The Incredible Machine’s Wild and Wonderful Journey

I have a buddy who I’ve been friends with my whole life.  Nowadays it seems like we only hang out in bars, but long before we found happiness in competitive drinking, we had to make due with video games.  And not the cool video games we all still love to this day, with automatic weapons and fatalities; I’m talking the games parents buy to try and trick their kids into learning something.  So about a year before we got our hands on Doom and Mortal Kombat, we sat down to open a copy of The Incredible Machine.

We were...less than thrilled

But whatever; we got a new game, so why not give it a try.  We installed it and sat down to figure it out and holy hell, it was great.  The graphics for the time weren’t bad, and for kids that had never heard of a Rube Goldberg machine, this was actually really interesting.  We did a few of the challenges, but the real fun came when we designed challenges for each other to figure out.  This was my very first “sandbox” game and for the first time I could do whatever I wanted to.  I could make a line of little people march stupidly into an alligator’s mouth just as easily as I could create an enormously complex system of pulleys, conveyor belts, and levers just to turn on a light.  It was an extension of something I had already been doing for a few years: drawing out the weirdest machines my imagination could come up with.  Now, I could set those drawings into motion, and I was captivated.

It would be years before anyone recognized my genius...

I loved the game so much that I didn’t want to be limited to playing it only when I went to my friend’s house.  So I bugged my parents until a copy came to me in the form of an Easter present.  It was a great Easter until the computer decided it didn’t want to run it.  The specs were all correct, so to this day the only logical conclusion is that my old computer was just a giant dick.  Oh well, fast forward a few years and I managed to get my hands on The Incredible Machine 2.  Between The Incredible Machine and the Maxis Sim games, I spent far too much of my childhood playing computer games.  And according to most people’s standards, not even the fun ones.  Regardless, I had a great time, and for most of my life I loved seeing the Sierra logo during start-up.

That is until, no joke, I studied Sierra Entertainment in law school.  Of course it turned out that one of my all-time favorite video game developers as a kid was embroiled in a major investment fraud scheme that cost billions of dollars and collapsed the company.  Sierra then went, in my mind, from the ranks of beloved developers like Maxis to among the ranks of assholes like Bernie Madoff, Enron, and Arthur Andersen.  As I write this, the former CEO of Sierra is still in prison.  And so law school ruined that for me too, just like everything else in my life.

Not to mention, every single one of those books is really, really boring.

But I think I’m getting off topic.  The point remains that The Incredible Machine is one of my all time favorite franchises.  One of the cool things about the games is that they did not use a random number generator in the calculation of physics, so all machines could be infinitely replicated.  There were just tons and tons of parts one could choose from: from the mundane and obvious like gears and motors to the weird and unique like cats and anti-gravity machines.  You could tweak the physics to however you wanted to, and because you could basically do whatever you wanted, a bored kid could waste hours making up different scenarios and challenges.  It truly was an innovative game and I always wished that whoever bought the IP after Sierra would have kept it going.  It wasn’t until yesterday that I discovered they still had, but more on that in a moment.

In the interim, I found what I imagined would be a similar game.  Jsixgun had told me about it, and seeing as we had both recently bought Nintendo DS’s, I was excited to try it out.  It was called Scribblenauts, and as he described it:  “You can type in whatever you want and it will appear.  You then use those items to complete puzzles.  I, as a proud illiterate, will not be playing.”  His mercury poisoning as-of-then undiagnosed, I thought the game sounded really cool, and so I bought a copy.  And it was a really neat concept.  You literally could type whatever you wanted to into the game and it would appear, helping you reach an otherwise impossible-to-reach star.

It was a weird game.

But see, the limitless potential was actually the game’s downfall.  Because I found that basically three objects could complete every level, I couldn’t think of anything else to use, and thus ended up using the same things over and over again.  Part of the challenge, I guess, was to use new things each time, but since the game didn’t prevent it, I succumbed to cheating when it got hard and subsequently got bored.  But for a time it was an engaging game and for the first time in years I was reminded of The Incredible Machine.  Because both games were based around using weird and random objects to achieve an objective, I saw in them a common spirit.  But I grew bored with that game, and having realized the hope of a new Incredible Machine was dead, I moved on to other things.

No, not planking. I moved on to stealing laughing gas while dentists did stupid things...

To keep a long story still pretty long, I ended up finding out yesterday that Disney (yeah I know, wtf?) had recently released a new Incredible Machine for the iPad.  Me, being a proud new iPad owner, decided to download it.  And guess what?  Meh.  Yeah, it was quite a bit like the original; it had similar graphics, mostly the same gadgets, and it brought back that tingly feeling that some call nostalgia and others call an overdose.  But at the same time there is no free mode, the levels are super easy, they choose which tools you can use (and how many) for each specific level, and for some reason the format just reminds me of Angry Birds, right down to a star-rating system.  It’s like they feared the mouth-breathing masses would be offended by too much freedom when it came to including millions of objects that one can freely choose from and physics the user can fiddle with, so they took it all out, dumbed it down, and released this instead.

I know people are stupid, but the next step isn't to remove the chain so even the smart people can't use it...

In the end, I’m not surprised that a company like Disney would trim it down in the hopes that even a fourth grader can enjoy it, but I’d like to remind them that as a fourth grader I liked the old version plenty.  What especially irritates me is that they preselect the tools I’m supposed to use to complete each level, which basically takes all level of thinking and creativity out of the game and replaces it with a mindless instruction manual.  I hate this new trend of releasing newer games with less options, and I’m sad to see that what could have been an amazing follow-up end up being just another Angry Birds clone.  Developers need to give their consumers more credit, like they did twenty years ago when they were robbing their investors blind.  Oh well…


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