I have a confession to make: I didn’t really start gaming until I got to college. It was my first month there, I was hanging out with some girls on my hall, I mentioned I was playing around with emulators on my computer, one girl recommended I try playing some game called Ocarina of Time … and the rest is Hylian history. Before that, in the days of high school, video games were anything I could a) run on our shared home desktop PC, and b) wouldn’t cause my mother to make us turn off the computer and go outside. The most advanced video game my brother and I had was a copy of the original LEGO Racers that we’d installed off a friend’s disk. (I know every shortcut and brick placement in that entire game, and I will fight anyone who doesn’t agree that it was fabulous.)
That’s not to say we didn’t have computer games, though. A fair amount of educational ones, of course (I still have dreams about trying to beat the advanced bonus levels in Math Blaster), but also one or two games that weren’t educational in the slightest that I loved, my bother loved, and more importantly, my parents loved, who would let us play as long as we wanted. And the best of all was a little game called The Incredible Machine.
Everyone’s heard of Rube Goldberg, right? The cartoonist who drew pictures of elaborate, impractical contraptions for performing simple tasks? Well, in the ’90s, programmers Jeff Tunnell and Kevin Ryan had the idea of turning it into a computer game. And it was genius.
The game went through a couple iterations; I think the version I had was version 2.0. The game presented you with a series of puzzles, each set on a playing field containing a set of pre-placed objects: walls, ramps trapdoors, baseballs, electrical sockets, lasers, crocodiles, fireworks—you name it, the game had it. The puzzle also gave you a limited selection of “parts” you could add to the machine in order to complete a basic objective: catch the cat under a laundry basket, launch a rocket, get the basketball in the basket.
Some puzzles were relatively easy (just bounce the pinball off the crocodile’s snout, then get the mouse in the hamster wheel to power the generator …) while others were much, much harder (I don’t think I ever solved that one stupid level with the pool table).
And once you got bored with solving the pre-made puzzles, the fun really began, because you could make your own. You could tweak the gravity and watch bowling balls float off the top of the screen, you could spend an hour setting up a system of lasers to light a row of rocket fuses … or just create an overly complicated way to open a can and feed Curie the Cat, and then convince your mom to come and try to solve it.
I still clearly remember the first puzzle my family ever built the night we first played the game. A ball landed on a flashlight, turning it on; the flashlight shone through a magnifying glass and lit the candle in a hot air balloon; the balloon lifted off into the air and floated off screen. That was it. An hour of fumbling with parts and the combined efforts of my entire family, and we could not have been more pleased with ourselves when we finally got it to work.
The Incredible Machine came up in conversation the other day while my family was reminiscing about the good old days, and I dug out the CD to see if I could get it to run on my computer. Two hours of fighting with XP Mode later, I sadly concluded that for now, at least, the answer is no … but I did come across the next best thing. Jeff Tunnell, one of the original creators of The Incredible Machine, has made a spiritual sequel, called Contraption Maker. It’s available through Steam, the platform that owns my soul (and it’s dirt cheap for the duration of the 2014 Steam Holiday Sale, if you’re interested).
In many ways, it’s the same old game. The same puzzle and creator modes are there, and all the familiar parts and gadgets from the original have been lovingly recreated here to interact in the same varied and inventive ways. The game even still says “Phew!” whenever you solve a puzzle. But is it as good as the original The Incredible Machine was? No, of course not. Nothing, not even the original game itself, could live up to the fond memories I have of playing it.
The graphics in Contraption Maker have been updated from their 256-color ’90s glory to be modern and cartoony. The animals are no longer all named after famous scientists—Curie the Cat is now an unimpressed-looking feline named Waldo and Newton Mouse is now Milton. I think it’s a crying shame that the alligator (Steve, née Edison) no longer snickers whenever he eats something. And back in my day, we didn’t have ice blocks or flying saucers. Or mini zombies. Why does everything have to have zombies?
But I’m just nitpicking for nostalgia’s sake. Contraption Maker is wonderful—it retains everything I knew and loved about The Incredible Machine. All the familiar old gadgets are there, from the ray gun to the tea kettle. And honestly, I’d be disappointed if a remake like this didn’t add at least a couple new items. Contraption Maker is all the good, clean fun I remember, polished up and presented to a new generation. And you can be sure that in my next bit of free time, I’ll spend an hour using it to put together the world’s most elaborate can opener. And then drag my mom away from whatever more important thing she’s doing, and make her sit down to solve it. Just the way we used to play.