August 23, 2012, 9:36 PM — Why take out the laundry when you can invent a machine to do it for you? That's the kind of creative thinking behind Amazing Alex, an invention-themed physics puzzler for the iPhone and iPad. (iPad owners have a separate, more expensive version called Amazing Alex HD.) Across dozens of levels, you'll help Alex build Rube Goldberg-esque inventions to accomplish domestic goals like moving boxes and popping balloons.
The game comes from Rovio, whom you might recognize from such previous iOS successes as the the Angry Brids franchise. Rovio didn't exactly invent the physics puzzler when it released Angry Birds, but instead took inspiration from other games (such as Crush the Castle) and packaged it with an adorable interface, creative setting, and a whole lot of polish. So it shouldn't be surprising that Amazing Alex takes inspiration from other physics puzzles such as Disney's The Incredible Machine and Chillingo's Cut the Rope. What is surprising is that Rovio's game is pretty much a repackaging of Casey's Contraptions, a game created by Noel Llopis and Miguel Ángel Friginal, whose rights were acquired by Rovio. The resulting game is safe, competent, but remarkably uninspired.
Each level of Amazing Alex is presented as a Rube Goldberg machine with missing parts. You're given a limited number of items to use per map and must carefully construct a solution to each puzzle. Often, you'll have to carefully manipulate pipes, balls, balloons, and pairs of scissors in order to get your puzzle to work just so. This can be a real challenge with the game's tap-and-drag interface, especially when you're trying to not only move a slingshot into position, but pull it back at the appropriate angle. Be prepared for lots of troubleshooting, failed attempts, and curses directed at the size of your fingers.
The game's difficulty ramps up considerably in the later levels--the difference between success and failure can be mere pixels. A few pixels to the left, and the bowling ball bounces into the boxing glove, which triggers the balloon, which is popped by the scissors. A few to the right, and nothing works and you have an aneurysm.
It's hard to criticize the game for being difficult, but it is fair to say that manipulating some objects (like the aforementioned slingshot) can be more of a headache than it's worth. You notice the missteps because the game is otherwise very precisely made, with the first few levels acting as a good tutorial to the game mechanics that you'll need to learn, explore, and ultimately master.
Like many puzzlers, you're rated on a star system so the best players will not only accomplish the defined goal of the level, but also collect all three stars. The game has dozens of levels and hundreds of stars to collect, ensuring you'll have hours upon hours to fine tune your contraptions.
Amazing Alex also comes with its own level creator, allowing you to build your own masochistic physics conundrum that you can share/inflict on your friends. The level creator is actually exceptionally intuitive, making it easy to hop online and download other people's levels: It's easily one of the high points of Amazing Alex.
The main issue with the game is that it's purely competent without being exceptional or original. The art style is too reminiscent of games already on the App Store that are more intuitive and identifiable. Alex seems like a nice kid, but his world of green pipes, wallpaper, and wooden planks gets old quickly. And while Amazing Alex boasts Rovio's telltale polish and solid gameplay elements, the app maker's creativity and charm are noticeably absent. Still, for the tinkerers out there, amateur level designers and gamers who enjoy feverishly trying to capture every achievement, Amazing Alex is a worthy, solidly-built challenge.
Former associate editor Chris Holt remains a frequent contributor to Macworld.