Hello, gentle readers, and welcome to the Classic Reload, the monthly feature where we know not what we do, but we do it just the same. Each month, we take a look at a game from the App Store’s past to see how it holds up in the present day. It’s a chance to revisit old favorites, reflect on their place in the overall iOS library, or simply to take a deeper dive than our reviews typically allow. I’ll do my best to present an interesting selection of games in this feature, but if there’s something you’d really like to see covered, please let me know by commenting below the article. I can’t promise you’ll see your suggestion soon, but I’ll certainly consider it for a future highlight.
We’re picking this series up right where I left off several months ago. My plan for the initial batch of Classic Reloads was to go through all of the games that won Game of the Year here at TouchArcade before moving on to others. I’m not going to hew quite so strictly to that idea now that we’ve relaunched this feature, but that’s still the general outline for the first several articles. Previous articles covered our 2009 Game of the Year, Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor (Free), and our 2010 iPhone Game of the Year, Space Miner (Free). We’ll be getting to the 2011 Game of the Year, Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery ($3.99), before too long, but due to the recent 30th anniversary of Metroid, I wanted to skip ahead to talk about our 2012 Game of the Year first. I know, I know, you’re all just waiting for the write-up on Land Sliders (Free), but please, patience.
After Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor proved to be a solid success for newly-formed developer Tiger Style Games, the team started thinking about their next project. According to an interview at RockPaperShotgun, they kicked around ideas for about four months before coming up with a concept about a regular person going on a cave adventure. After spending some time developing the idea, which at this point was known as Descent, they weren’t satisfied with where it was going. It turned out a normal guy going through normal caves wasn’t making for a very interesting video game. Still, the basic idea was strong. It just needed a little mustard.
That mustard turned out to be moving the setting from an Earth cave system to one on Mars. And of course, if you’re talking about Mars, it’s all too natural to broach the topic of whether there was once life on the Red Planet, and what happened to it. A National Geographic book about the universe, published in 1980, included a section that speculated about what shape life on other planets might take if it existed. It being National Geographic, it did so in a fairly scientific way, which caught the eye of Randy Smith from Tiger Style. When he sat down to put together the documents for the game now known as Mars Descent, he made use of the book as a source of inspiration.
We first got wind of the game in late August of 2011, when Tiger Style announced their new game, now titled Lost Mars, would be playable at that month’s Juegos Rancheros event held in Austin, Texas. Luckily for people outside of Texas, Tiger Style was willing to show a fair bit of gameplay about a week later. They also joined Eli and some mysterious muscleman on a special episode of the TouchArcade Show to talk about the game. We didn’t hear too much about the game after that until February of 2012, when the developers announced the game would release in March under the title Waking Mars (Free). The name was apparently changed due to worries about copyright issues. Several months after the iOS launch, in November of 2012, Waking Mars also released on Windows, Mac OS X, Linux, and Android. At this time, the iOS version received an update that added full voice acting and improved character art to the game.
While the game’s reception was generally positive, there were certainly a fair share of less-glowing opinions. In hindsight, it’s not hard to see why some people didn’t like the game as much as others. For one thing, the name Metroid was getting thrown around a lot before the game’s release, creating certain expectations in people’s minds. While Waking Mars shares a similar feeling of lonely exploration with that benchmark series, it’s almost completely different in every other way. Befitting a game where the main character is a bounty hunter, the Metroid games are really about seeking and destroying. The tools you find serve a dual purpose of opening up the world in natural way and improving Samus’s combat capabilities. Outside of rare cases, the interactions in Metroid are confined to Samus herself. How she interacts with the environment, how she battles the enemies, and so on.
Waking Mars is a different kind of game. Here, the hero is a scientist named Liang. Unlike most other scientists who become video game protagonists, Liang doesn’t end up becoming a savant at firing guns and planting explosives. No, Liang is here to do science, and that’s just what he’s going to do. If you want to join him on his journey, you’ll have to do things his way. But hey, you do get a jetpack. Like Tiger Style’s other games, Waking Mars starts with a small scope and slowly peels back layers until things become quite complex. In this case, the first few steps of the game involve planting a seed. You see, if you want to progress from room to room in this network of caves, you’ll need to placate the organisms blocking the exits. You can do that by creating a certain amount of biomass in the room. That’s a mouthful, but in the beginning, it just means planting seeds wherever you find fertile land. That will get you by, until it doesn’t anymore.
An early impression of the game might give you the idea that it’s just about inventory management, zooming around obstacles, and dropping seeds willy-nilly. But it’s not as simple as all of that. As you continue through the game and slowly bring Mars back to life, you’ll come across a number of different plant and animal species. They all interact with each other in different ways, generate different amounts of biomass, and even reproduce if conditions are right. Your first job is to learn everything you can about each of these life forms. The game gives you a lot of time to do this, but it doesn’t really force you to learn. It’s certainly possible to meander your way through most of the game without paying a great deal of attention, just as you could in Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor.
Like in that earlier game, there are rewards for the observant, but where Waking Mars diverges comes down to a matter of consequences. Even if you played the entirety of Spider without looking for secrets or solving puzzles, it was a trifling matter to go back afterwards and put things together for the best ending. But in Waking Mars, your carelessness can cause you a great deal of trouble in the long run. Remember, the ecosystem of Mars is dormant before your arrival. That means that you are responsible for how it develops. Unlocking the extra endings in the game requires you to maximize the biomass in each room, a task that can generally only be accomplished if you nail the balance of the ecosystem just right. If you plant the wrong things in the wrong locations, you can end up with a complete mess on your hands, one that you can only clean up through hard, sometimes-tedious work.
The trick is that seeds can be hard to come by, particularly for certain species. If you don’t plant things carefully, you might end up without something you need for a particular room, forcing you to go back to another room and collect more. If you can, anyway. The game discretely teaches you about each type of life form well before it counts, but again, it won’t force you to absorb those lessons. The larger rooms in the game are like elaborate Rube Goldberg machines once you get their ecosystems going, but putting one seed in the wrong places can knock the whole thing to pieces. If you accidentally do this, setting things right can certainly take a while. This was another point of criticism from some, but I’m not sure how bad it really is. I think it’s possible to ask too much of the player, as it appears Spider: Rite of the Shrouded Moon (Free) may have, but if Waking Mars never enforced its well-designed systems, I think the game would lose much of its point. Yes, screwing up the delicate balance of an ecosystem can create unintended results that take a long time to correct, even if said correction is possible. I believe that’s an important thing to take away from the game.
I never really fell in love with Waking Mars until it reached that point, however. I appreciated how well it built its atmosphere, but the mechanics seemed a little too basic and the challenges too weak in comparison to Tiger Style’s first game. Once I realized just how elaborate the whole thing was, I was filled with a feeling similar to the one I got from Microsoft and Rare’s Viva Pinata. Suddenly, all of these toys that had been so boring just a second ago were alive with possibilities. When you figure out how to make things work efficiently, it’s almost hypnotic watching the room come to life almost completely on its own. Liang is a creator, not a destroyer. He doesn’t engage with the environment so much as he pushes over the first domino and watches the results. You’re tempted to feel like a god in this world, but the game does a good job of reminding you just how small a human really can be in the scope of things. Small, yet significant.
The story never bubbles over exactly the way you might hope it will, but it’s interesting enough to keep you playing along. At least on a replay, you know what’s coming, so it’s a little less disappointing when things come to a rather quick and open-ended close. I continue to appreciate Liang, who is very different from most sci-fi heroes. He’s confident, calm, and curious. The story could have easily played the experience as a sort of horror, but Liang’s inquisitive reactions to each new discovery instead create the feeling of the best science field trip ever. The greatest thing about replaying the game is that I already know what will eventually be expected of me. I know how it all works, so I can start planning earlier. That makes for a more satisfying mechanical experience, even if playing again does remove the joyous element of discovery that helps push along the initial playthrough.
In spite of the fact that the game hasn’t received any updates in the last few years, Waking Mars still works perfectly well on modern devices. Even after four years, there’s very little like it on the App Store, and even within the Tiger Style library, I think it’s the most balanced game of the lot. From everything I’ve seen, the relatively weak performance of Spider: Rite of the Shrouded Moon knocked a lot of the wind out of the developer’s sails. If that means we don’t get any more experiences like Waking Mars, then I feel like gaming is poorer for it. Going into a popular setting and making so many unconventional choices was a risky move, but it paid off incredibly well here. If you haven’t found the time to buy it or play it yet, it’s worth setting aside several hours soon to do so. Just remember to approach it like a scientist, not a bounty hunter. You’ll be more satisfied that way.
That’s just my take on Waking Mars, though. What do you all think? You can share your thoughts on the game by posting in the comments below, and don’t forget to leave a suggestion or two about games you’d like to see in future Classic Reloads. As for me, I’ll be back next week with another RPG Reload. The next Classic Reload will arrive on October 20th. Thanks for reading!
Next Week’s Reload: Wazhack (Free)