Aching for a Zachlike? Prime Mover may have you sorted

Prime Mover

If you’re a fan of freeform puzzles, chances are that you picked up Opus Magnum the second it went on sale, and have tweaked and optimised your way through everything it had to offer. It’s a rare breed of puzzle game, though – Zachlikes, as we like to call them – and they’re few and far between.

Enter Prime Mover from 4Bit Games. Described by Zachtronics head Zach Barth himself as a blend of Spacechem and TIS-100. Build circuits, solve programming problems, and compare your score against the world using Zach’s thankfully-not-patented histogram scoreboards. It’s also out today on Steam.

Like Opus Magnum before it, Prime Mover starts off at the shallower end of the brain-melting pool that is truly freeform puzzling. At first you’ll just be connecting point A to point B, getting numerical inputs to their required outputs, but you’ll soon be escalating to addition, subtraction, complex sorting systems and more. While most should be able to bodge through the problems presented, it’ll take a lot of careful thought to end up high on the histograms at the end of the levels, which is where the real long-term joy of a Zachlike lies.

Holding the game together is a strange little story, told through small cutscenes with alien subtitles, seemingly revolving around some kind of techno-fantasy robot civilisation, and your puzzling is helping them get closer to some mythical mathematical artifact of their past. If nothing else, it’s an excuse to have the background and borders of the playfield change on every level, which is a nice detail.

This kind of lite pseudo-programming style is a fairly regular fixture in this kind of game. Tomorrow Corporation’s Human Resource Machine (and its upcoming sequel, Seven Billion Humans) is quite similar in style, and Zachtronics’ own TIS-100 played around with basic numerical input and outputs before cranking up the demands on the player in later missions.

If all this seems a little lightweight, there is still Shenzhen I/O, if you want to start getting into real programming on top of the pseudo-realistic circuit assembly fun. Personally, Infinifactory is just about as far as my brain goes, but I’ve never really had a head for programming anyway.

Prime Mover is out now, currently on Steam only, and costs £11.50/12.50€/$15.


  1. aircool says:

    Sounds like my kind of thing, but is it really so hard to put higher res graphics into a game? I remember when 256 VGA was ‘the bollocks’, but that was about 30 years ago. If I wanted something from 30 years ago, it would be my waistline and irresistible good looks (although that hasn’t changed much).

    • Solrax says:

      Yeah, I’m with you. When every other game is “retro” then it really isn’t retro anymore, it’s just a modern game with crude graphics.

      • Dominic Tarason says:

        It’s the kind of graphics one person can make. Sprite-art gets exponentially more time and money-consuming to produce with each doubling of resolution and colour depth.

        It’s mostly why things capped out early in the PS2 era, because going any higher is functionally impossible even for expert art teams, and why you saw detailed 2D stuff pretty rarely even on the PSX.

        • TillEulenspiegel says:

          Infinite resolution (ie, vector art) is rather cheap and can look great.

          And time/cost is a bad excuse when you look at stuff like the logo, which was clearly painstakingly done in retro pixel style. You could whip up something modern in Photoshop in minutes.

          • KDR_11k says:

            Vector art has a very different look, one that many people who encountered Flash animation in the past consider even cheaper.

        • aircool says:

          Sure, it takes more time, but not that much more, especially for a game with plain/simple backgrounds like Prime Mover. I’ve enjoyed making pixel art way back in the days of making sprites for games, making higher res stuff isn’t difficult.

    • Wilson Deluxe says:

      Does this have to be relitigated every time a game with pixel graphics is released? There may be a glut of games with poor quality pixel graphics, but when it’s done well – as it is here – it looks great. Some people like it for what it is, not because it’s retro or kitsch or whatever, but because it is an aesthetic choice that they find appealing. There isn’t a graphical quality spectrum with monochrome bitmaps at the ‘bad’ end, and cutting-edge, 5 trillion colour 3D rendering at the ‘good’ end.

      • aircool says:

        Apologies mate. This is the first time (as far as I’m aware) that I’ve felt the need to comment as it instantly puts me off a game in which I’m interested.

        I had no idea that this subject keeps cropping up, although that does indicate that it’s a big issue for a lot of people.

        However, something that I do like to drag up from time to time is being colourblind. One of the negative aspects of low-res ‘retro’ games is that the blurry graphics make colour differentiation even harder for us colourblind folk.

        • Wilson Deluxe says:

          Sorry, probably came across as unnecessarily snarky there – probably shouldn’t post before going to work! Yeah, it comes up quite a lot when literally any game with pixel graphics is released. Was going to link this this morning, but I think this article neatly summarises my opinions on the subject.

          I take your point about colourblindness tho. It never struck me before that it might cause accessibility issues. I wonder if there is a way to design pixel graphics with colourblindness in mind.

    • tranchera says:

      I usually don’t mind a stylistic decision to make your game retro, but this game literally has an option for “accessible text” which I had to turn on instantly, which makes it way easier to read (higher res basically). If your text is hard to read, that’s too retro.

  2. Carra says:

    While most should be able to bodge through the problems presented, it’ll take a lot of careful thought to end up high on the histograms at the end of the levels, which is where the real long-term joy of a Zachlike lies.

    I was happy simply to finish Opus Magnum.

  3. Imaginary Llamas says:

    Far more games should use histogram scoreboards, and not just puzzle games either. I can think of a few games which say ‘this score is in the top X%’, but apart from Zachtronics games and Poly Bridge I can’t think of any others which use histograms.

    • Ergates_Antius says:

      I especially like having the different categories. It gives me more opportunities to be good (well, okish). If I can’t get my head around making a super fast machine, maybe I can make a really small one.

  4. DantronLesotho says:

    Ahhhhh, I need to play this

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