Can we just say, right up front: why 'Mechanic Master'? Why not Master of Mechanics, Mechanical Master or, in the spirit of full disclosure, The Incredible Mechanical Machine? Call it the sniffy pretension of writers if you must, but Mechanic Master must qualify as one of the most leaden and grammatically irritating titles around. Still, once you get past that particular hurdle, MM turns out to quite a nifty little pocket puzzler on the DS
While it is deeply inspired by The Incredible Machine, MM is just about different enough to stand on its own merits. It's also such a natural fit for the DS that it's puzzling why The Incredible Machine hasn't been ported over. Not that it matters anymore as Mechanic Master provides pretty much all the contraption wrangling fun you'll need. The story, such as it is, centres around an alien invasion force that can only be defeated with wacky combinations of tennis balls, power tools, buckets and ray guns but you really don't need to concern yourself with why any of this is happening. We certainly didn't.
Two different types of puzzle are on offer. The first presents you with a preset arrangement of doo-dads, widgets and knick-knacks on the touch screen, and a small selection of placeable thingies, whatsits and geegaws. The objective is to add the placeables to the overall arrangement so that when you press play, gravity will cause things to fall, slide, detonate and generally interact, causing a chain reaction that will somehow remove or crush a lurking alien (or two) from the screen, and/or free a captured human. So a tennis ball falls on an air pump which shoves a lighter into a rocket wheel that turns a chain connected to a conveyor belt that drops a heavy weight on top of an alien. That sort of thing.
The second type of puzzle takes away the placeable thingummies and instead lets you draw platforms, slides and portals that will guide various falling and sliding objects to useful, alien-crushing or human-freeing ends. Drawing uses the stylus and is as easy as you would expect it to be. Portals are created by sketching a quick circle, which then summons up entry and exit portals that you can shift around as you see fit. Whatever goes in one comes out the other.
The game contains 50 of each type of puzzle. They start out easily enough but by the time you get to around the mid-twenties, expect to be confronted with some nuggety problems. A screen with items strewn all across it can be intimidating at first, though a quick stab at the play button will usually give you a hint as to where to start - anything that falls freely is a good source of the kinetic energy needed to get things going. Experience will also teach you to 'read' each puzzle for clues. An object trapped between two girders will usually need to be drilled free, so it's not too tricky to find where that driller among your placeables needs to go. Then again, later puzzles often include arrangements of items that might have nothing to do with the final solution, so it doesn't pay to get too cocky.
There's often more than one way to solve a puzzle, some less elegant than others. We'll admit to fluking our way through a few puzzles by just chucking items wherever and seeing what happened. There's a decent little physics engine powering the game, so you can get a little creative with your solutions. We rarely felt like we were searching for a single pre-determined solution and were rarely led astray by items not interacting in a manner roughly analogous to the real world.
The game keeps track of how long you take to solve each puzzle, so the obsessive can always go back and try for a better time but we didn't feel particularly compelled to revisit any puzzles. Time is better spent with the game's puzzle designer, which lets you whip up your own head scratchers and inflict them on your friends. Rather than designing actual puzzles, we had more fun simply setting up ridiculously convoluted chain reactions and chuckling quietly as they unfolded, more or less, as intended. You can transmit your creations from DS to DS but there's no Picross-style online depository of downloadable puzzles.
It's a graphically simple game, edging on blandness, and we'd have liked to have seen a bit more oomph in the animation. Squashed aliens just sort of twinkle out of existence rather than exploding in a shower of goo, which keeps the game suitable for youngsters but also makes things feel a bit less 'mad scientisty' than it could. Chain reactions can sometimes feel more like polite trundles to the finish line than insane and dangerous experiments.
Still, Mechanic Master is surprisingly entertaining and solid. It's not the sort of thing anyone's going to get wildly enthusiastic about but it is what it is and, in its own humble way, does it well with minimal irritations. It's not going to set the gaming world aflame but it's something you won't regret taking on a long trip, or using as a defensive shield should you find yourself surrounded by drunken relatives during the upcoming festive season.