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Shenzhen I/O Review: Brain Melt Imminent

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I’m reasonably sure that just about everyone has played a puzzle game of some sort; be it an actual puzzle with 100 pieces, the crossword in the back of the newspaper, decrypting the RAILROAD puzzle in Fallout 4, or just trying to figure out how to pack your suitcase or car when going on a trip. Then someone, somewhere has the bright idea of creating an embedded circuit simulator, combining it with assembly language programming, tie in real reading of (fake) datasheets, and wrap it up to make it look like a semi-real OS doing a day-2-day job; call it a video game -  and you have Shenzhen I/O. Madness, I know.

This little indie title from Zachtronics is still in Steam Early Access, so some changes may occur from the time of writing.

The game starts how many real-life stories go ... person A graduates and is unable to find a job in his or her field of study. Said person decides to move to Shenzhen in China where better work opportunities wait. From there the game’s first of two primary interfaces are revealed in the form of a mobile-like OS, from where the player can access various functions such as email, datasheets and games.

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Yes, I play work at video games... you read that right...

Most of your gaming activity and the story-telling happens within your email correspondence window, from where you launch into the second major interface; the CAD circuit design window. From here, you can place various programmable microcontroller-like components and add some basic logic, in the form of assembly language. As an example, in the 5th puzzle you have to perform a boost to audio input on one channel when a button is pressed on a second input, and output the results to a third channel. My code came out as follows:

  •   mov p0 acc
  •   teq p1 100
  • + sub 50
  • + mul 4
  • + add 50 
  •   mov acc x1
  •   slp 1

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If the above didn’t make sense, don’t worry – the assembly language is specific to the logic process of the “Honest” (诚尚) Micro MC4000 PLC device, which has a staggering two simple I/O pins, 2 XBus pins and enough storage for 9 lines of code and 1 general purpose register.

To make this puzzle work, I had to use two MC4000 PLC’s, as I didn’t have enough I/O registers on one chip, but I did have spare XBus pins, which could be used to communicate between the two, to pass the output from the first chip to the second, which did have the necessary output.

Furthermore, to make these puzzles work, you have to (no, really!!) read the provided manuals. The bass-boosting algorithm, found in the “supplemental data” section of the manual is straight-up AUDIO_OUT = (AUDIO_IN - 50) x 4 + 50, which is the converted algorithm above in this games’ version of assembly language.

At the end of the day, the puzzles revolve around creating a working circuit that tests correctly, and build this circuit as cheaply as possible.

Storytelling, Visuals and Audio

Shenzhen I/O tells its story in the company communication between your co-workers. You go from building the LED components for a fake CCTV camera, to controlling <thingy> lights for some eSport players’ new beverage product, to creating a router that sends data packets to a meter reader, based depending on how high or low the input voltages are, and many more in-between.

Co-workers converse about new projects coming in, and the rubbish that is being designed for “foreign” customers. I almost believe the audio project I mentioned earlier was a dig at products like the ‘Beats by Dre’ – supposedly great headphones, but at the end of the day a simple marketing ploy covering up something which is cheaply made in some sweatshop somewhere.

The Concept CAD app (the actual circuit and programming window) is quite forgiving in errors and easy to debug and trace mistakes you make to get the required results for completing the puzzles presented. By saying that, make no mistake in thinking that these puzzles are easy, they are brutal. Combine the logic presented in the datasheets with the programming app can sometimes make for a very frustrating time trying to make these puzzles work. That being said, getting these puzzles working is quite a rush, even if I had to cheat on here and there, by watching a couple of YouTube videos by players smarter than I am.

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Some chump is doing better than me...

Scoring in this game is judged by how cheaply your device is built and by how power-conscious your puzzle was; and comparing this with friends who have the game. It is possible to revisit previously completed puzzles with newer, unlocked equipment from later puzzles to more effectively finish the puzzle. From what I can tell though, one doesn’t fail due to making the product more expensive to power-hungry.

The audio for this game is simple, meditative and soothing; actually helped me focus through some of the puzzles, and is a joy to listen to on its own, which can be easily found as MP3’s in the games’ data files.

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Target Audience

This game isn’t for everyone. It’s that simple. If you’re the type who enjoys experimenting with programming and electronics in general, or dabbles with systems like the Raspberry Pi, or Arduino hardware, then this is something you may enjoy. Likewise, if you’ve played Zachtronics other games, like TIS-100 or Spacechem, then have a gander. If you’re a Minecraft player who likes to play with redstone circuitry, then you’re the type that this game would cater for.

I’ve enjoyed the game so far, and I predict I’ll be playing this for some time to come, if to take a break from the little Arduino project I’ve got for making a IoT sprinkler system working – if I’m not playing Fallout again on survival difficulty.

Have you played Shenzhen I/O yet, or played any other Zachtronics games? Let us know in the comments below.

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