App of the Day: Astronot

Forbidding planet.

A crashed spaceship, a mysterious alien environment, a network of hazardous caves lurking just beneath the surface: I am never going to get tired of this. It's one of the simplest set-ups in video games, and yet it almost always delivers.

Astronot is a case in point. With its wonderfully modest pixel graphics, its bare-bones animations, and its stripped-back controls, it's as basic a design as 2D platform games can get. It delivers on the Metroid template - the upgrades, the exploration, the lonely sense of mystery - spectacularly well. Do you like running, jumping, shooting and cave-diving? You are going to be out of your mind with happiness here.

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The iOS versions run in a slightly unattractive frame. You won't notice too much, though.

Wade McGillis' game has plenty of treats in store for you, but my favourite element actually relates to something he's left out. Astronot's easily as complex as most other modern-day Metroidvanias when it comes to back-tracking, gear-gating, and remembering where you passed that last save point, but it refuses to coddle the player with any kind of map. If you want to keep tabs on your progress, you're going to have to get a paper and pen, in other words - and if you're really serious about the game, make it gridded paper while you're at it.

Sure, this could be a deal-breaker for some fans of the genre. For me, it was a passport to nerdy cartographer paradise (that's one block over from nerdy biochemist paradise, incidentally). I love maps in general, and I particularly love video game maps: the kinds that people used to send in to mags back in the old days, covered with felt pen markings, sticky-tape, and the odd ring imprint left by a cup of tea.

Games are no stranger to handicrafts - just take a look at Etsy and you'll quickly be up to your neck in N64 controller desk tidies and cross-stitched Zelda characters - but these maps feel like our equivalent of folk art, or our attempt to bring some kind of order to the bizarre new worlds that keep spilling forth from creative minds.

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Expect to boost your health and jumping power along the course of the journey, but there are much better upgrades in store too.

I've played most of Astronot in short bursts because of this, pausing every few steps to sketch out the next cavern, and leaving frantic little notes to myself when I come to a barrier I can't yet cross. It's been amazing.

It's entirely plausible you may have more going on in your life than me, of course. The good news is that even if you don't want to bust out the HB pencils, Astronot is still a bit of a treat. Its enemies are simple in design but squeamishly effective regardless of that, its power-ups offer a few welcome twists on the basic templates, and its world is as eerie as anything from Metroid or Exile. Sure, it's the same old lava rivers and alien fungi we've all grown accustomed to, but the limited colour pallet renders it gorgeously lurid, while the primitive art makes the statues and skulls and bosses you come across seem genuinely otherworldly.

Astronot's also available for PC and Mac, incidentally, where it comes with a neat little level generator that I've spent far too long tinkering with. The ability to make and share your own stages should be patched into the iOS versions at some point - but McGillis will hopefully resist the temptation to chuck in a map at the same time. Get out there.

App of the Day highlights interesting games we're playing on the Android, iPad, iPhone and Windows Phone 7 mobile platforms, including post-release updates. If you want to see a particular app featured, drop us a line or suggest it in the comments. For daily app coverage, check out our sister site Modojo.

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