2011-03-28 by . 5 comments

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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).

You certainly can do better than that, young padawan.

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.

Fast, Small and Clean. Pick any three.

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.

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  • DMA57361 says:

    Gave the demo a spin a quick spin last night because of this post, and I have to a say my first impression is very positive.

    And I’ve just re-watched your video, and it’s made me notice something I was missing – the waldos don’t have to be carrying an atom (or even be near the bonders by the looks of things) for the bond instructions to work?! Did the tutorial tell me this and I simply wasn’t paying enough attention? It doesn’t matter, but I’m sure that trick will come in handy… :)

    • badp says:

      Nope! BOND+ (and BOND−) affect all bonders in the reactor. Also you can have the blue and the red waldo run two BOND+ (or two BOND−) instructions at the same time to bond twice as fast.

    • DMA57361 says:

      Heh, you should see the mess I’ve probably been making by looping and rotating things multiple times in to the same location, just to get a double or triple bond… and all this time all I had to do was drop them and hit a few +’s. And simultaneous bonding? Even better…

      I do love a game that appears to be simple but has much hiding under the surface. :D

  • GnomeSlice says:

    I have yet to play the game, but I’ve heard some of the soundtrack; it’s EXCELLENT.

  • jaminja says:

    I decided to give the game a try after reading this, and I was very impressed. It’s a really interesting concept for a puzzle game. I find the gameplay is difficult to explain to other people, even the videos don’t really do it justice, but once you’ve tried a few levels, it really gets your brain working.

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