Nostalgia tricks the memory. Return to old videogames and they’re often surprisingly dull. Hence why modern tributes often provide an injection of rocket fuel, transforming Pac-Man into the fast-and-furious Pac-Man: Championship Edition, and the tedious, monotonous Space Invaders into the giddily exciting Space Invaders Extreme. Now, Solar Explorer: New Dawn similarly revamps much-loved slice of retro-gaming Lunar Lander.
The premise is that humanity has messed up, and needs to rapidly colonise the inner planets to survive. Unfortunately, it hasn’t invented Star Trek-style teleportation, and so still relies on the tried-and-tested model of hurling landers at planets and moons. Your job is to get them down in one piece.
Rocket to ’em
Prior to each mission, you kit out your lander, with new parts being unlocked as you progress. Decisions are vital, given that you can fashion everything from a fuel-efficient lander that steers like a space cow to something rivalling an X-wing in manoeuvrability stakes, but that burns through fuel – not good if you run out of juice halfway down.
Flights happen in three distinct stages, each introduced by a cut-scene you’ll initially want to skip, but eventually appreciate for giving you a few seconds to get your breath back. On entry, you must keep within the approach path to avoid gaining speed and breaking up. During approach, you slow your speed for a fighting chance at landing. And on landing, subtle use of boosters is required to touch down safely. Two thumbs are all you need throughout – pressing one half of your screen activates the relevant booster; hold two thumbs down for a blast from the rear.
The snag: space is full of lander-smashing rocks you must avoid on the way down. Also, planets and moons are often lacking in gravity, yet are happy to hurl all kinds of view-obscuring dust about. Handy. Also: frequently deadly.
No time to plan-et
New Dawn is replete in movie-style trappings, from beautiful visuals to an intense musical score. But this is very much arcade fare, not simulation. It’s a seat-of-the-pants roller-coaster on the way down, avoiding massive space rocks by a hair’s breadth; then the pace switches to delicate nudges as you try to land intact.
Both gameplay types can be brutal, and you frequently hit missions that initially seem impossible. However, while mastery may not be obvious, revisit an earlier level – like returning to those old games – and you’ll see how far you and New Dawn alike have progressed. Landing on the moon seems like playing in slow motion when you’re otherwise battling insanely tough missions to Venus.
But in those later stages, New Dawn wobbles a little. The lack of an instant restart button irks, the game forcing you to watch yet another failed landing, your craft pinwheeling sickeningly slowly through space until it smashes into the surface. Your craft unsportingly exploding on straying too far from the landing zone seems unnecessary, too – a fuel countdown’s quite enough to ramp up the tension.
Still, for all its frustrating moments, New Dawn is a success: a compelling, exhilarating journey through the void, ideally suited to mobile play.