As a kid I loved playing board games like Mouse Trap; watching the domino effect of different items making the simplest action occur was and is undeniably enjoyable. What is not enjoyable is trying to create digital contraptions reminiscent of Mouse Trap with an Xbox 360 controller. That is what Crazy Machines Elements for XBLA, the latest entry in the Crazy Machines franchise, is all about. The premise behind the game is solid: it is puzzle game reminiscent of Rube Goldberg machines. These range from simply clearing the way for a toy truck to roll across the screen to creating intricate switches and levers in order to change gravity at a specific time in order to launch a rocket.
There are three different modes in Elements: Puzzles, Challenges and Editor. The puzzle mode contains most of the content. There are 100 puzzles divided into nine packs, each with its own theme. The puzzles are essentially incomplete Rube Goldberg contraptions in which you must fill in the missing pieces. Often puzzles will have an object set to go in motion once you start the “machine.” But that is not always the case. This can lead to some more frustrating puzzles where you might not be sure where to put the object to start the chain reaction. More frustrating still is that Elements has no tips system in place whatsoever. Because of this, I often completed puzzle without using all the parts and as a result felt like I was cheating the game. But not in a good way because I did not feel smarter than the game, I felt like I could not discern what it wanted me to do.
If you find the puzzles too easy, however, there are also challenges. Challenges are much more open ended than the puzzles. Like puzzles, you solve them by placing objects into the environment but whereas the puzzles only give you a certain number of specific objects, challenges give you a pool of objects to use with no specified limit on any of them. The catch is that each object is assigned a price and you are given a set amount of money. The challenges are neat because there seems to be no preset method for you to follow in order to complete them. It is a shame there are only twenty of these in the game. In addition to that, while Elements does have leaderboards for challenges, there is no in-game way to see how other people have completed them. I for one would love to see just how elaborate or economic the solution to a challenge could be.
Elements also has an editor mode. This mode is very similar to map editors in many games. You are given a blank slate and can fill it in with whatever you want to. One of the game biggest downfalls though is there is nothing you can do with the puzzles you create them. You have no way of sharing it with anyone except via loading it on to a USB drive and physically carrying it to another Xbox.
Element’s graphics are okay at best. They sport a cartoony look that is playful and fits with the music very well. But there is an air of messiness to the game’s presentation. For one, all the company and product logos at the start of the game are incredibly pixelated. While this obviously does not affect gameplay, it gives off the impression that the developers did not care very much about this port. Elements is also available for the PC and although I have only played its demo, I found no such pixilation in the PC version. I also noticed that the XBLA port does not have many of the graphical effects that are in its PC counterpart. I understand why that is the case in larger titles that push graphical boundaries but even on high settings the PC version does not look that good. I see no reason as to why the Xbox version does not match the PC’s quality of visuals.
There is a fun game inside of Crazy Machines Elements, I know there is. It is simply hard to find it in the XBLA version. That is mostly because placing objects in the environment is a chore. When you load your first level, the franchise’s PC roots become glaringly obvious. Selecting items is done with an onscreen cursor and the cursor is controlled with the Xbox’s analog stick. I thought we were past this; analog sticks cannot replicate the feel and precision of a mouse and this is a prime example of that. The game’s interface seems much more suited for Kinect rather than a classic controller setup.
Another problem that I ran into is the way the game’s physics work. Sometimes placing an object into the environment will change how other objects behave, like an NVIDIA butterfly effect. Sometimes placing a metal plank on one side of the screen will spontaneously change how a tennis ball bounces on the other side of the screen even though they do not touch in anyway. This made some puzzles more difficult than they should have been for obvious reasons. I mean why does a magnet have any effect on a basketball rolling across wooden boards?
Crazy Machines Elements is a solid puzzle game that lets you relive the glory days of playing Mouse Trap or perhaps discover for it the first time. The puzzles themselves are solid despite the games frustrating controls and occasionally wonky physics. None of the game’s problems affect the feeling you get when you do complete a puzzle and watch the intricate components work together to make something explode, be crushed or take off. These problems simply affect how enjoyable the process of solving them is. While Crazy Machines Elements for the Xbox 360 is serviceable, I recommend looking into the PC version if it sounds like some you are interested in.