Are you tired of dead-end, earthbound employment? Do you long to break free of the crushing gravity of workaday life? Are you finally ready to float freely in the high-salary stratosphere? Well, dear reader, if you're dead set on those lofty goals, we don't have anything to offer; but if you're after a more modest galactic goal, Blue-Collar Astronaut may be right up your alley. This sweetly sardonic title marries thruster-physics-based arcade action with an overarching simulation of suffocating debt, to somewhat surprising results: it's quite effective at delivering its message, but the gameplay itself isn't nearly as memorable.
On booting up Blue Collar Astronaut you'll be thrown directly into your first order of business: getting your 'space license'. This involves a series of quick piloting missions in your very own spaceship: taking off and returning to a launchpad, passing through checkpoints in order, and steering around obstacles and hazards. Once you finish your skills test you'll be rewarded with a shiny new license, $35,000 worth of student debt — accompanied by a note saying "Congratulations on picking a cheap school!" — and the choice to either go on for your 'space master's', or to start paying back those loans by delivering pizza or hauling cargo with some space truckin'. Both jobs see you earn impressive profits that are then quickly cut back down to earth by taxes, fuel costs and ship repairs, until only a fraction remains — an effective interactive allegory of working in the wage economy.
Whether you're working towards that advanced degree or just slinging pizzas, Blue Collar Astronaut's gameplay always revolves around one thing: piloting your spaceship from point A to point B. It uses a classic thruster-based physics system — think Asteroids — that means momentum is strong and trajectories long: pressing 'A' or any of the shoulder buttons will engage your thrusters, while the left stick or D-Pad rotate your ship's (and the engine's) orientation. Since that's all the control you have, getting around is difficult by design, and that's part of the fun; as in games like Balloon Fight or Snake Pass, mastering the control scheme is tough but rewarding, and pulling off impressive parking maneuvers (after quite a bit of practice!) felt great in our playthrough.
That said, the best of these games build up memorable experiences around the controls, and that's where Blue Collar Astronaut comes up short. License tests, pizza delivery, and trucking around all boil down to the same basic gameplay template — get from here to there —and it struggles to remain engaging after an hour or so. Planetary gravity effects do shake things up, and enemies and level design evolve as the missions progress, but on the whole there's nothing particularly memorable about individual stages, and the overall experience feels a bit one-note. There's the option to replay completed levels with a scoring focus on individual parameters — like fuel, time, or health — but it feels grindy and repetitive, rather than fresh and new.
It doesn't help that the game is confusingly structured; there's no friendly level-select screen, and you'll just keep going within a job or license until you decide to quit out to the main menu, so it's tough to feel any differentiation between each stage. That's coupled with a general lack of information about what exactly you're supposed to be doing — for instance, is it better to deliver more pizzas, or get to the finish line faster? — makes it all feel a bit moot; like the post-student loan workaday grind it's mean to emulate, it left us with an overarching feeling of "why?".
In terms of that conceit, however, Blue Collar Astronaut really nails it. The writing is full of well-done dry humour and subtle digs at the gig economy, and the interface is cutely on-theme — check the dingy diploma hanging on your spaceship's wall, the options menu being labeled "flip switches", and cheeky sticky notes stuck to the ship's dash. The electronic manual is also genuinely hilarious, and well worth a read even if you've already cottoned onto the controls. It's clear that the developers put a lot of thought into to the concept, and little touches like these — and a fully playable credits level! — stand out.
The problem, really, is that the core gameplay itself isn't unique, soulful, or satisfying enough to recommend outside of its enjoyably sarcastic shell. It also suffers from some disappointing presentational hiccups; there are weirdly long load times and hangy menus, and the graphics — while cute and colourful — have a bit of a Flash game feel to them. The music is catchy, but very, very 'MIDI', and repeats fairly often in abrupt loops; it's nice for a bit, but wears out its welcome quite quickly. As an experience, it gets away with these issues somewhat thanks to its quirky charm, but they're still noticeable throughout.
Blue Collar Astronaut has its heart in the right place. It's a game that makes the most of its theme, with a beautifully cynical, anti-capitalist conceit that's sure to crack a few smiles. Sadly, the actual game underneath is competent but not really worth clocking in for — it's a simple, thruster-based delivery challenge that's decently fun, but doesn't hold up well to either repeat or extended play; its pleasant touches are balanced out by presentation problems in equal measure. You can sense the developers' passion for their project — which is worth a lot — but as a package, it comes up a day late and a dollar short.