Back before Sierra became whatever ungodly combination of corporations they are now, Sierra made a ton of games. Mostly well-liked adventure games, like the Quest series, but every once in a while, they'd do something new, like publishing Japanese PC games for the American market. Sometimes, they'd try things besides adventure games, too. They published a few strategy and simulation titles, and occasionally an action game. One of these ventures, developed by a company called Dynamix who were known for games like Rise of the Dragon, ended up being pretty successful.
Ever seen a movie or a cartoon where a character makes a huge, incredibly complicated contraption with lots of little parts to do some simple task? That idea came from a cartoonist from the early to mid 1900s named Rube Goldberg, and The Incredible Machine ("TIM") games are pretty much an interactive homage to him and his cartoons.
The goal of every Incredible Machine game is pretty simple. You're given certain objects, which you have to rotate, place and sometimes program to complete a series of events to solve the level. Fail, and all you have to do is stop the puzzle and work on it some more. You don't have any time or retry limits, unlike a lot of puzzle games that just don't work with those kinds of mechanics.
Every level has a different goal for you to complete. Some are about getting an object to a certain point on the screen, like putting a basketball through a hoop, and others are about destroying or activating them, like turning on a can opener so a cat can get the food in it. You're given all kinds of things to use, like balloons, buckets, ropes and pulleys, and even a few animals. And to mix things up, occasionally the gravity and air pressure will be altered, too.
Aside from a few annoyances that wouldn't be ironed out until later games in the series, the first game plays pretty much like the rest of the games. There's only 65 puzzles in the game, not counting 22 skippable tutorials. Your progress is kept through a password like 'fish' or 'calculator', instead of being saved to disk like most computer games. There's also a sandbox mode called 'Freeform Machine', which gives you an unlimited supply of parts to place on the field to see what happens. You can save and load your creations, but there's no way to give them a winning condition, so it's only a curiosity.
If you can get past those few nitpicks, it's just as good as the newer games in the series. They never remade the puzzles in this game and its 'expansion', so if the password system and running the game from DOS doeesn't bother you, it'll probably just as good of a starting point as any other in the series.
The DOS version is the weakest of the versions, with Adlib quality music. The Macintosh version looks about the same, and doesn't have any real difference besides sounding better. The 3DO port is actually quite a bit different from the other ports. The graphics have changed and are lower resolution, and you have to scroll the screen in some of the puzzles to see everything, which is a pain. The puzzle set is a mix between the original DOS version and its expansion, with a CD soundtrack and voice acted goals. Controlling the game is a lot harder to do with a controller than a mouse, and the cursor's hard to move around. You also have to deal with the CD loading times. It's an OK port, but it'd be a lot better if the controls were smoothers and without the scrolling.
TEMIM is more of an expansion pack to the original TIM than than a full-fledged sequel. It has the same graphics as nitpicks as the original did, only now there's 150 brand-new puzzles to solve. There are a few new parts this time around though, including a character that's the focus of a lot of the new puzzles, Mel Schlemming. True to his name, he'll usually walk forward mindlessly until he bumps into a wall or falls off the screen. Most of the time, you'll try to clear a path for him so he can reach his house safely, but sometimes they'll want you to just blow him off the screen, or feed him to an alligator. Once again, the differences between versions are pretty minor, although with a sound card, the DOS version sounds much, much better. The CD version for Windows also has a CD soundtrack.
The original Incredible Machine was fairly grounded in reality, even if the situations you put the parts in got a little silly at times. But The Incredible Toon Machine gives the whole thing a cartoony look that's sort of like Tom & Jerry on a lot of drugs. All the puzzles are brand new, and are now broken into 5 difficulties. Your progress is also saved automatically, but you need a password to unlock each difficulty's hardest levels.
The gameplay's the same as the original TIM, but a lot of the parts are all-new, and some of them would show up again in the later games with a less cartoony look. Two of the 'parts' that are involved the most puzzles are Sid E. Mouse and Al E. Cat. (Dumb names, yes, but considering the game's inspiration, they fit perfectly.) Al will chase Sid around, and if he catches him, he'll eat him. Some of the puzzles will want you to accomplish this, and sometimes they'll want you to knock one of them off the screen or into a certain area, among a lot of other things. Sid and Al have a lot of silly animations, and it's fun to watch them and their reactions to whatever they run into in the puzzles. You can't fast-forward the puzzle to see if you've got the right solution, though, so with enough time, so given enough time, they can be kind of annoying. The sound effects are just as silly as they should be, with lots of silly screams and voice clips. Even the menus share the same toony style the rest of the game has. The Freeform Machine returns, with the small addition of being able to set which parts go in the player's parts bin and which parts stay on the field, but there's still no way to set the victory conditions.
A Windows version, titled the Incredible Toon Machine came out a year after the DOS version. There's no real graphical or sound differences, but there's a head-to-head mode with 50 puzzles where you and another player take turns placing parts on the field to finish the goal first. This game was also planned to be ported to the Sega CD, but was cancelled due to the general failure of the system.
Arthur to Astaroth no Nazomakaimura: Incredible Toons (アーサーとアスタロトの謎魔界村 インクレディブルトゥーンズ) - Saturn, PlayStation (1996)
About a year after Incredible Toons, Capcom licensed the game from Sierra and made their own version, only releasing it in Japan. The puzzles and parts are the same as the original game, but everything has a Ghosts 'n Goblins theme, now, with Arthur replacing Sid the Mouse and Astaroth, the bad guy of Ghosts 'n Goblins, taking the role of Al the Cat. It stars cute, chibi versions of the cast, including Arthur, Astaroth, Red Arremer, the Grim Reaper, the first level boss from Ghouls 'n Ghosts, and others. It has many items from the game too - for example, in order to get Arthur to move, you need to lure him with an armor power-up. There are also a few cutscenes, making this the only TIM game with a semblance of plot. The story scenes and the puzzle goals are in Japanese, but apparently, Princess Prin-Prin has been kidnapped. AGAIN. The controls work pretty well, although using a controller isn't quite as precise as the mouse. The soundtrack is full of remix songs from the G&G games, and it sounds pretty nice. Unfortunately, the Freeform Machine mode and the Head-to-Head mode are gone completely. It's a neat little curiosity but not really essential unless you're hardcore into both series.
The Incredible Machine 2 / The Incredible Machine Version 3.0 - DOS, Windows, Macintosh (1994 / 1995)
TIM2 is a complete and total improvement on the first game, fixing every nitpick and adding a few new features, too. Firstly, the password system is gone, letting you save your progress to your own profile, instead. Instead of one big list of puzzles, they're all split into 5 difficulties: Tutorial, Easy, Medium, Hard, and Really Hard. You can play any puzzle in any order you want, instead of having to complete the first few levels before moving onto the harder ones.
The gameplay is the same as the first game and its pseudo-sequel, with the addition of a few new parts, with some of them being 'programmable' to get them to look or behave differently. There's also a hint system, turning it on will show several pointing hands in different areas on the puzzle. Clicking on one will give a one-sentence hint from a character named Professor Tim on what you need to do in that spot. You aren't penalized for using the hints, but around the end of the Medium difficulty, they'll stop appearing at all. Another big improvement is the Freeform Machine mode. This time around, you can set winning conditions for your puzzles, and 'lock' them, keeping them from going into the player's part inventory. It's a lot more fun to use now, but any site that shares TIM puzzles is probably gone by now, sadly. The Head-To-Head mode returns, but now you're allowed to play on any puzzle this time instead of being confined to only the 2-player puzzles.
Other than that there's the expected graphic and sound improvement, with a new soundtrack with all kinds of music genres in it. Some puzzles also have background scenery instead of the plain sky background the first game had, something you can put in your own creations, too. The DOS version cames on floppy disks and CD, the difference being that the CD version has a CD soundtrack and voice acting for the hints. The CD version also appeared on Windows as The Incredible Machine 3, but there's no real difference besides being able to play from Windows.
Return of the Incredible Machine: Contraptions / The Incredible Machine: Even More Contraptions - Windows, Macintosh (2000 / 2001)
After the long wait between The Incredible Machine 2 / 3, ROTIM's a bit of a dissapointment. There's a few new puzzles in each of the difficulties, but a majority of them come from TIM2. There's a couple of minor improvements, though. The Freeform Machine mode now has the parts split into categories, so it's a little easier to build puzzles. Other than that, the only major difference is that the parts are all 3D-rendered, now, and that all the parts now have a help button to show a close-up of them and how they work.
Even More Contraptions is pretty much an expansion pack to ROTIM, but except for the first 50 tutorial puzzles from the original, the puzzles are brand-new. There's no new parts or graphics, though, so don't bother with it until you've played ROTIM to death.
Surprisingly, this mobile phone port is a brand-new game, instead of a port of the original. There's 80 new puzzles, and a slightly more cartoony art style, but no new parts. There's also not many sound effects, but you can unlock music and backgrounds for use when you play. Unfortunately, there's no puzzle creation feature at all.
Crazy Machines: The Wacky Contraptions Game / Crazy Machines 1.5: More Gizmos, Gadgets and Whatchamacallits - Windows, Macintosh, Nintendo DS, iOS (2005)
Since the release of Even More Contraptions, there haven't been any new games in the series at all. Maybe it was because of the death of the Sierra, a lack of new ideas, or both. A German company called FAKT Software made their own puzzle game that's so close to the TIM games, it might as well be a spiritual sequel. The graphics are all in full 3D with full light and shadows, although the gameplay still takes place on a 2D field. The physics are a bit more complicated than the TIM games, and pretty much every puzzle and part makes use of them somehow. The sillier parts, like the animals and Mel Schlemming don't have a counterpart, they're replaced with things like steam engines and dominos. There's even a scoring system, based on how much time you spend on the puzzle and how many parts you use. One minor flaw is the professor who constantly comments on what you're doing, but you can turn him off, not a big deal at all. Also, you have to unlock each puzzle as you go, so if you get stuck on one, you'll be unable to progress until you figure it out. Just like the TIM games, you can make your own puzzles with their own winning conditions, but there's no multiplayer modes. The game originally came out in Germany, with an expansion pack the same year. In 2005, it came out on American shores with the expansion pack, The New Challenges already included. The translation from the original German is kind of iffy at points, though.
Two more expansion packs came out in Europe in 2005 and 2006, and they both came out in one stand-alone game a year later, under the title Crazy Machines 1.5: More Gizmos, Gadgets and Whatchamacallits. The engine's the same, but there's a few new parts, like robots, bombs, and microphones. The Gold Edition includes all of the add-ons. A 2D version is also available for the Nintendo DS in Europe, and works quite nicely with the stylus.
In 2008 Crazy Machines was ported to the Nintendo DS. The puzzles are all new, and there's a few extra parts, but there's a few things that even for the DS shouldn't be missing. It's still not a bad game, even if it's a step back from the PC version in ways it shouldn't be. Aside from the regular puzzles which work the same way as every other CM game, there's also the addition of Action puzzles, where you get a few extra parts that need to be activated while the puzzle is running, like a crank you wind with your stylus and an air jet you power by blowing into the DS. It's a cool idea, but it adds an element of timing that doesn't really work in this kind of game.
The top screen is where you see your puzzle goal, and the puzzle itself is on the bottom screen. About the only use the buttons have in-game is scrolling through the goal text, everything important is done with the stylus. It doesn't have the precision of a mouse, but it works a lot better than you'd expect from a DS game.
The Construction Kit returns, and you can unlock new parts by beating enough puzzles. Unfortunately, you can't make goals for your puzzles any more, which even on a handheld like the DS feels is pretty baffling why they'd forget to include it. You're also only allowed to have 4 puzzles saved on the cartridge, which is a bit more understandable, but still pretty limiting.
The scoring system from the other games returns, but there's no way to actually save your scores, so it's hard to see why they'd even include it. Another minor flaw is that except for the main menu, there's no music in the game at all, which just gives you the constant feeling something's missing. Still, Crazy Machines is the kind of game that's perfect for a handheld system. Unfortunately, it's currently a Europe-only title right now, and it seems it's going to stay that way.
Crazy Machines 2 is a full sequel to the original Crazy Machines and its expansions, and there's a good bit of new stuff. The graphics are better, and now you can zoom, scroll, and rotate the view. It doesn't really help in the puzzles, but it's a nice addition. The physics are also much improved, using AGEIA's PhysX engine, and you can actually get 20 special puzzles if you have their hardware on your computer.
There are 150 new puzzles, with a "World Tour" being the main mode. There's 120 puzzles in it, split into 12 chapters, but you can play the puzzles in the chapter you're currently in in any order. You don't have to beat every puzzle to move on, either, about 7 out of 10 will do. Each chapter is set in a different location in the world, with different backgrounds and music, which is a nice improvement over the plain backgrounds and lack of music the original game had.
The first Crazy Machines had a simple scoring system, but the sequel improves on it a little. All puzzles have a secondary goal you can accomplish for extra points, and depending on your time, number of parts used, and how many times you've had to use the new hint system to help you, you can get a bronze, silver or gold medal. Unfortunately, there's no way to improve on your old scores unless you reset a chapter's progress. There's been a couple of expansions since the release of the game, with Crazy Machines 2 Add-On coming out in 2008. It adds 60 new puzzles and 12 extra parts, like monster trucks and hot-air balloons. There's also the Liquid Force add-on, which add 20 new puzzles based around using water to solve them.
The DS version is more or less an expansion pack to the original game. There's a few new parts, and the game borrows the around-the-world theme the PC version had. There's more background variety, with each country having its own background, and there's even music this time, too. There's no improvements to the puzzle editor, though, so it'd be best to save this one for when you've done absolutely everything you can in the original.
It's pretty easy to tell that Mechanic Master got its inspiration from the TIM games, but it actually does things a little differently. Instead of having a different goal in each stage, you have to use the parts you're given to get rid of all the purple aliens on screen by either splattering them, knocking them off the screen, or sending them into black holes. Sometimes, you'll need to rescue trapped Earthlings too. The lack of goal variety is a bit of a step back from TIM, but it doesn't make the game any less challenging.
There's 100 puzzles, split into two types of gameplay. The first type is your usual kind of TIM-style puzzle solving, using the stylus to place and rotate parts to make sure everything works right. The other kind uses a more creative way to use the DS's touch screen. You use the stylus to draw rainbow lines for objects to travel on, like Kirby's Canvas Curse. On some levels, you get the ability to make sets of portals by drawing circles on the screen, and anything that goes in one will end up out of the other.
The puzzles usually take up more than the bottom screen can fit, so sometimes you'll need to scroll around by using the D-Pad or dragging the stylus. The bottom screen is where the game happens, and the top screen is where you can see a mini-map of the puzzle. Holding the stylus over something will explain what it does, which can really help. It's also a little hard sometimes to draw the exact lines and shapes you need, but that's not really the fault of the game.
The graphics and sounds work well enough for this genre, but they aren't especially exciting or technically advanced. Everything is 2D spritework, which is really nice to see again after so many of these types of games. There's a decent number of songs in the soundtrack, but none of the songs are good or bad enough to really say anything about them. The puzzle editor's a big improvement from the Crazy Machine games, too, with a lot more places to save your creations in and the feature to decide which parts go into the field and parts bin, plus being able to make puzzle for both kinds of gameplay.
It's pretty hard to decide if Mechanic Master is a TIM-style puzzler than either of the Crazy Machine games. The lack of variety in puzzle goals might make the game more boring if you get into it far enough, but Mechanic Master feels more polished and has a better puzzle editor, if you're into that kind of thing. Plus, it's the only way you'll be able to play a TIM game on a portable without importing.
The fate of the series has been a little bleak, with Sierra and its properties being passed around with a load of companies. There is hope, though. A company called PushButton Labs, co-founded by Jeff Tunnell, the series creator, says that in October 2009, they picked up the rights to TIM. Hopefully one day we'll get new game for the DS and modern-day consoles. Also, they're selling a pack of all the TIM games on Good Old Games, so it shouldn't be too hard to pick up and try out.