Game designers create two things: the thing on your screen, and the experience in the room. And the second half of that equation is the most important. Ever since Pong, designers have understood that the presence of another player raises the stakes on even the most abstract interactions, and ever since Contra, they’ve known about the unique alchemy of a difficult cooperative game. Just like a joke is funnier when you hear it with someone, a gaming triumph is more satisfying when there’s another person to answer your “Did you see that?!” As a single-player game, Affordable Space Adventures is a solid puzzler that makes unique use of the Wii U controller, but as a co-op game, it is, to quote Jerry Holkins, “a unique social proposition.”
ASA is an action-puzzle game with a darkly comic tone. You’re a customer of UExplore, a bargain-basement space-exploration service that’s invited you on what they repeatedly stress is a perfectly, totally, absolutely safe outer-space safari. Of course, complications ensue, and you find yourself crash-landed on an alien planet inhabited by mysterious and deadly alien robots. You have no way of defeating them; you can only come up with clever ways to avoid triggering their defense systems as you make your way toward the UExplore-sponsored (and therefore totally untrustworthy) distress pods.
Instead of weapons, what you have are systems. You use the GamePad’s touchscreen to control engines, thrust, landing gear, and even your mass and the force of gravity. You can also scan artifacts to see if they’re alerted by sound, heat, or electricity. Physics puzzles are a good way to create complicated mechanics that players can intuitively understand, and the game does a great job of smoothing communicating concepts like cutting engines mid-flight so momentum will carry you forward without sound, or relying on (anti-)gravity to move you without generating heat. New controls and obstacles enter at a slow but steady pace all through the game; just when you think you’ve worked out all the possible interactions of your systems, a new element is added.
The combination mixture of thoughtful ship management and challenging action makes ASA unusual, enjoyable, and often really hard. Because you’re using the touchscreen, the triggers, the bumpers, and both joysticks, many levels involve not just figuring out a puzzle’s solution, but also twisting your fingers into the cat’s cradle necessary to pull it off. According to some accounts, the designers’ decision to add co-op play was a late one requiring only 10 lines of code. But it changes the game from an interesting collection of puzzles to something much more valuable: a great time. The challenge shifts away from making your fingers hit the right marks and onto the much more entertaining task of coordinating three people’s actions. The developers don’t always succeed in designing levels that work equally well for one, two, or three players; the science officer is left with very little to do in the last quarter of the game. But when it’s working, which is most of the time, it’s the best generator of group activity since ’Splosion Man, a series of chances to make elaborate plans, shout “one…two…three…GO!” and then high-five a friend for a perfect execution or razz the person who blew it for everyone.
The game is full of unusual mechanics, not quite like anything I’ve played, which makes it even more impressive how smooth the experience is. The designers clearly did careful thinking about how to make the player feel comfortable, so it’s a perfect joke that the game’s exposition is a parody of the ominously ingratiating voice of corporate cruises, with such gems as a start-game screen that earnestly bleats “We put our best efforts into making the start of your journey as pleasant as possible,” or the game-over text “Your craft has unexpectedly failed to exist.” It all culminates in an end-game cutscene that I wouldn’t dream of spoiling, except to say that it’s a biting riff on the combination of virtual social intimacy and bland corporate indifference that is the Miiverse.
Nintendo and indie developers should be natural allies. Nintendo is committed to hardware R&D, while the indie world is full of people eager to distinguish themselves by exploring new kinds of gameplay. Unfortunately, corporate standoffishness has largely prevented the indie kids from playing with Nintendo’s toys. ASA is a rare exception: a small developer using Nintendo’s unique hardware to create something not possible on any other system, while providing hardcore gamers with the kind of challenging, intense experience that Nintendo mostly doesn’t bother with.
Nintendo’s Affordable Space Adventures is available now for the Wii U.