Casey, meet Alex. Or become him, either way.
Amazing Alex is a dark, macabre story. One day, Casey from Casey’s Contraptions simply disappears without a word. His family is worried sick. They search everywhere, fearing the worst. Suddenly, they find him on the side of the road! Except it isn’t him, is it? He’s unharmed and innocent, to be sure. And happy. A little too happy. Like Casey though, he gets right back to tinkering with toys and home brewing elaborate machines, building more than ever. All with a hollow, dead-eyed smile on his face. What happened to their son!?
All right, I give. That’s the plot to Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick’s A.I. But in some senses, I feel it has a little bit of truth to it. On paper – and even in practice – Amazing Alex is sleeker, more modernized version of Casey’s Contraptions: the playful puzzler developed by Snappy Touch whose rights were purchased by Angry Birds giant Rovio. And yet for everything gained in the transition, there’s a charming je ne sais quoi that seems to have been cast off.
For those who never played the original game (but who have doubtless heard of this one thanks to the all-seeing eye of Rovio HQ’s marketing), Amazing Alex is a game with its DNA firmly planted in the works of master tinkerer Rube Goldberg. Taking the role of mischevious, potentially artificially intelligent Alex (all right, I’ll drop it!), you cobble together elaborate machines that appear more like miniature obstacle courses. Pipes that lead a tennis ball into a basket. A balloon that sets of a chain reaction of books-turned-dominoes. All to snag three strategically placed stars, and earn the right to experiment with more complex toys: boxing gloves, magnets, swinging baskets.
To say that Amazing Alex retains the style of play that made Casey’s Contraptions an App Store classic is very much a forgone conclusion. To be clear, Rovio hasn’t changed anything functional about this IP. In fact, for this initial release, they’ve maintained level-for-level the game the game that was removed from the store when Casey’s Contraptions was purchased. And before you previous Casey owners get too up in arms over the issue, let me tell you why that’s actually a good thing.
Casey’s Contraptions was a great idea. A wonderful, childlike idea with tons of depth, whose genesis we clearly see in PC-era classics like The Incredible Machine. By maintaining the game writ large, Rovio is capitalizing on the all the things SnappyTouch had going for them with the original. Namely, the instant allure of taking things we think we recognize (boxes, balls, books, balloons) and turning them into something else entirely: elevators, ramps, funnels, seesaws, anvils.
While perhaps dwelling too long on the “tutorial” mindset, the game ultimately finds its way to a puzzle-lovers sweet spot, with masterful design allowing for many solutions for each puzzle, all while requiring you to carefully consider the effect of each item. And in that perfect place between slapdash and impenetrable, Casey’s Contraptions found something foundational to fun: a sense of creation. A sense that despite the constraints of a created world, you were still the one doing the building, and coming up with answers only you had thought of. Far from lazy, Rovio proves just how clever they are by refusing to mess with that. And in the process, Amazing Alex‘s gameplay loses nothing for it.
My only complaint – and one which I’m hesitant to make since Casey’s Contraptions no longer exists anymore – is the comparative hollowness that lies at the heart of Amazing Alex. Where Casey felt like a hand-drawn, curious surrogate for the player’s assumed sense of wonder, Alex feels like a character straight from a Saturday morning cartoon. The world he inhabits is no doubt more relatable to the masses, but it feels like the difference between a book and a movie. One opens up a world that dances around inside your brain, while the other paints for you every detail, leaving little left to dream up.
Luckily, the game itself gains immeasurably from the one thing Rovio does add: the puzzle creator SnappyTouch had always hoped to give fans. Like the brilliant tools of Matt Rix’s Trainyard, Amazing Alex‘s puzzle creator allows you to use all the tools to which you have access in the main game to assemble custom puzzles that can be sent to your friends via e-mail, or uploaded directly to the web at build.amazingalex.com. From here, Rovio should be commended for creating a smooth-as-butter system for accessing other puzzles.
Simply head to the custom puzzle section of the game, select the web icon, travel briefly to a browser-based assortment of every custom puzzle every made, and tap the one you like. Instantly, it will boot up back inside your collection, and allow you to earn stars for its completion. As a result of the system’s unrestricted rules (you need only demonstrate once that you can get three stars in your puzzle), there are certain to be some painfully simple or purposefully obtuse creations that feel like a waste of time. But with the game out one day, I’m already sifting through 248 pages of fan-made content, and that is amazing. A la Little Big Planet, there is literally no reason Amazing Alex has to end for those who enjoy it. And with a “featured” spot at the top of the build page, there’s tons of unspoken incentive to push yourself to craft something others will love.
It may have lost a little bit of its personal touch, but for better or worse, Casey’s Contraptions is Amazing Alex now. And with the same great gameplay, a dauntingly endless set of custom levels, and a company behind that has the resources to churn out tons of free content? I’d say that’s better. Amazing, even.