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Zachtronics: Ten Years of Terrible Games (2017) [video] (youtube.com)
142 points by Red_Tarsius 9 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 58 comments

If you've not heard of TIS-100 then, given that you're currently on a site called "Hacker News", I heartily recommend it to you: http://www.zachtronics.com/tis-100/

Also excellent is Shenzhen IO: http://www.zachtronics.com/shenzhen-io/

Also excellent is everything here: http://www.zachtronics.com

I would recommend Opus Magnum over TIS-100 even for people on this site. Its the result of the Zachatronics formula having time to grow after SpaceChem.

The main reason I personally prefer Opus Magnum is that solving the levels is easy, but optimizing is challenging and rewarding. TIS-100 on the other hand has a higher difficulty to initially solve the puzzles and optimization becomes a little bit of a guessing game. Also having only 3 saved solutions per level makes it hard to optimize without losing past solutions.

Personally, I found Opus Magnum far too easy. In TIS-100, the constraints are brutal, and I often made multiple attempts before I was successful. In Opus Magnum, I finished every puzzle on my first try. You have almost no constraints. While optimizing is still a challenge, it felt much less rewarding to me. I feel no compulsion to return to OM after finishing the main campaign, but I return to TIS-100 every few months or so to mess around with the harder puzzles.

The 3 saved puzzles is a bit annoying, but you can always backup the puzzle files since they're just text.

That was by design in Opus Magnum. The game is still brutally hard by sticking to the (self-imposed) constraints, but it wants to open up to a much broader audience. Celeste follows the same designed approach to difficulty.

Related RPS article: https://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2018/02/27/what-works-and-w...

> In Opus Magnum, I finished every puzzle on my first try.

I never was close to failing to finish a puzzle in OM. It was just a matter of how poor my solution performed whatever metric I chose to optimize first. The puzzles at the end of the campaign had me "give up" and settle for an ugly slow solution though.

> I feel no compulsion to return to OM after finishing the main campaign

If you haven't tried the Journal puzzles in OM, I would recommend you give them a shot. Many of them are in confined spaces rather than an infinite plane. I have yet to find a puzzle as hard as the ones in the TIS-NET directory, but they are a step up from the rest of the OM puzzles in terms of difficulty.

I find the OM approach to be much more fun when you have friends to compete with - "Making a solution is easy" opens it up to a lot more people, but "Making a GOOD solution is hard" makes it great for competitive play.

(Or even without friends, like me, I just refused to proceed to the next level until I was in the global top 1% for the current level :P)

SpaceChem is like this too. Even I could beat almost all the levels. And then I watch this tournament on YouTube and remember that some people are Flippin geniuses.

https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL0PcDuxlam1bDnEfuT15R... (skip to "Week 1 Results" and watch the rest of thr Playlist. It's fascinating stuff. Seriously. Watch.)

I haven't played completely through SpaceChem so I don't actually know how hard it gets.

I lost my save for the game and the UI is frustrating enough I don't want to slog through the early levels when I haven't optimized the newer Zachatronics games to my satisfaction.

What I love about Opus Magnum is how cool the solutions look. Optimized assembly code can be satisfying to write, but it'll never have the visual appeal of a tightly-designed alchemical machine.

And they totally know this, going so far as to offer an 'export to gif' option at the end of the puzzle.

I second that. I do like tis-100 as much or more, but the visuals in opus magnum are mesmerizing.

A matter of taste, probably. I love every other game by Zachtronics except Opus Magnum. With TIS-100 the clear favorite.

Somehow the highly geometrical puzzles don't give me a feeling of achievement. They're not very interesting but do become quite difficult towards the end. But of course many other people just love them.

I find myself somewhat bothered by the totally bogus chemistry in the opus magnum, and spacechem. If they could get the chemistry aleast sound believable it would be more fun.

It’s not chemistry. It’s alchemy.

Video game cartoon alchemy, but still: not video game cartoon chemistry. There is a difference.

That works for Opus Magnum, but SpaceChem has a very clear sci-fi presentation to it, so it's confusing.

Yes I thought spacechem was about chemistry not alchemy.

Another older but really good Zachtronics game that I like to recommend is KOHCTPYKTOP, which simulates something similar to MOS semiconductor logic. Your job is to build ICs which conform to predefined stimulus/response patterns.

Unfortunately, it requires Flash, so it may be difficult to get to run in a browser nowadays. Totally worth it, though!


It's also available in ZACH-LIKE [0], a free compilation of a bunch of his earlier flash games. Windows-only, however.

[0] https://store.steampowered.com/app/1098840/ZACHLIKE/

Zach-Like is primarily "A book of behind-the-scenes design documents from Zachtronics."

Now that the kickstarter is finished it's available for free as PDF (link in parent post)

"In addition to PDFs of the book, the digital version contains all pre-SpaceChem Zachtronics games and a bunch of early builds and prototypes, including some of the unreleased games depicted in ZACH-LIKE."

KOHCTPYKTOP heavily inspired Pavel Krivanek's PharoChipDesigner which runs in Pharo Smalltalk 8.0:


This sounds similar to a more recent Zachtronics game, Shenzhen I/O. How does it compare?

They're very different. SHENZHEN I/O is mostly about microcontroller programming. KOHCTPYKTOP has you building semiconductors by drawing lines. Of course the latter influenced the former, but the gameplay is just completely different.

There are videos of both online if you want to get a better idea.

One of the newer titles, EXAPUNKS, is a cyberpunk-themed programming game. Music is extremely good, levels were pretty hard, the zines were well written, and the "home screen" of your system has a chat client open where every few levels there's a short conversation. It is probably my favorite game released in the last few years.

Every time I think about playing those games, I can't help but be dissuaded by the likelihood that learning actual machine language for ARM or x86-64 would be considerably less difficult and, in the long run, more beneficial to me.

Learning an actual machine language is definitely harder, all of these games use extremely limited instruction sets and/or simplified operating conditions.

As for more beneficial, I'm sure learning a real practical machine language is more beneficial. However you can definitely draw some of the same lessons out of these games and depending on you, might have a lot more fun and chances of actually going through with playing these games.

Harder indeed (in some ways) but the raw satisfaction of booting your first toy OS on bare metal is unmatched.

I enjoyed writing a DCPU-16 emulator very much though.


You just reminded me that I wrote a stack language for DCPU16 back in the frenzy. It gave me an excuse to learn the IronMeta parser generator, which is an implementation of OMeta. Unfortunately I kept it on Codeplex and never bothered to move it since the entire idea was dead by that time.




I got about halfway through TIS-100, realized that what I actually wanted to do was to finally learn assembly language, and actually went ahead and wrote a working Fizzbuzz program in x86 assembler! Really the best outcome for not finishing a game

Just keep in mind, it's very likely you will never use ARM or x86-64 either and, even if you do, you'll probably have less fun using it.

This is nonsense, if you write natively-executed software you'll definitely make use of being able to read assembly in a debugger.

I totally get what you're saying. For x86-64 I recommend Ray Seyfarth's book: http://rayseyfarth.com/asm/

But I can't help suggesting you try TIS-100. It's genuinely enjoyable and not like regular assembly at all.

Why not both? Unless you use ASM every day, you can learn a very limited subset (basically enough to reverse engineer a fizzbuzz) and get some benefits from that. Maybe look through what sse and other extensions provide. That doesn't require a lot of time.

Along the same lines, why spend all that time on this game when you are a programmer in real life! I look at games as a change of pace / relaxing not more programming. ;-)

In the case of TIS-100, I don't think the challenge of the game is 'write assembly' as much as it is 'deal with the somewhat crazy architecture and its self-imposed restrictions'. I've programmed some 6502 and x86 assembly in the past, but it didn't look anything like a TIS-100 program, which is more like a ridulously simplified transputer network with memory-less nodes.

for the same reason that airline pilots build their own experimental aircraft, long-haul drivers jump on a Harley and cruise around town, and machinists who make neat things at their home workshop -- freedom, excitement, the joy of exploration, the joy of working with the stripped-down essence of their expertise. TIS-100 really is different enough to be challenging and enjoyable, plus there's a neat story within.

I can play the real guitar but I still enjoy Guitar Hero.

an interesting thing about exapunks, is to get the best scores you need to leverage parallelism well. So you will at least learn a lot of fundamental things that are useful there, and that is a very relevant skill set on modern hardware.

Probably not less difficult but definitely similar. I tried TIS-100 but it just feels like it exercises the part of my mind that does programming. It’s not relaxing or unwinding (for me).

Ahh... so Human Resource Machine and 7 Billion Humans are closer to your likings?

Nothing like a nice relaxing game of assembly language programming.

You'd have to pay me to play that game.

Haha! I played a dozen or so levels and had a really good time until I reached a point where it started to feel very much like (usually paid) work.

I just started to pick up assembly for a fun project. Would this help to strengthen some muscles?

Maybe, but not really. The challenge in this game comes mostly from arbitrary line count limitations between imaginary "nodes" and their connections. You are writing some thing very close to assembly, but the problems you'll face are mostly unique to this game. It's terrific fun so you should definetly pick it up though!

Zach also wrote Infiniminer ( http://www.zachtronics.com/infiniminer/ ) , which was the main inspiration for Minecraft.

"Infiniminer is a first-person competitive mining game that takes place in a procedurally generated block world allowing players to mine, build, and explore. Sound familiar? That’s because Infiniminer is the game that started the “block genre” that everyone knows and loves!"

Download at http://thesiteformerlyknownas.zachtronicsindustries.com/infi...

I watched an interview in which Zach said that he gave infiniminer away for free because he didn't think anyone would want to pay for such a game. Ironically Minecraft is the video game that has sold the most copies.

My understanding is that Minecraft exists because Zach refused to takes Notch's suggestions on how to improve it.

So Notch wrote Minecraft, a better version, and sold it. And it worked out really well.

Infiniminer might have sold, but it wouldn't have sold as well as Minecraft.

And Minecraft then brought traffic to Zach (via people wanting to learn about Infiniminer) to drive sales on his other games, which seems to have worked out well in the end.

Still bothers me that with Notch we now have one more right wing white supremacist billionaire, while Zach seems to be a really nice guy that would probably have used that money for some common good like education :/

maybe if zach had become a billionaire he would have ended up a crazed alcoholic too? I don't know. (note, I don't actually KNOW that notch is an alcoholic his tweets just resemble mine when I've had too much to drink, times ten)

So right-wing that he paid his taxes in Sweden.

Notch is litteraly throwing around the n-word and other really awful shit, what point are you even trying to make?

What point are you trying to make?

Throwing around the n-word makes him a bigot, not right-wing.

He's also embraced some of the deepest of right-wing craziness, Q, and was often parroting right-wing talking points with bonus homo- and trans-phobic tweets salted around.

Also worth listening to the Zachtronics Podcast


There hasn't been a new ep in a while but it's an interesting insight into behind the scenes of developing games (and whatever Universe Sandbox is)

Zachtronic games are great. If you want something you can play on your phone, take a look at Human Resource Machine. Different developer but still a coding game.

I was quite a big fan of Shenzhen IO.

I found myself wanting to take it in to the real world, but really lost as to where to begin. Anyone have any ideas or resources?

Bread board and an electronics kit can get you started. Circuit logic works even iff all you have is a 9v battery.

Someday I mean to finish this game. I love the concept but forget how to play in between sessions.

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