Affordable Space Adventures is a very special game whichever way you look at it. Not only because it is one of the few titles that really takes advantage of the dual screens and controls provided by the Wii U GamePad, but also for the challenge this physics-based puzzler provides.
Its premise is fiercely original and it's obviously designed around how to best exploit the unique qualities of the Wii U. Other games have put buttons and maps on the touch screen, and some (such as Zombi U) have forced the player to the second screen in order to manage resources without looking at the TV or pausing the game. Here, however, the integration between what happens on the big screen and on the GamePad is even greater.
For those new to the premise, Affordable Space Adventures is exactly what the name implies. A company - Uexplore - offers you the experience of an exciting (and risky) space adventure in Spectaculon, a largely uncharted alien planet, in a compact vehicle with decent performance, but one with a price to suit everyone's pockets. The small ship - the Small Craft - moves through the stage on the television, dodging obstacles and dangers from a side-on view. Meanwhile, in your hands on the GamePad you hold the dashboard and control centre, and with it a wealth of indicators and systems.
The early stages of ASA are truly captivating. The presentation is so nice that it resembles the movie Wall-E. Soon you realise that the Small Craft is a useful, functional and competent little ship, albeit an economic and unpretentious one. Its owner's manual is slowly unfolded in the loading screens as you progress, and reveals a lovely design inspired by the instruction books for cars of the '90s. In fact, once you've got a few adventures under your belt, you end up growing fond of the ship, getting attached like you would that first car of your youth, back when the training wheels came off and you were finally allowed to explore the world at your leisure. In my case the Small Craft reminded me again and again of my dear old Citroën ZX.
The sound of its fuel engine when it starts up, the smoke when you push it to the limit, its funny movements, its flashing headlamp or the occasional firecrackers. It even comes with a glove compartment and an ashtray! The developers have given the Small Craft a charming character; it's one of the great strengths of the game.
The controls available to help you explore Spectaculon are introduced gradually as the adventure progresses. We recommend that you discover them for yourself one by one (skip to the next paragraph if you prefer to avoid spoilers), but to get an idea of the different elements that you will have to maintain and keep in mind, we can list a good number of systems. So as to interact and explore the environment the Small Craft has a directional headlight, a flare launcher, and an artifact-scanner. To propel ship forward and keep it in the air it sports a fuel engine (with a stabiliser and a mass generator) and an electric engine (with antigravity function and deceleration). Then you can unlock up to three landing gears, a battery to boost you in emergencies, and even some shutters to vary the flow of indoor / outdoor temperatures as required. Oh, and it also comes with a great horn, with a suitably '90s retro-style sound.
All these systems affect not only the craft's performance through the environment, but also a number of meters that keep track of important factors such as noise generated, the temperature of the vehicle, or the amount of electricity used; all in real-time. And therein lies the key to much of the game. When you're done mastering the basic manoeuvring of the ship, the developers begin to place a series of robots or mysterious artefacts that for some reason monitor the area and activate their lethal defence systems the moment they detect an intruder. This means you might have to go through a corridor in stealth mode with the electric motor, or even turning off multiple systems. Or you have to play with gravity so as to avoid an electricity-demanding burst of the thruster. Fortunately, you can aim your scanner at the artefacts to know how far you can be detected from, and by which systems.
These challenges become more complex with time and never feel repetitive. There are four or five examples of great ingenuity which will paint a grin on your face and make you feel really proud for having navigated your way through the area with your 'piece of junk'. And as you get more and more attached to it, whenever the Small Craft meets a grizzly end, it starts to hurt personally. Not to mention the scares you'll get when you're fiddling with the dashboard on the second screen only for a sudden explosion to hit on the television above.
Affordable Space Adventures is divided into levels (thirty-eight in total), each representing a test, room, or combination of puzzles. It's a clear structure and is easy to follow, but it's also the chief cause of two of our gripes with the game.
Firstly, the vast majority of the puzzles are about applying the actions you just learnt. If you were just taught to deploy the landing gear, rest assured that you will use them in the following rooms in a variety of different ways. It's no bad thing for learning and progress to be straightforward, but the game doesn't mix up the old and the new ideas enough.
Moreover, the concentrated structure of the game significantly reduces the feeling of exploration. We're not asking it to be something that it's not, but certainly it seemed a game about exploration first and foremost, which would have meant searching every corner of Spectaculon. The experience could have really done with a bunch of hidden items or small unlockable paths for curious players, or as an excuse to come back and play again. With this coming partly from the creator of the brilliant Knytt Underground, you can notice his hand in the cave design, but the sense of mystery, depth, and discovery is not close to his previous work. The constant and tiresome load screens between levels don't help either.
These two things lead to the strange feeling that remains once the credits have rolled at the end. The final stretch is masterfully threaded and orchestrated. Then 'something' happens and you start playing a bit differently. Only you and your Small Craft, studying the surroundings, improvising with the skills learned throughout the adventure. And there, when so many possibilities open up, the game is over. It's an ending, we repeat, that's very well told, but it's also one that you might want to enjoy a bit more than you're allowed to.
You may well read some complaints about the price. The truth is that this is an experience that we would recommend to any Wii U owner; no one should miss it, and it's unique design means that it can only be properly enjoyed with the GamePad.
Finally, with regards to the cooperative multiplayer mode, it's obvious that the team has made a decent effort on this front, and that shared play changes the experience, making communication and synchronisation (and shouts and laughter) mandatory in order to overcome the most difficult areas.
We've done things and reached places with this old banger that you could never imagine, and we will get back on our beloved Small Craft in a few weeks and return to this most unique of adventures so we can enjoy it once again. If you like artistic and ingenious games, this is one you don't want to miss.