It’s rare to find games that have the right mix of deceptive simplicity, devilish difficulty and subtly addictive gameplay. SpaceChem gets pretty close.
The game idea is pretty simple. You have molecules made of atoms. You must turn them into other molecules. You have two “waldos” that manipulate atoms making “science!” happen. It’s so simple it’s hard to put it into words; the official introduction video makes a good job of it, however:
There are a few things that make this game stand out. Since however you’ll find a dozen reviews on the usual places, I’ll just focus on the one that struck me the most. That would be the performance report.
For every task, you are told how well you in terms of “symbols” (instructions), “cycles” (time) and “reactors” (work units).
The presentation is so cleverly simple, it’s painful. Instead of showing a flat table of high scores, the developers decided to simply render the entire table with bar charts, most of which became shaped like Gaussian bells. The yellow line (“LAST”) marks where your solution stands. Players on the left did better than you, players on the right did worse.
It also is a great source of motivation. “So many people have done better than me, it can’t be too hard. Clearly I screwed up somewhere.” I found myself spending hours shaving cycles off solutions just to move that yellow line into a more flattering position.
Finally, you decide when your solution is “good enough” and it is time to stop. This “competitive” part of the game is entirely optional, after all.
When you do reach a brag-worthy solution, sharing it is also extremely easy. Instead of messing with recording software and encoding of the output thereof, the game provides a big fat “YouTube” button. The output isn’t breathtaking, but often effective:
The demo is very generous, with enough of the game to seriously challenge “casual” players (that wouldn’t be you, however ;)). Be warned, though; I’ve seen some videos of the later stages and, spoiler alert, the puzzles can become quite difficult later on. YouTube has plenty of videos with solutions of later stages, however, so you won’t get stuck easily.
$15 will buy you the game for Windows, Ubuntu, Mac and Steam. (Mono required; users of other Linux distros will need to fiddle with the .deb manually. It still easily beats having to use Wine.)
What are you waiting for? Go make science happen, foo.