While most of my friends have blissful memories of tossing a football with dad in the front yard, my recollections of father/son recreation centered solely around videogames. Saturday afternoons were either spent playing Combat on the Atari 2600, or at one of the local arcades. My dad wasn’t a consummate gamer, instead focusing on a select number of diversions. Atari’s Lunar Lander was one of his favorites; the title’s robust challenge and advanced physics modeling captivated him. Being a youngster, I naively preferred the simplicity and charm of Pac-Man.
While many modern titles borrow heavily from classic gaming’s canon, the moon landing simulator has been a relatively neglected genre. Recent XNA Community title Halfbrick Blast Off is clearly influenced by Lunar Lander, and has tenderly updated the game into a compelling, and wonderfully thorny arcade- puzzler. The object of each of the game’s 48 levels is to liftoff from earth, collect a required number of astronauts that are littered around the screen, and return to a revolving warp gate. After a few hours with the game, I experienced the same fascination with the game as my father did with the Atari coin-op, years earlier.
Although Blast Off’s control set is delightfully simple, each new level brings an additional amount of adversity to challenge the gamer. Players first set their escape velocity by holding down the ‘A’ button, letting go to expel into the dangers of space. Players then use the left stick to rotate their plucky rocketship, while applying thrust. It’s an astounding simple control scheme that works, and is less complex that Lunar Lander’s level and three button input method.
After the first level introduces the control scheme to players, planets are introduced. Each galactic globe has a gravitational field that attracts the player’s ship, making navigation delightfully problematic. Head into a planet and your ship explodes in a plume of smoke and debris. Instead, players must carefully slingshot themselves around each space sphere, flying dangerous close to a planet’s surface. Even after hours of gameplay, traversing the circumference of a satellite was a consistently harrowing experience.
Make no mistake- Halfbrick Blast Off can be frustrating. Successions of deaths are almost guaranteed, even on the easier levels. Fortunately, the gamer has an infinite number of lives, and the required number of cosmonauts for level completion is curved slowly. Successfully completing a labyrinthine journey around many of the levels invokes a warm feeling of satisfaction, however.
While a scant few XNA titles harness the graphical power of the 360, Halfbrick Blast Off’s visuals are extremely competent, displaying spinning textured planet surfaces, hazy galaxies and the occasional passing meteor. Sonically, the game’s soundtrack is exceptional, featuring a synthesizer score that conveys the sense of isolation felt by the drifting astronauts. All potential XNA developers should take notice of Blast Off’s minimal aural accompaniment that complements the on-screen action admirably.
As with all of the XNA community games, players have to wallow through the 360’s cumbersome dashboard interface to find HalfBrick Blast Off. Fortunately, the title’s galactic journey is much more enjoyable that the slog required to actually find the game. At five dollars, Blast Off offers players a few hours of gratification that hark back to a tragically forgotten era in gaming.