Like most, I think of myself as a reasonably intelligent person. I'm no genius, but I'd like to believe I've got a few brain cells to rub together. SpaceChem Mobile [$5.99], a puzzle game that's just made its way from PC to iPad, shakes my confidence about my own intelligence -- and then it leaves me feeling brilliant, just moments later.

Zachtronics Industries' puzzler hit the PC indie scene earlier this year, wowing critics and players alike. I tell you this to keep you reading, because the other shoe is about to drop: this is a game about chemical synthesis. And it's not some sort of dolled up, sexy chemical synthesis. This game puts players to work creating chemical products from their raw elements in the simplest terms possible. You'll be bonding one chemical symbol to another, creating workflows out of color coded paths to move them along. And you'll (probably) love it.

I say "probably," because SpaceChem isn't for everyone. You'll need a heavy dose of curiosity and creativity, plenty of patience and just a dash of masochism. But if you're still reading this review after seeing the screenshots and learning what it's about, I'm pretty sure you'll love this game.

As mentioned, SpaceChem is all about chemical synthesis. You're responsible for turning elements and compounds into the required chemical products, and then mass producing them. At the game's most basic, a level requires you to bring in two elements, bond them together and output the correct compound. To facilitate this process, you have a pair of red and blue waldos, remote manipulators that will follow the paths you lay down and the commands you place in that path. You create the program, and they'll follow through, red on red, blue on blue.

From that simple input/output beginning you'll learn to break and create bonds, combine and discard the fruits of multiple reactors and set up conditional commands. The outputs get more and more complicated, but the game largely lets you muddle your way through unassisted. Aside from introducing you to each new command with a tutorial screen, you'll be left on your own to work through each level. This left me hitting my head on any number of walls while I worked my way through, but there are few feelings as good as finally solving a tricky level and watching your quota fill up.

Each time you get that thrill, though, there's another level waiting to defeat you. There over 40 levels to work through in the main campaign, and most leave you longing for the comfort of your last completed level. Once you're through those, there are well over 100 more puzzles available in ResearchNet with more to come. These are community created and carefully curated, and yes, you can contribute your own assignments as well.

One of the coolest things about SpaceChem is that each level has a near-endless number of potential solutions. Each solution you come up with is ranked against the community, so you'll know if you could have done better, with fewer cycles spent or symbols used. Then you can go back and increase your efficiency. If you're so inclined, you can also see what players from the desktop version have done by visiting SolutionNet. It's cheating, a bit, but it's also extremely educational to learn how efficiently other people are pulling these things off.

Playing SpaceChem feels like learning a new skill. It's a slow education, but you can build on what you learn until you no longer feel like you need to start each challenge from scratch. The light-bulb moments are frequent and motivating. This game should feel like work, but it's insanely fun.

Unfortunately, the iPad version is missing a little bit of the desktop version: namely, the story and boss battles. The boss battles didn't work with the iPad's setup, and the story had to be chucked without them. So if you can't bear to go without, you might want to consider making your purchase on desktop. But everything else about this port is top notch. After an early patch the interface works beautifully on the touch screen. The music is fantastic, and, for what it's worth, the game looks as good as it could on any desktop monitor.

SpaceChem is an easy purchase to recommend. It's not as if I can tell you to buy it if you're into puzzle games about creating workflows for chemical synthesis -- you're looking at a rare breed. If any part of you thinks you might be interested in such a thing, then congratulations, you're the target market. Play SpaceChem. If you don't, you're depriving yourself of one of the smartest, coolest puzzle games around. Why would you want to go and do a thing like that?

TouchArcade Rating

  • Anonymous

    You can get the PC/Mac version of SpaceChem through the Humble Bundle promotion that will expire in a little over a day:

  • Ruud

    Yes yes yes! This is fantastic!
    Anyone who hasn't and thinks it might be his cup of tea should also play his previous game Codex of Alchemical Engineering (free flash). One of the best games you'll ever play.

  • himanshu

    wait a min... boss bottles in a puzzle game? What does that even mean. -scratching head-

    • Ben Ehlers

      When I got to the first boss battle, I was totally amazed. The game tweaks the playechanics so you need to solve essentially two or more puzzles at once, dynamically switching between outputs to get the right ratio of ingredients to make a bomb. It's pretty tense, and works very well. Get this game!

  • Rex Sundstrom

    Glad this one got a review. The initial release had a rocky start with some crash issues, but as of the latest update it's working nicely.
    Just in case anyone that purchased the game before the latest update is still have crash issues (after updating) it seems most find the issue resolved after deleting the game and reinstalling. Worked for me.

    Best new puzzler I've played in a long time. And my current favorite game over all, on the iOS. If anything about this game sounds remotely interesting to you, you're gonna love it, or it might drive you a little a good way.

    The first game I've purchased and then almost immediately felt compelled to recommend to all my friends.

  • Anonymous

    I'm tempted by this, its on my appshopper list, I've nothing against 'real world' puzzles. (Back in the day i invested a fair amount of time in the Perplexcity ARG puzzle cards.) But I am put off by comments in the forums, along the line soy, it advertises the PC game as somehow 'more than!' the iPad game, when you open the game!

    I'm not paying £3.99 for a game if its just an advert for the PC Game. Nor do i want that shoved in my face at the first opportunity. 'Yeah, you could've got the PC version for a single pound, along with some other stuff! that would've been great huh? Never mind though, the iPad version has MOST of that stuff.'

  • Misty Jugs

    Got this with in the current Humble Bundle. I haven't played it yet, but I'm looking forward to it.

    If I like it and when/if it goes on sale on itunes I'll get it. Not playing $6 for a game I already own.

  • Siddharth Manickasundaram

    Thanks for the review.

    Got the HumbleBundle since it had the boss battles and better value with more games added in.

  • Anonymous

    so i should buy the pc version, its cheaper and has more content?

    what retard thought to make an ipad version with less features that costs more...doh!

    was going to purchase but dont think il bother after reading these comments.

SpaceChem Mobile Reviewed by Nissa Campbell on . Rating: 4