|Genre||Chain reaction puzzler|
|Buy from Amazon|
I was never any good at The Incredible Machine. It was one of a handful of games available in my elementary school's computer lab, and it was the only one that stumped me every time. I knew the Oregon Trail like the back of my hand, and my SimCity could withstand any disaster, but the motors and pulleys and cheese-seeking mice never quite registered for me.
So it was with some hesitation that I downloaded Amazing Alex, the next game by the Angry Birds folks. It has all the friendly colors and streamlining of Rovio's money-printing slingshot game, but Incredible Machine's spirit clearly lives within. And I didn't think I had the Rube Goldberg skills to finish it.
But I did. I finished all 112 stages and collected the three stars in each. And it was the most fun I've had with my smartphone yet.
The tutorial stages start out easy enough, with dotted guides showing exactly where to drag the handful of shelves and dominoes and such in order to achieve the goal. Place your items, hit play, and enjoy the show.
Soon enough the training wheels come off and you'll have to think for yourself. The stage-specific toolboxes and curving challenge leave little room for improvisiation in the post-tutorial stretch, where the path to the objective is fairly obvious, and even the extra-credit stars aren't difficult to figure out.
But eventually, you'll load a new level with a sparse play area no no idea where to start. The objective looks impossible, the stars are far out of the way, and the available tools seem pointless. Alex's true worth is in these blank canvases, where experimentation is a necessity. The path to success is traveled one step at a time: take an object, play around with it, and see what happens. There's no penalty for making adjustments, and the perfect consistency of the physics system ensures that random chance won't be a factor as you tweak each step in the plan. I was surprised how many stages I finished after starting with an exploratory first step with no endgame in mind.
Shifting objects even a pixel's length can make a huge difference in the outcome, and unfortunately small adjustments are hardly intuitive in Alex. I'm still not quite comfortable swiping and tapping on touchscreens with my fingers, but the precision required in Alex takes my smartphone gaming objections to a whole new level. Human fingers were not meant to move tiny objects tiny distances on a tiny screen, yet Alex requires exactly that. I kept wishing I could play the game on my DS touchscreen, with a stylus, but alas.
Amazing Alex's other minor shortcoming is its unflinching devotion to communicating without text. It is mostly simple enough that arrows and circles convey all necessary meaning, but occasionally some elaboration would be nice. For example:
What is the objective there? Do I have to make that center green book fall onto the box? What about the other green books? They're circled but have no arrows. In a game where each stage has a different goal, it would be nice to have some explanation available, even if tucked away in a menu.
Alex also neglects to lay out the finer points of the control scheme. In the latter half of the game, the rope tool allows you to connect certain items together, but it never specifies what can and can't be attached. Further, you have to drag the items onto an exact spot on the rope, or the connection isn't made. I was stuck on one puzzle for half an hour because I was convinced that I couldn't attach the rope to a pre-set object in the stage. It was so difficult to make the connection that I figured it was impossible and tried other things. I had to look up the answer to find out it was even possible.
These frustrations are real and substantial problems with Alex, but the experience is too strong to be buried by them. Feeling out a solution in a nebulous situation is highly rewarding, more so than in games like Cut the Rope where there's only one right answer to discover. Much of the fun in Amazing Alex is in comparing solutions with friends and learning how others think through each challenge. There's even a feature to show off your solutions to friends, though it's only available in the iOS version of the game. Both Apple and Android have access to the intuitive level creation and sharing suites, where players can build a challenge and then e-mail it to their friends or upload it to Rovio's website.
Amazing Alex probably won't set the world on fire like Angry Birds did. But it helped me find some redemption after a chlldhood of Incredible Machine failure. That's enough to make it my favorite smartphone game yet.