SparkFun – The Prototype HARP [Review]

“This is a strange device.” -Barry2 in The Prototype HARP’s comments

Location: at home on Windows 10, macOS, & Linux

Date played: Fall 2017

Team size: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯; we recommend 1-3

Duration: Solved in 3 sessions that span 1 to 3 hours

Price: $60 + ~$6.50 in additional components

Story & setup

Electronics store SparkFun sent us a mysterious board containing an artificial intelligence and a dark secret.

The Prototype board plugged in and resting on an anti-static bag.

HARP stands for “hardware alternate reality puzzle” and that’s an accurate description of The Prototype. The package we received from SparkFun contained a board, a microSD card, a microSD reader, and a cable. Those were the puzzle components.

Puzzles

The Prototype was a test of electronics skill and puzzling know-how. The game was a strange merger of traditional puzzle hunting and bringing up and debugging a board.

You absolutely must be competent with electronics in order to solve The Prototype. You should be comfortable soldering, working with Arduino (or something similar), and reading chip datasheets.

The Prototype board with all of the other components. They are sitting on top of a cipher wheel.

Standouts

The Prototype was exceptionally strange and we interacted with it unconventionally.

Puzzling generally follows predictable patterns, even when the solutions are hard to derive. Due to this unusual and open-ended medium, this puzzle could ask all sorts of unexpected things of us.

The puzzle accurately replicated the exciting feeling of exploring a prototype piece of hardware with sometimes flaky behavior.

As we progressed through the game, the board had an interesting mechanism for indicating our current stage.

Solving these outlandish puzzles was enormously satisfying. When we took an action, we were confident that it would work, but seeing it work was still surprising.

I wasn’t expecting it, but this thing actually carried us through a narrative… and it was funny.

The ending was enjoyable.

Shortcomings

This was not a game for casual puzzlers. It also required at least one player who is comfortable with electronics. Lisa and I absolutely could not solve this on our own. My dabbler’s level knowledge of electronics was insufficient. Thankfully we recruited an electronics-savvy teammate who had the necessary pieces on hand and knew what things like “SPI” meant.

The puzzle accurately replicated the frustrating feeling of exploring a prototype piece of hardware with sometimes flaky behavior.

If you aren’t equipped for working with electronics, there’s a solid $45+ worth of additional gear you’ll need including (some spoilers can be implied from this):

Minor Spoiler - Equipment List

You’re going to need a soldering iron, solder, assorted resistors, wire, a multimeter, X-Acto knife (or something similar),  an Arduino, and breadboarding kit.

This kit has a low-cost soldering iron, solder, and a few other tools that might be useful.

This kit has an Arduino and all the other pieces you’d need, plus some extras if you want to explore Arduino programming beyond what you’ll need for the HARP.

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It is not possible to solve The Prototype in a single sitting. It will require you to purchase something inexpensive along the way. No, I cannot tell you what you will need to buy. Don’t bother writing in and asking.

The Prototype was designed for Windows 10, macOS, and Linux. Older Windows systems (including 7 and 8) do not have the proper drivers to talk to it. While you may be able to make virtualization work, the hardware implications are complex and I wouldn’t bet on it.

While the narrative worked, some of the writing and delivery was hokey.

There was a major red herring that seemed to be due to a puzzle being removed, but the associated clue documents still being included.

There were several points where we knew the correct thing to do but had to attempt it multiple times to get it to work. This was especially frustrating in the final resolution of The Prototype. It took us 50 minutes to trigger the end sequence after we had already solved everything. This was further complicated by the aforementioned red herring that we essentially turned into a puzzle that it wasn’t. It was a rough way to end the journey.

Should I play SparkFun’s The Prototype HARP?

The Prototype HARP is an odd, fun, and difficult beast to conquer. It also has a hyper-specific audience.

Is The Prototype for you? Well that depends on the answers to these questions:

  • Do you like puzzles?
  • Are you competent with electronics and comfortable with things like connecting chips to Arduinos?
  • Do you have a puzzle-loving friend who is competent with electronics?

If you love puzzles, but electronics are completely out of reach, I recommend almost any other product that we’ve ever reviewed ahead of The Prototype. You simply will not be able to participate, let alone solve this thing.

If you answered at least two of these questions affirmatively, then you should buy The Prototype. It’s a wild ride. I hope they make more HARP products.

Buy SparkFun’s The Prototype HARP, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Full disclosure: SparkFun provided a complementary media copy of this game.

4 thoughts on “SparkFun – The Prototype HARP [Review]

    1. Yup. It is resetable.

      It takes some doing… And depending upon skill level, one or two details might not be 100% identical.

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