March 28, 2007 6:34 PM |
["Beyond Tetris" is a column from Tony "Tablesaw" Delgado about puzzle games that transcend mere abstract action and instead plunge deep into the heart of problem-solving. Today's unfortunately delayed installment looks at an overlooked handheld game: Nemesis Factor.]
It has been a staple of the adventure game since Zork. It burst into the public consciousness in Myst. It has been recreated countless times across the internet in room-escaping Flash games. It has many forms; it has no name; it is The Machine of Unknown Purpose with Buttons You Can Press.
The Machine of Unknown Purpose with Buttons You Can Press has opened doors, revealed clues, and even turned on other Machines of Unknown Purposes with Buttons You Can Also Press. Sometimes, it has no purpose other to be solved, for points or bragging rights. But for whatever reason, the buttons must be pressed, in the right order, at the right times, without making a mistake, in order to succeed.
Perhaps you have wondered what you would do if you were confronted by The Machine of Unknown Purpose with Buttons You Can Press in real life, a physical Machine with Buttons You Can Press using your fingers instead of with a mouse or keyboard.
wonder no more. The Machine of Unknown Purpose with Buttons You Can Press exists, and its name is Nemesis Factor.
Nemesis Factor was produced by Hasbro (the producers of Lights Out) in 2001. (In a blog post on the game, Ken Jennings seems to think that it was released in 1981, but that's wildly incorrect.) Like all Machines of Unknown Purposes with Buttons You Can Press, it has a fairly straightforward interface. There are five colored buttons: red, orange, yellow, green, and blue. (At least, that's what they're supposed to be. I find that the green and blue look more like blue and violet, respectively.) The buttons light up, and you must light all five of them. The game is divided into 100 levels, each with one puzzle. Ostensibly, the goal for each is the same—light all the buttons—but in each level, the methods change drastically. Up to four people can save their progress, though each player has to play separately.
The first few levels only require pressing the buttons. They're very simple, and plenty of the initial patterns will be familiar to adventure-gamers. After five puzzles, the game introduces the speaker, and the game begins to speak before and after your button presses. By providing limited feedback to your actions, the game really starts to feel like a portable graphic adventure: you figure out what the buttons do, you put them in order, you press the buttons.
But unlike most adventure games, Nemesis Factor keeps ramping up the difficulty. Not only does the speaker provide increasingly baroque prompts and responses, the game soon reveals that it has more ways to receive input than you expect. Pretty soon, even mostly straightforward puzzles require quickly sorting through several different possibilities. And the final levels, even the ones that don't use all of the tricks of the device, are incredibly difficult to tease out.
The game includes a scoring system, which is mostly annoying (you get docked if you press too many buttons trying to solve a level), and a hint system which is excellent. Though I advise working through the game without resorting to it, if you get painfully stuck (or if you're trying to get through most of the game on a deadline), each level can provide two clues, which are pretty good at nudging you to the right place.
Despite embodying such a common videogame puzzle trope, Nemesis Factor hasn't made much of an impact. It was awarded Best Puzzle in the 2003 Games 100, but it's not clear why it wasn't listed the year before. The puzzle disappeared from shelves pretty soon after. I remember seeing it in the stores at the time, but just looking at the box, it was hard to imagine the kind of deep challenges that the game actually offered. I imagine most people had the same reaction, and the game went largely unnoticed. I didn't hear any word of mouth until after it was out of stores.
Unlike most of the games I write about, there are no clones of Nemesis Factor, and no way to play the game online. If you want to solve these puzzles, your only hope is to grab one off eBay. For goodness' sake, I haven't even seen straight rip-offs. The unusual interface of the original machine makes a complete duplicate unlikely, but with the number of Machines of Unknown Purposes with Buttons You Can Press growing ever larger in videogames, one would expect that someone would have tried to steal from Nemesis Factor. Of course, I don't want to encourage plagiarism, but at the very least, the Flash programmers of the world could look at how these puzzles work. They're marvelous, and they offer insight into the possibilities of The Machine of Unknown Purpose with Buttons You Can Press, which lay far beyond matching colors and playing a melodies you heard elsewhere.
The team behind Nemesis Factor isn't listed anywhere on the Web (other than a few mentions of respected puzzle constructer Dave Tuller), but hopefully they will bring some sort of sequel to the world. Or perhaps someone, anyone else, will be inspired to bring the Nemesis flavor to The machine of unknown Purpose with Buttons You can Press. If the legions of escape-the-room games are any indication, we're ready for Nemesis Factor II. Think about the playful surprises of recent DS adventure games, and imagine what they could be in the hands of truly inspired—and truly devious—puzzle desginers.
[Tony Delgado is a member of the National Puzzlers' League, and a solver and creater of puzzles of all sorts. Other than his work as the copy chief for The Gamer's Quarter, he finds his job unsatisfying and is open to career-change suggestions.]
Categories: Column: Beyond Tetris