Reviewed: July 18, 2007
Released: March 1, 2007
Crazy Machines 1.5 is the latest offering from Viva Media, the creators of the atrocious Fritz and Chesster: Chess for Winners for the PC. Needless to say, going into this review with high hopes was out of the question. Happily, however, this physical science-based title turns out to be much more enjoyable than Fritz and Chesster.
Not really breaking any new ground from its immediate predecessor, Crazy Machines, the 1.5 version is basically a whole bunch of new puzzles using mostly the same components as the original game. Happily, the game scales the puzzles in its main mode slowly, so that even new hands can learn how it works and have fun with it.
The core of the game is very similar to the ancient Learning Company edutainment title Rocky's Boots for the Apple II series of computers, which won awards after it was released in 1982 for its innovative approach to teaching the very basic tenets of digital logic circuitry to six-year-olds. Whereas Rocky's Boots was concerned with electrical currents and energy flows, Crazy Machines is grounded in the more ancient field of simple Newtonian physics.
Each stage is a mostly-blank slate with a few components in preset positions, and a toolbox on the right side of the screen containing just enough pieces to complete the puzzle and accomplish some task, such as causing a series of balls to roll down ramps into bins.
The tools available for use range from the extremely simple (wooden boards) to the somewhat complex (catapults and small robots). Some pieces can be rotated using buttons or the scroll wheel of a mouse. Rotating a component is fairly intuitive, though sometimes pieces seemed to catch for a moment before yielding to the turn command. Puzzles finished quickly give a small time bonus to the player's score, although the interface that dictates the size of the bonus is kind of confusing.
The overall pace of Crazy Machines is extremely forgiving, however, allowing players to spend as much time and try as many different combinations of items as they need to complete the task. In the game's sandbox mode, there is no time constraint whatsoever. The goal is simply to see what kinds of Rube Goldberg-esque devices the player can come up with.
On one hand, the large number of different items it is possible to combine with Crazy Machines is very cool, especially for the children at whom the game is targeted. The game is easy to jump into with only a little bit of patience. Best of all, it can truly be called "edutainment," since it is genuinely fun in its own way, as well as genuinely educational. It promotes patience, critical thought and an understanding of earthly physics, in an entirely non-violent, non-competitive way.
On the other hand, this game isn't all that it could have been by a long shot. The main problem with Crazy Machines is that in the end, there aren't a whole lot of different things that new "inventions" can do, just lots of ways in which to do the same basic actions over and over again. This is possibly the finest game in existence for studying just how many components can possibly be put into a machine for pushing over a row of dominos, but accomplishing a truly interesting end result (such as, for example, launching a zip-wire rocket that drops toy paratroopers at regular intervals into teacups--yes, I still think like an 8-year-old sometimes) is more or less out of the question. Add to that the somewhat monotonous narrator, an Einstein look-alike who has a fairly small repertoire of comments that he repeats endlessly, and the game can become tiresome after a time.
The graphics are entirely secondary to this game. Except for the generally realistic physics that underlie Crazy Machines, it would be just as enjoyable if it were an Amiga title. That said, the graphics are quite dated by core-gamer standards. Tools range from looking somewhat realistic to looking a lot like shareware sprites. Shadows are more or less nonexistent, and everything is viewed side-on--there is no camera zoom or pan to view the action from other points.
The aforementioned Einstein wannabe "scientist's" avatar is wholly cartoony. On the plus side, the game runs smoothly, without jumping or lagging, and does not significantly slow down a PC running multiple applications. It's a very lightweight application, in other words, which should make PC-using parents happy as well.
There really just isn't a lot to say about the sound aspect of Crazy Machines 1.5. Much like the graphics of the game, it is ultimately unimportant. Music is fine, if a bit anemic, but totally minimal. The voice of the narrator has a British accent. His delivery isn't too bad, but he never really seems excited by any of the goings-on. Sound effects, sadly, are sparse and minimal. Robots whir and balloons pop, but that's basically the extent of it.
Crazy Machines 1.5 is a good value, mostly by virtue of its sandbox mode, which allows curious minds to experiment endlessly with all sorts of silly tools from wind-up mice to cue balls, and see the results of their tinkering at will. This is the sort of game I would have enjoyed as a child, and it also gets bonus points for having a more structured puzzle mode to more thoroughly test the skills of young physicists (and teach them).
It's really too bad that in the end, so few things of interest to a little kid can be accomplished by the components of Crazy Machines. Nonetheless, this game is a solid value purchase for any curious, creative child.
Games that allow children to "do their own thing" and find their own paths to accomplishing goals are rare, and most of those that do exist are either severely limited in scope or downright dull. Crazy Machines 1.5, then, is a worthy addition to the edutainment market, as it manages to be genuinely fun and open-ended, at least for a while. If not for some lackluster production values and a small number of ultimate goals that can be achieved by any possible creation, it would certainly get very high marks.
Even as it stands, this is a fine little piece of software and a worthwhile purchase for the curious younger members of the family. It will be interesting to see where Viva Media takes this series next.