In a different 1995, a company called Uexplore began offering cost-effective trips to a distant planet. Upon arriving at their destination, private citizens piloted miniature ships known as Small Craft as they explored peaceful environments on the planet Spectaculon, taking in the alien sights and claiming territory for their own. After three days, a ship picked them up, and they returned home to tell others of the grand adventures waiting at the edge of the universe.
Affordable Space Adventures is the story of one pilot–you–who is nearly done enjoying an excursion to that same distant planet. Suddenly, everything goes wrong. The carrier ship you are supposed to ride home in crashes and leaves you stranded until you can find a functioning communication pod and send a distress signal. Unfortunately, the surrounding environment isn’t nearly as hospitable as the promotional videos led you to believe. You need to use every function your diminutive vessel possesses if you want to live to enjoy a bright tomorrow.
At a glance, Affordable Space Adventures doesn’t look particularly unique. It could easily be mistaken for a horizontal shooter like R-Type or Gradius, only with better graphics. However, the emphasis here is on solving puzzles rather than explosions and high scores. There’s no thumping soundtrack, only ambient noises and the occasional bit of piano work that barely even registers. Truly intense moments are quite rare, but the experience is likely to stick with you for a long time because it doesn’t feel like a hollow imitation of classic digital journeys you may have already taken.
The game’s interface deserves much of the credit for that accomplishment. Using the gamepad, you control the Small Craft with the left analog stick while the right one aims a spotlight that can also scan for potential hazards or fire flares. That’s basic enough, but your vessel improves over time as its features come back online. You soon find yourself monitoring thruster levels, stability, and even gravity controls. Eventually, you’re able to switch between engines on the fly and activate boosts. The various options are presented on the gamepad screen in a manner that feels like part of the experience rather than just a generic control scheme, and this setup is used in some interesting ways as the adventure unfolds.
Early stages lead you through verdant environments, but you soon head beneath the planet’s surface to explore dangerous interior areas patrolled by sentries and floating pods. If you attract their attention, they’ll swiftly take you out of action, which means you must make frequent adjustments to sneak by them undetected. In the opening areas, changing from one engine type to another is often sufficient because you put out less electricity or noise. Later puzzles grow increasingly demanding, though, and you sometimes have to get more creative and take bigger risks. In a vertical shaft, for instance, you might need to briefly kill your engine so you can drop past a drone that is alerted by sound, but then you want to bring your thrusters roaring back to life in time to avoid dropping across the path of a nasty laser beam.
Most stages aren’t especially large, but there are plenty of them to traverse. Checkpoints are placed at reasonable intervals, which is important given how easy it is to meet a premature end. If you clear a puzzle, you’re seldom forced to do so repeatedly to try your hand again at an obstacle further down the line that is giving you fits. Affordable Space Adventures is by no means an easy game, but it’s also not overly concerned with putting you through the wringer for no good purpose. Once you have a feel for things, you can probably get through everything in a couple of hours without much fuss, but your first trip through could easily take several times that long, particularly if you refuse to take advantage of the option to lower the difficulty between levels.
Returning to Affordable Space Adventures down the road should be easy because you can save up to three adventures at once. You can also revisit any stage you’ve already cleared by selecting it from a map. There are only a few tutorials throughout the experience, each limited to a few quick text prompts, so you won’t have to wade through a bunch of filler if you decide to take another run at it. Another reason to revisit the campaign is to enjoy the game’s multiplayer support. Any time you load a save file, you can assign second and third players their own tasks on Wii remotes and Wii U pro controllers. One player can control the ship, another can direct the spotlight, and a third can make internal adjustments on the gamepad.
By nature of the game’s design, teamwork and careful coordination are required in order to find success. Whoever has the gamepad at the moment also has a lot of power, and may find it difficult to resist killing the engine in the middle of a daring maneuver, with disastrous but short-lived results. Eventually, everyone will surely agree that it’s time to do things right, and reaching an area goal together without too many mistakes always feels satisfying. It’s a refreshing option, though it naturally wreaks havoc on the sense of isolation that the single-player mode so beautifully establishes.
Although the game generally does a good job of anticipating and avoiding basic technical issues that might have dampened the experience–the controls are suitably precise, and the action is silky smooth, at least when your ship isn’t sputtering through the early areas after recovering from early damage–it’s still not without occasional faults. A couple of the later areas are overly demanding on the default difficulty setting, requiring precise timing and quick finger work for more extended periods as you are forced to stealthily navigate corridors stuffed full of floating sentries. The need for frequent adjustment can get tedious, particularly because the ship’s settings revert to a safe default whenever it is taken out of commission. If you’re retrying an area and you want to take another run at a particular gauntlet, you have to make a bunch of tweaks before you’re even in a position to engage the engine. That slows down the pace and can make gameplay monotonous, but it’s fortunately the exception and not the rule. Finally, in a few instances, load screens wear out their welcome, including the one that lingers when you first boot up the game, but those delays aren’t persistent enough to ruin the experience.
Perhaps someday, space travel really will be cheap, safe, and available from a company much like Uexplore. That day probably won’t come during our lifetimes, though, which leaves us to seek our thrills in movies and games instead. Affordable Space Adventures is a great way to do precisely that, and it’s especially welcome if you’ve been looking for a Wii U title that uses the hardware to offer a genuinely unique and reasonably substantial experience. Are you looking for a journey into the digital unknown that won’t break the bank? If so, then is the one that you should embark upon.