With Christmas just around the corner, many a Nintendo gamer is perhaps asking "what should I buy?" Alas, there isn't a whole lot to look forward to in terms of new releases, so in this series we'll be spotlighting a menagerie of quality indie games that have shown up on the eShop over the years. In this edition, Tom Whitehead will be looking at Affordable Space Adventures, a Wii U exclusive.
Though there's more to learn about the Nintendo Switch and its capabilities, one thing seems clear - it's stepping away from dual-screen gaming. A concept utilised brilliantly on DS and then 3DS, it's struggled to take off for the Wii U; the system's problems at retail, and developer ambivalence towards the concept (even from Nintendo's own studios, as we saw with Retro Studios and Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze) has seen it mostly sidelined over the past four years.
In some respects Nintendo struggled to successfully and fully implement the idea - perfect for handhelds - to the home console space, with the disconnect from GamePad to TV not helping matters. Yet the idea does shine with asynchronous gameplay, where the two screens complement each other while showing different details; that disconnect is actually a benefit in those cases. Brilliantly used - occasionally - in a few multiplayer titles like Nintendo Land, it's an eShop game that perhaps shows the GamePad in its best light for a co-op experience. Affordable Space Adventures is a game that is truly suited for the platform, and should be treasured as it's the kind of gameplay we may not see again for a while.
The project was inevitably intriguing due to the creators involved - it was a collaboration between Nifflas (Knytt Underground) and KnapNok Games (Spin the Bottle: Bumpie's Party). The latter had always shown a desire to experiment with the quirky controls on offer with Nintendo hardware, while Nifflas was keen to create experiences unique in the gaming space. That's the core behind the control scheme at play in Affordable Space Adventures, with the GamePad serving as a control panel for the cute little spaceship on screen.
It's perhaps a sad indication of the limited backing for Wii U that Affordable Space Adventures is one of only a few titles to use the controller with imagination. Movement of the ship on screen is simple, as it flies through environments and tries to evade dangerous and mysterious foes. Yet the environmental puzzles require plenty of thought - at different times noise level, engine types and more need to be manipulated in order to make progress.
The GamePad shines, then, as it represents an increasingly diverse dashboard in which you manage the minutiae of the ship's systems. For example you may need to raise and then lower its mass to pass silently through a water-filled canyon, or slingshot past a robot by accelerating rapidly and then killing the engine (and its noise) just before passing the foe in question. Each area requires careful progress and meticulous scanning of potential dangers.
The strength of Affordable Space Adventures is that the experience changes dramatically depending on your approach. Playing solo is tough but rewarding, as you control everything through the GamePad and multi-task until your head hurts. In co-op it switches up, though, with less experienced players able to control basic movement or even just the ship's light / scanner with Wii Remotes. The 'captain' can control those all-important systems, alternating between engine types and various other methods to work past tough scenarios.
It's a simple idea, but importantly it's executed beautifully; as a concept it could have easily been handled poorly. Nifflas and KnapNok Games evidently put their best work forward here, with precise, clever and smart puzzles. Working with another player or two, regardless of each individual's gaming skill, is a rewarding exercise in teamwork and communication.
Beyond that, a special mention should go to the presentation. This title is visually enticing, with dark and mysterious alien environments, and a story told in very subtle but meaningful ways - the conclusion is deliciously put together, while also being simple and obvious in hindsight. Sound is another strength, with ambient music deepening the atmosphere.
If you're looking for a unique experience that's only truly possible on Wii U, this should be on your radar. With a likely move away from dual-screen gaming in the Switch generation, it's also a reminder of what the Wii U can do when used intelligently. This is a standout eShop game, and ideal for experiencing with family and friends in the Holidays.
Want to learn more? Check out this detailed interview with KnapNok Games, which also features links to our review and an interview with Nifflas.