Before we get into the meat of this review, I believe a little bit of personal background needs to be shared. First, I have been playing games on computers since the days of SubLogic Flight Simulator on the TRS-80 Model I. Pixels were as large as warehouses back then, and the color palette was composed exclusively of bold colors like black and white. There weren’t any shades of grey, either. It was nowhere near the 50 shades that are so popular with my spouse. Eventually the IBM PC came out and we were blessed with a palette of 4-bit color, which delivered at most 16 colors. It was just enough to keep us wanting more. The resolution wasn’t a whole lot better, either. I do not look back at those years nostalgically in the least.
Also influencing my views in this case is that I spent the last 40 years developing software. Initially it was little programs written in Basic on the TRS-80, some of which would have qualified as video games, albeit built with ASCII characters. Thirty of those years were in a professional capacity. I was never big into exotic or arcane solutions; my answer to demands to comment my code was to write code at what I called a “3rd grade level.” The idea was to make the code readable and comment only on things that might not be readily understood - things like recursion and the like.
So, this brings us to Prime Mover, which is more or less a programming/puzzle game. These types of games are not rare. In fact, I have reviewed at least two excellent representatives of the genre: TIS-100 and SHENZHEN I/O, both of which were quite enjoyable. TIS-100 simulated something akin to assembly language. I never liked working with the lower level languages, even going to far as to decline an employment offer that would have had me writing in Assembly all day. I typically don’t enjoy working that close to the metal; I prefer the more modern languages that do nice things for me such as freeing my allocated memory for me, in case I forget to do it myself.
SHENZHEN took a similar approach, but added an interesting (and, in my experience, innovative) puzzle aspect that required the player to consult device spec sheets and other ancillary documentation. It too was an attractive game, and the attention to detail that went into seemingly mundane things like wire pathing was exemplary.
Prime Mover is similar to those games in that it requires logical thinking, but takes a fairly drastic turn towards the ugly with regards to the look and feel. The name of the developer, 4Bit Games, is an obvious giveaway. For reasons utterly incomprehensible to anyone that slogged through the actual 4-bit era while waiting for something much better, Prime Mover is a big, blocky, ugly mass of overly large pixels and clashing colors. I hated it on sight. But… it’s a logic/programming game, and I kinda like those. To be completely honest, I like them about halfway through the progression. That’s right around where they get too hard for me. In other words, that is the point at which I would need the abilities of a 4th grader. That’s a Spinal Tap level for me; my amp only goes to 3.
So, ugly graphics and barely legible font (which can be made legible with a settings option) aside, how well does it work? The answer to that is somewhat mixed. The programming is done with components, not written code. The components are not limited to low-level things like and/or gates where you would need dozens of items to accomplish even the simplest things. Rather, you have a collection of generic items that can perform functions such as determining a positive/negative integer, toggle between two paths, merge inputs into a single output, copy a single input to a second line, or even swallow input that isn’t needed.
With screen real estate somewhat lacking due to the elephantine size of the graphics, the board that hold the components is not exactly voluminous. It’s 7x7, so it would seem that there is a hard limit to the complexity of the designs that can be completed, but this limitation is addressed by the addition of a ‘circuit’ component, which is another 7x7 board that compressed down to one tile.
The programming challenges are based on guiding sets of numbers from the input side to the output side, and as is typical with games like these, there is a tick clock that coordinates the movements. A typical challenge would be to ‘Send A to B and remove all zeroes.’ That is actually the first puzzle I was unable to solve. There is an obvious solution that involves a component that is supposed to sort zero, positive, and negative inputs to dedicated outputs. It’ a square with a blank edge, a ‘-’ edge, a ‘+’ edge, and a ‘0’ edge. To me it looked like the blank edge should be the input and the other three should be outputs. Unfortunately, the blank edge will not accept a connection. Obviously that component doesn’t work like I think it should, but I have yet to come up with a workable solution. Like I said: eventually you reach the 4th grade whether you want to or not. I suppose I could entertain myself with the backstory, but the harsh reality is that I see little to no benefit in diluting down a programming/puzzle game with extraneous, gratuitous storylines. That said, there was quite a bit of role playing in SHENZNEN I/O, but that was so artfully integrated that it actually became part of the puzzle.
Where this left me with Prime Mover was with some enjoyment and challenge in solving the programming puzzles, but a healthy sized frustration with trying to discern what component did what based on the clunky low resolution icons, the clumsy UI, and weak documentation. This is not to say that this is a bad game; rather, this is to say that I think I would have enjoyed the game more had it not been saddled with a player-unfriendly artistic decision. At its core, Prime Mover is a puzzle game with a shallow-right-up-until-it-isn’t difficulty progression. It does differentiate from the other programming/puzzle games with a somewhat different programming paradigm, which serves to make it a good entry to the genre, but the overall experience was not as compelling or enjoyable as something like SHENZHEN I/O ot TIS-100.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.
I've been fascinated with video games and computers for as long as I can remember. It was always a treat to get dragged to the mall with my parents because I'd get to play for a few minutes on the Atari 2600. I partially blame Asteroids, the crack cocaine of arcade games, for my low GPA in college which eventually led me to temporarily ditch academics and join the USAF to "see the world." The rest of the blame goes to my passion for all things aviation, and the opportunity to work on work on the truly awesome SR-71 Blackbird sealed the deal.
My first computer was a TRS-80 Model 1 that I bought in 1977 when they first came out. At that time you had to order them through a Radio Shack store - Tandy didn't think they'd sell enough to justify stocking them in the retail stores. My favorite game then was the SubLogic Flight Simulator, which was the great Grandaddy of the Microsoft flight sims.
While I was in the military, I bought a Commodore 64. From there I moved on up through the PC line, always buying just enough machine to support the latest version of the flight sims. I never really paid much attention to consoles until the Dreamcast came out. I now have an Xbox for my console games, and a 1ghz Celeron with a GeForce4 for graphics. Being married and having a very expensive toy (my airplane) means I don't get to spend a lot of money on the lastest/greatest PC and console hardware.
My interests these days are primarily auto racing and flying sims on the PC. I'm too old and slow to do well at the FPS twitchers or fighting games, but I do enjoy online Rainbow 6 or the like now and then, although I had to give up Americas Army due to my complete inability to discern friend from foe. I have the Xbox mostly to play games with my daughter and for the sports games.