(Courtesy of Knapnok Games)

Affordable Space Adventures
Developed by: KnapNok Games
Published by: KnapNok Games
Available on: Wii U eShop

While the Swedish game designer, Nicklas “Nifflas” Nygren, was working on his 2-D adventure game “Knytt Underground,” he began brainstorming ideas for a game based around a unique input device. Nygren was inspired by the multi-pedaled, three-dozen-plus-button monstrosity that shipped with the 2002 Xbox game, “Steel Battalion.” Sensitive to the financial impracticality of bundling a novel controller with an indie game, Nygren left his ideas in embryonic form. In the spring of 2011, Nintendo unveiled the GamePad, a tablet-style controller for the Wii U, which launched in November 2012, and Nygren had his eureka moment. He believed that a spaceship game outfitted with inventive controls was feasible on Nintendo’s eighth-generation console.

During the summer of 2013, Nygren spoke with friends at the Danish development studio, KnapNok Games about the logistics of collaborating. The result of their year-and-a-half-joint effort is “Affordable Space Adventures” – a game that, as other reviewers have noted, is liable to make a chunk of its audience reassess the possibilities of the Wii U’s GamePad.

“Affordable Space Adventures” unfurls in an area between the illusory promise of commercials and the murkier mental challenges posed by the game’s world. At the start menu, a series of exotic postcards passes across the screen while off to side lies an intergalactic passport and a coupon.  After you select your difficulty level – “Technical” or “Tourist” – you’re treated to a commercial for Uexplore – the sketchy, cost-effective way to enjoy space travel. Uexplore manufactures a tiny space ship, the Small Craft, and runs a travel agency. Taking the legwork out of space exploration, Uexplore offers a package deal to travel to an alien planet 23 light years away that’s supposedly hospitable and in pristine condition. Although the commercial touts Uexplore’s impeccable safety record since, er, 1995, this statistic is undermined by the fine print along the bottom of the screen that disavows the accuracy of the quoted figures.

With a setup like that how could things not go south from the jump?

The ship carrying the Small Craft crashes on an alien world during a thunderstorm. After turning on the ship’s fuel-powered engine and freeing it from the smoldering carcass of the Uexplore vessel that ferried it across the galaxy, you’re set free in a world whose blend of brisk humor and environmental puzzles recalls the formula that Valve perfected in their “Portal” games. Here too, you’ll be manipulating boxes, switches, and laser beams in an effort to transverse a hostile environment composed of short levels.

As one would hope from any sci-fi game, the sound design is excellent. “Affordable Space Adventures” audiovisual elements hew towards a winsome minimalism. It will sing to those who love titles that capitalize on the aesthetics of 2-D style games from the 16-bit era. The muted, yet warm color palettes of its stages put me in mind of Rothko’s canvases.

(Courtesy of Knapnok Games)

Restrained as these components are, the control scheme is anything but. Paradoxically, it’s both audacious and elegant.  (I’ve been playing the game on “Technical,” so I can’t speak to how accessible the “Tourist” option is.) Single player mode requires that players use the GamePad to guide the ship.  Over time, the touch screen on the GamePad sprouts numerous tabs that operate the Small Craft’s multiple systems. There are tabs for the ship’s separate fuel, electric, and booster engines; thrust, stabilizer, antigravity, mass generator, and decelerator subsystems; various types of landing gear; a scanner; heat shutters, and a few dials to boot. Incredibly, all of these tabs, sub-tabs and dials fit comfortably on the screen yielding as refined a tactile experience as one might expect from an Apple product.

The game’s co-op mode, which accommodates up to three players, brilliantly divvies up the ship’s responsibilities. While the systems engineer performs most of the nitty-gritty tasks managing the ship’s power levels – different configurations are required to bypass a range of obstacles – another player can pilot the ship as the third (and presumably the least skilled player) serves as the navigator by manipulating the ship’s scanner.

Co-op can be randomly initiated throughout the campaign. I played through most of the levels by myself but was able to rope in a couple of friends on different occasions.  (Alas, I never filled the navigator slot.) I found both the single-player experience and the cooperative one to be equally enjoyable yet different. As Nygren pointed out in an interview, “The puzzles get a bit easier to figure out when there are multiple people, because then you can talk about them and figure out together how to solve them, but executing them becomes much harder because then everybody needs to be on the same page about what you are doing.”

Indeed, when I explained to a friend that the ship was flying loose because of the levels he requested, I knew the game had me. That thought was reinforced the moment I heard another friend, a casual gamer, call out that she wanted the “heat vents open, two thrust, and one everything else.” Who would deny that the pleasures of jargon doth a community make?

Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer who has been playing video games since the days of the Atari 2600. His writing has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the Barnes & Noble Review, Al Jazeera America, the Guardian and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.

(Courtesy of Knapnok Games)

More game reviews:

Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin is a remaster that proves not all change is progress

AdVenture Capitalist: An addictive game about the irony of addiction to money

Bloodborne: The most recent Souls game is brutal, violent and exhilarating

Battlefield Hardline, a game where the police do more arresting than serving

Resident Evil Revelations 2: The latest in a series that just won’t die, but should

Ori and the Blind Forest: A beautiful version of gaming’s good ole days

République Remastered: A game that taps into our police-state anxieties

Kirby and the Rainbow Curse: A game that makes you feel like a life-saving artist