Daily iPad App: Machinarium

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Daily iPad App: Machinarium

Machinarium is a charming game with an arresting and engaging art style; it debuted on the Mac and PC platforms a couple years ago. It's very similar to the point-and-click adventure games that saw much popularity in the late 80s to early 90s. You must guide a robot character through a rusted, run-down cityscape populated entirely with robotic characters and cybernetic animal life, solving puzzles along the way in order to advance the story.

The art style and music, both of which are among the best I've seen in any game from any genre, combine with an eccentric storytelling method (told entirely without words) to deliver a unique and unforgettable experience.

Machinarium was incredibly fun (and challenging) when I played it on the Mac last year, and at the time I thought to myself that the game would be a perfect fit for the iPad. Fortunately, Amanita Design thought the same thing, and Machinarium is now available for the iPad 2. I specifically mention the iPad 2 for a reason; that's the only iOS device that has enough horsepower to run Machinarium.

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Playing through Machinarium on the iPad 2, you might wonder why a 2D adventure game like this will only run on Apple's most powerful iOS device while heavy-duty 3D games like Infinity Blade or Rage will run on the original iPad and iPhone 4 just fine. As it turns out, Machinarium was originally built entirely in Flash for desktop platforms, and it's been ported to the iPad 2 via Adobe AIR. This enabled the developers to deliver mostly the same experience as the desktop version, but it also meant that the iPad 2 was the only device able to run the game to their satisfaction.

"The memory limitations of iPad 1 (which are somewhere around 115 MB RAM per app) are just quite challenging," the developers said in response to complaints about the app not being available for the original iPad. "You have to have it running around 80-90 to keep it stable and the app has tons of timeline animations, the sources are 1 GB, all compiled into one single SWF file + some assets. The app was originally made for PC and upgraded for tablet devices. When you start creating tablet apps from scratch it's a whole different story. The game is now made with 'no compromises' compared to the desktop version and that keeps it unique."

Having played all the way through Machinarium on both the Mac and iPad 2, I'll say that the iPad version does come fairly close to the developer's "no compromises" claim. I compared screens from the iPad version and Mac version side by side. Apart from minor differences in some UI elements and a lack of multi-layer, faux-3D "foreground" elements on the iPad version (something I didn't even notice on the Mac version until comparing them), Machinarium on iPad 2 is in nearly every respect identical to the desktop version. The game's art style is a perfect fit for the iPad, and you'll almost certainly find yourself entirely absorbed into the game as you hold it in your hands.

However, while Machinarium on the iPad 2 runs very well and delivers an experience that's definitely worth the price tag, the app does demonstrate a few of the perils associated with porting Flash-based games onto a touchscreen device. Machinarium's Flash-based desktop iteration consumes around 70 percent of CPU resources on my MacBook Pro, a device with approximately 4.5 times the overall computing power of my iPad 2, so it's no surprise that only Apple's most powerful mobile hardware can handle the game even after porting it.

Porting the game into a more iOS-friendly format made it so Machinarium could run (and run well, without a hint of lag) on the iPad 2. However, the game is still very demanding on battery life; my iPad lost over a third of its charge after two hours of play, about the same amount of battery charge a turbo-3D game like Infinity Blade would consume.

Perhaps more frustrating is some interface elements for Machinarium's desktop version have been lost in translation on the touchpad interface -- another common caveat about porting Flash games to iOS. Controls in the desktop version of Machinarium were largely context-based; hovering the mouse pointer over certain areas of the screen would give users clues about what elements they could interact with and how they could interact with them. That context-sensitive interface is almost entirely gone from the iPad version of Machinarium, meaning that at some points the only way to progress is by tapping blindly on the screen and hoping something happens.

Additionally, the game can sometimes be confused about which action you're trying to take. One particularly frustrating example of this was on a screen where you have a choice between pushing a crate or climbing on top of it. Several times in a row the game thought I wanted to push the crate instead of climbing on it, and each time this resulted in a solid minute of animation from pushing the crate to the next screen over and back again. On the Mac version, with its context-sensitive and mouse-based controls, this was never an issue. As another example of how the desktop interface was somewhat lost in translation on the iPad, the game's built-in hint system relies on a minigame that was easy enough on a Mac with keyboard controls, but the same controls on a touchscreen made it frustratingly difficult.

None of these issues are knocks against Machinarium itself or its developers, but rather something to keep in mind when playing (or developing) any game that wasn't initially designed with a touchscreen interface in mind.

One more thing worth noting: while the art style may make it seem as though the game would be perfect for younger children, unless your kids are packing some serious brainpower it's likely they'll become frustrated by the game's challenging and sometimes elliptical puzzles. Heck, the same goes for adults; if you don't find yourself hurling four-letter words at the game during at least one of Machinarium's many puzzles, then submit your application to Mensa right now, brainiac.

Those complaints aside, Machinarium on the iPad 2 is definitely worth your time and your five dollars, especially if you never played the Mac version. Though the interface isn't a perfect translation to the iPad, the game's art, music, and charming story are each worth the price of admission on their own. When they're put together, five bucks feels like a bargain. Don't just take my word for it; as of this writing, Machinarium is the top-selling iPad app.

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