MACHINARIUM / Amanita Design / PC
Adventure games were once the biggest sellers on the PC, but developers could see their death approaching with the rise of the FPS and a more "casual" audience in the mid-to-late 90s. One of the responses to try to keep the genre viable was to decrease the complexity - stuff like action menus and inventory systems were seen as too hard and confusing, so a lot of games reduced things down to a "context cursor" which would notify and change for the player when it was waved over something on the screen that was usable.
Ironically, this change in development only propagated two of the foremost qualities that turned non-hardcore gamers off to adventure games - Pixel Hunting and Dream Logic. Without a variety of actions for the player to attempt, puzzles necessarily had to be drastically simplified, and the most reliable way for designers to add challenge to a "context cursor" system was to simply hide stuff from the player and make progression as confusing and obscure as possible. This was seen as bullshit - which it was - by the longtime hardcore fans, and the attempt to pander backfired as casual fans still found the games too confusing and tedious. Thus you don't see too many adventure games outside the indie market anymore.
I'm pretty sure Machinarium isn't trying to pander, but being a fairly simple Flash game with a "context cursor" format and no written dialogue whatsoever, it falls back on Dream Logic and Pixel Hunting fairly often to maintain challenge. It gets away with it, though, simply by being *SO GODDAMN CHARMING*. Seriously, this is probably the most adorable game I've ever played.
The whole game takes place with no dialogue, written or spoken, whatsoever. We play as some little Bender-lookin' robot who gets kicked out of the big robot city for reasons unknown, thrown out with the trash. First you just have to make your way back into the city, but in doing so you uncover a plot to blow up the Robot Old Bailey or something, and take it upon yourself to defuse the situation, while also resucing your robot girlfriend who just happened to be kidnapped by the same gangsters plotting to blow stuff up.
It's a fairly short and completely linear game - maybe 40 screens or so - but if you don't use a walkthrough or Youtube, it'll take a while, because it's also very difficult. Old school adventure game vets will have problems with it; newcomers probably won't make it past 5 screens at most before giving up.
What makes it worth pushing through is that it's just so fun and silly to watch. The art and animation are unique, there's some hilarious moments, and it's quite a storytelling feat in that all communications between characters (and with the player) are entirely via sound effects and animated thought bubbles. The compressed screenshots here don't do it justice; it's a gorgeous and imaginitive world.
The puzzles in the first half of the game or so are on the tough side, but fair, and manageable as they tend to be restricted to one or two screens at a time, with the only objective being figuring out how to move on to the next area. The second half of the game basically dumps you off in Robot City Center with a lot of screens to traverse and lots of overlapping puzzles, however, and I felt like there was a serious over-reliance on traditional "board game" puzzles at this point (sliders, connect 5, Professor Layton stuff, etc.) that take you out of the flow of the game and seem to have been put in just to pad things out. There's no way to die however, and appears to be no way to hang yourself up, so pushing through is just a matter of persistence. There's a hint system - actually two hint systems, but one is next to useless. There's a light bulb you can click on in any area to get a little thought bubble that gives you the general idea of what to do next. To get specifics, however, you have to play a little arcade mini-game that was so difficult I never once actually completed it! That's what GameFAQs and Pootube are for, though.
If they can tolerate being stuck, I think this is a great gift for a "casual" gamer or for someone who doesn't have much experience with the adventure genre as an introduction. It's not for the impatient, and has its flaws in puzzle design and layout, but it's just such a good time and brings smiles to your face regularly that I think it's worth the effort.
* Playable Demo
* Gameplay Video