(fun fact: this is a failed solution that doesn’t work, hence not a spoiler~)
This is another one of those games that Zach likes… oh, I’m sorry, it is another Zachlike, although I assume he probably likes it as well. For those who are unfamiliar with such a silly term, it is another Zachtronics game, the same company that brought to the world Spacechem, Opus Magnum and that game that got overshadowed by the included Solitaire minigame to such a degree that he eventually had to spin it off out of it (I’m not joking about that).
Like all these games TIS-100 is a programming-type puzzle game, the Zach-flavored ones about programming a loop that can automate a process and repeat it a certain number of times. Unlike most of his other games that dress this process up as some kind of chemistry, assembly line or alchemic crimes against nature this is just blatantly programming. I’ve heard it described as a bit like Assembly but I have no idea how accurate that sentiment is, when it comes to programming you can make up terms and I’ll have no idea if you are lying or not. Regardless this psuedo-programming language is clearly emulating an early one, the game selling this with a fake copyright date from the 70s and including an era-appropriate manual that is the only way to figure out how the thing actually works (that or, you know, the internet). The manual explains most things well, but about halfway through stacks start appearing and you pretty much have to look that up on your own.
The game screen as seen above is laid out in a 3 by 4 grid of nodes, nodes being those boxes where the actual programming magic takes place. You will almost never be able to use all 12 sadly as at least one will be a corrupted one that will contain a bit of the game’s story. Each node can contain up to 15 commands, which sounds like a lot but totally isn’t. Each puzzle involves taking some inputted numbers and arriving at some desired outputted numbers that the game both explains the rules of in the upper lefthand corner and gives the actual desired numbers all along the left side of the screen. This is done via moving the numbers through the various nodes, storing them for a bit, adding or subtracting them, generally just shuffling them around until you get the desired result.
The thing is that you can’t “cheat” this by just feeding the desired numbers into the output as there is often a second and third set of different numbers afterwards, plus a randomly generated set after that. This also means that you can’t just brute force your solution, it has to be an actual process that produces repeatable results.
This seems easy, and to really hammer that home the puzzles are the game asking you to do absurdly simple things that one can do in their head within seconds. This puts the focus purely on the programming as opposed to the math, but also screws with the thrill of victory as there is no window dressing to make your accomplishment seem more worthwhile, you instead for example just spend over a half hour to do some simple division that a 5th grader could manage in a few minutes.
It is worth noting that the commands you program into a node often aren’t gone through in a repeated linear order. As numerous puzzles will require sorting or some other numerical detections, and given the limited tools TIS-100 offers, one will generally end up having to use addition or subtraction with the stored numbers to accomplish these tasks. You have several “jump” commands that will move you to a different labeled location in the node based on if the number in the active memory is positive, negative, zero or non-zero. Because of this a given node will often have a split in the commands that lead to two or more different processes based on said values. You will also often need to repeat a command or repeatedly grab numbers from an adjacent node, so a different jump command can skip you back or forward and number of commands and in doing so either create a mini-loop or find a way to use the same commands in a few different ways. Given that the long string of inputted numbers are sometimes broken down into smaller numerical sequences split up by zeroes and hence you need something in the node to detect their presence and respond accordingly… well as already said those 15 commands can be used up very quickly.
I assume for people with more of a programming background this seems simple, but for others like myself it is rather tricky! That said, for the most part it isn’t abnormally hard. While harder to visualize I think for the most part it is easier than Spacechem, and to get through the main campaign of 22 puzzles it took me about 11 or so hours which isn’t that bad considering everything. Of course, the caveat is that there is one puzzle I initially skipped because it was too much of a pain in the ass to bother with and possibly depends on a degree of familiarity with a programming concept I don’t really understand. There is a second bonus campaign I did not bother with that is supposedly harder, but if you were wondering if the base game is passable for someone with no programming knowledge the answer is pretty much yes.
Overall it is a solid game, but I’d be lying if I said that it wasn’t rather dry. I know that many puzzles games could be described as dry and that generally doesn’t bother me, so this is probably an extreme case. While I only played the one other game by this company I still think the others available are probably better ones to give a shot than this one as it almost feels like a niche within this niche, but it is executed well enough and if one were to find themselves either with this in their possession or short on options after running through other programming games it isn’t a waste of one’s time.