The Incredible Machine and makes it more palatable to modern audiences while leaving all of the best parts of the original game untouched.
Of Rubes and Goldbergs
This is first and foremost a puzzle game, so there’s no overarching story. Moreover, characters like Waldo the Cat and Tim the person—a nod to the original series which is often referred to by the acronym TIM—exist solely as moving parts of the many puzzles you’ll encounter. That said, many of the puzzles revolve around people absentmindedly forgetting to feed their animals and have a puzzle goal of providing said animals with food. I owe the creators a great deal for tapping into my nostalgia for The Incredible Machine, but if their puzzles reflect on them at all, they probably shouldn’t be allowed to keep pets.
The premise of the game is simple: each level tasks you with doing something fairly mundane like popping a balloon or setting off fireworks, then gives you a level with a partially-developed Rube Goldberg device that, when constructed, will do exactly that. You’re then given a bunch of parts to assemble in a way that achieves your goal. There’s a kind of elegant simplicity to the concept, and yet the later sections of the game can prove to be devilishly mind-bending, consistently challenging your first impression of how the devices are meant to work and using that against you. It’s not uncommon to finish what you expected the puzzle solution to be, only to realize that you’re missing one or two crucial parts and have to piece together a way to use parts less wastefully in order to have enough. This is really the magic of both The Incredible Machine and Contraption Maker—you’re challenged, but the puzzles never feel unfair or cheap despite that challenge, and you always have the sense that you’re just a few minor changes away from the puzzle’s solution.
Unintended solutions are the best, though
My memories of The Incredible Machine date back to when I was 7 years old, so I didn’t exactly have a mind for thinking outside the box when I first played. As such, I have no idea if this is possible with the original game, but one of the greatest things about Contraption Maker is how it often has multiple puzzle solutions. Yes, each puzzle has an “official” way of solving it, but the more I played, the more creative I became with the physics and the more puzzles I ended up solving in hilariously lateral ways.
You’ve no doubt noticed the million and a half videos I’ve littered this page with demonstrating some of these creative solutions to puzzles. These range from stretching cords so that lasers bypass the entire Rube Goldberg device to simply using the gravity of certain items in order to easily fulfill a puzzle’s requirements.
I’ve played a lot of games. Just go through my reviews and know that this is a one-person operation, so this being review #197 means that I’ve played through at least that many games. In reality, it’s quite a bit more than even that. The only reason I bring this up is because of perspective: when you play through a handful of games over and over and over, you’re able to love them for a variety of reasons. When you have a site like mine and can rarely justify playing through a game more than once because it holds up reviews for other games, however, you have to enjoy as much as you can on that first playthrough. As such, I’ve come to value the story and characters of games quite a bit more than I used to (though games like this don’t need stories or characters in order to achieve greatness), but there’s also another lesser-mentioned or recognized element of games that I’ve come to appreciate: being able to use the game’s systems against it. I’m talking about stacking percentage stat boosts in RPGs so that characters become unreasonably powerful. I’m talking about using static enemy detection ranges in order to lure difficult enemies to you one by one and methodically take out groups of enemies that would be incredibly difficult otherwise. More relevant to Contraption Maker, I’m talking about using a game’s physics in unintended ways in order to beat the system on your own terms. The unbridled joy in using a game’s rules against it shouldn’t be underestimated, and while it’s not the kind of thing you’re able to achieve in most puzzle games, this particular game is made all the more enjoyable for the possibility.
Pieces of the puzzles
There are quite a number of different potential pieces to the game’s Rube Goldberg devices; one puzzle may revolve around using cheese and explosives to lure a mouse into its hole, while another may revolve around getting an object to fall on a flashlight so that it can shine into a magnifying glass, lighting a cannon’s fuse so that it shoots into a hamster cage, startling the hamster into running and powering a conveyor belt. It all sounds far more complicated than it really is, and it’s worth mentioning that there’s a dedicated tutorial section full of puzzles that slowly introduce you to all of the game’s elements. It’s one of the better tutorials I’ve seen, and despite remembering virtually nothing of the original game, I soon found myself zipping around puzzles with surprising ease.
That’s not to say that all pieces work flawlessly. The scissors in this game, useful for cutting ropes when an object falls on them, don’t always cut. This is usually the result of not positioning the scissors at a 90 degree angle to the rope, but sometimes they simply refuse to function for no obvious reason, and the only thing you can do at that point is move them around a little until they actually work. This wouldn’t be a big problem if not for the fact that many puzzles tend to be on the slower side (for example, a few require that you wait while a bowling ball slowly bounces higher and higher on a trampoline), and while you can speed up puzzles by 2 or 3 times the normal speed, I found this to be unsatisfying because either the scissors failed to cut or the puzzle was going so fast that I wasn’t able to see my handiwork after they actually succeeded at cutting. This is ultimately a fairly minor concern, and I found the other pieces to be far more reliable and consistent, but it’s still something I found to be incredibly frustrating while playing, and I do feel that it’s something that the developers should consider addressing at some point.
Another, far more minor thing I noticed was that the small gears spin faster than the large gears. This is (or should be) obvious, of course, but it wasn’t something I noticed right away or that I can recall being taught in the tutorial, and using smaller gears to spin certain platforms more quickly or slowly than others ends up being a crucial component to a few later levels. Again, this is ultimately a minor concern, but it’s something that could have been better explained early on in the tutorial stages.
Mods, user-made content, graphics, and music
Not only can you create your own puzzles (or just mess around with various objects—personally, I made a level where hundreds of eggs rained down onto the pavement because I found it weirdly hilarious), but you can also download those created by others. This extends the game’s life by quite a bit, especially when you consider the modding capabilities the game offers; while browsing community-created content, I found a pinball game, a two-player egg fighting game, and even a little game where you fly a spaceship around the screen while avoiding an AI-controlled enemy spaceship. Naturally, you can make these things yourself if you’re so inclined, and while I have neither the time nor modding talent to create anything worth sharing, the fact that the game allows for so much creativity makes it that much more worthwhile.
Graphically, Contraption Maker is a huge step up from The Incredible Machine series. While later entry Even More Contraptions sported a pre-rendered graphical style somewhat reminiscent of Infinity Engine games and was already quite a bit prettier than previous games, Contraption Maker sports a more colorful, timeless look that borders on cel-shaded without looking like a cartoon. This allows all of the different elements on the screen to stand out, and it also allows the game to avoid being visually fatiguing when playing for long periods.
The music, on the other hand, is bouncy and a bit too cheery for its own good. That’s not to say that it’s poorly made or anything—it’s definitely not that. Every theme seems to be in a positive key, though, and while the background music often bounces between themes, I still got the impression that they were repeating far too often. Unlike the graphics, this does become fatiguing after long periods, and while it’s simple enough to turn off the music, it would be better if the game had more tracks that were in a minor theme (or allowed you to import your own music). That said, there’s quite a bit of variety in the genre of background tracks, so this may not be a problem if you don’t mind the sickeningly saccharine major key.