They Turned Chemistry Into The Next Game You Should Play

A friend who was recently planning his amusement for a 14-hour flight asked me for a game recommendation.

You will only need one game for the entire flight, I told him.

Shortly afterward we sat down. I produced my iPad and proof. The proof is called SpaceChem.

SpaceChem must be recommended with warnings. It is a game about chemistry sexed up with the short skirt of assembly line management. I told my friend he would enjoy SpaceChem if he didn’t mind feeling nerdy. My friend will also have to enjoy feeling like the architect and foreman of an auto plant.

This is a puzzle game based on partially fake science. Each SpaceChem mission requires the player to produce molecules from atoms. The atoms and molecules are accurate. The game even includes the Periodic Table for reference. The means of constructing these small particles is not.

[imgclear] My inefficient process for making ammonia. It works, in the game, but it could use some tightening.

The SpaceChem player is given grids, some assembly line track to draw through those grids and a batch of commands to place along those paths. With that, you will assemble molecules.

Let’s say a level of the game tasks you to create water, H2O. You will draw and program one line so that it summons and snatches a hydrogen atom, places it on the left of three adjacent bonding circles and then does that again, but puts the second hydrogen on the circle on the right.

Before setting your hydrogen conveyer in action, you will draw and program another line to drag an oxygen between the hydrogens, activate the bonding circles to forge the H2O molecule and ferry it to an output area.

Since you will need to make 10 water molecules, the two assembly lines will need to loop and not fall so out of sync that they start outputting HO instead. They probably will, so it is good that the game allows the lines to be halted so you can redraw or reprogram them.

You believe me now? Nerdy. Assembly Line… Not work. Fun.

Levels in this game last a long time, because your brain will be taxed trying to figure out the proper process, more so when the game zooms out and requires you to assemble multiple molecules in multiple reactors en route to forging one final molecule (as seen in the screenshot atop this post).

The game’s long play sessions will keep my friend occupied on his flight, but so will the problematic touch controls, less cheerfully. SpaceChem was originally made for computers, where it’s been available for months (we’ve called that version “frightening/” and “addictive”). With a mouse, the precision required for laying all these assembly line tracks and commands is no problem, but even on the big screen of an iPad, the human finger is too fat to easily tweak a complex part of SpaceChem assembly line. Laying the line out is fine, but once you need to press on certain parts of a spaghetti of track, you’ve got yourselves a molecule of a problem. My friend will spend part of his flight wishing he could see through his fingers, I am sure of it. The solution would seem to be to magnify portions of the screen with a touch, but that’s not in there.

The fat-finger limitations of the touch control do not ruin the game, but they add unnecessary frustration to a game that already points out to you on its menu screen that there is a more robust version of the game available for computers. (The iPad version lacks the computer version’s bosses and some other features it’s ok to live without.) Surely this game controls best with a mouse or would with a stylus.

I expect my friend to have a good flight, as long as he’s taking off on or after October 1, the day SpaceChem for iPad becomes available (for $US5.99). Touch issues notwithstanding, the game is a nerdy wonder. It’s a stellar puzzle game well worth your time and brain cells.

It’ll be on iTunes on October 1.

SpaceChem official site

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