Affordable Space Adventures is an inventive, charming environmental puzzler that makes full use of the Wii U's many quirks.
The Wii U's second screen has famously been under-utilised in the console's two years on the market, though there's another part of Nintendo's eccentric design that's been even more neglected; the space between those two screens, where so much of the tensions of the brilliant ZombiU lie, and where all the fun and excitement of Nintendo Land can be found.
What a pleasant surprise it is, then, to have a new game joining those two launch titles in probing the Wii U's unique frontier. Affordable Space Adventures, a blend of exploration and puzzling, doesn't have the polished pleasure of Nintendo Land, and it's not quite as evocative as ZombiU, but it's a smart, well-engineered game that's worthy of their company - and an overdue reminder about what it is that makes the Wii U's proposition so special.
Developer KnapNok has already proven an affinity with the Wii U's peculiarities with Spin the Bottle, a curious and charming party game built around the GamePad, and in teaming up with Knytt Underground creator Nifflas' Games it has created something more traditional, where you progress through linear levels by using the suite of tools gradually granted you to solve environmental puzzles.
It's sold by some wonderful world building, a familiar sci-fi world of cheery advertisements undercut by a soft, latent menace. You're a traveller setting out on the titular affordable space adventure, your tour sold by a futuristic travel agency whose brochures and cheery proclamations seem to have come from a tatty Thomsons nestled somewhere between a Bejams and Rumbelows on an 80s high street. Once you land on the surface of the planet with a sizeable bump, things aren't quite as promised in the purple-mist caves and crags beyond your crash site.
There's a scruffy joy to Affordable Space Adventures' aesthetic, one that leans on the rough-edged paranoia and scuffed-up fantasy of 70s sci-fi cinema such as Dark Star and Silent Running. The story unfurls through the environment, and through loading screens that feature pages torn out of a suspiciously cheery travel brochure, and from the manual to your diminutive spaceship.
The ship itself is a design with its own cute detail; sporting the dynamic lines of an Austin Allegro with a fax machine bolted to it, there's a satisfying diesel huff, wheeze and chug when you fire up its petrol engines. It's an unwieldy machine at first, nonchalantly weaving about the environments until more of its systems come into play, and when you've more control over its many features.
You control the ship with the left stick, directing a scanner with the right, but the real busy work happens on the touchscreen of the GamePad where your 'Heads-Down Display' resides. It's here where the systems slowly blink into place in a functioning facsimile of an engineering panel. Functional to a degree, that is - the interface has borrowed the look of Windows 3.1, the systems glitching in and out of service as you come into grief in your adventures.
It's a brilliantly tactile interface that blossoms in complexity over time. You begin managing simple systems such as thrusters and stabilisers, until eventually you're managing the temperature with operable shutters, working two different energy units together and figuring out which landing kit you'll want to deploy. Like some of the very best games, Affordable Space Adventures has you executing complex moves within an hour of its start that would seem impossible to newcomers.
You can even share the burden with other players, an asymmetrical co-op mode giving someone control of the systems on the GamePad while up to two other players use Wii Remotes or Pro Controllers to navigate the craft. It's a scrappy way to play the game but an enjoyable one, requiring players to shout commands each other as they strive to work as a team, and resembling a slimmed down version of the epic starship bridge simulator Artemis.
There's an element of wish fulfilment when playing through solo for sci-fi fans too; the nerdish thrill of seeing dials dance into the red as you fiddle with sliders and balance systems. Affordable Space Adventure's greatest trick is in how it pits its systems and the multi-tasking required to control its ship against the challenges its environments hold. They're little brainteasers that test how supple you are at juggling control, folded in with the pace and elegance of some of the very best environmental puzzle games.
It does all this without combat, even though Affordable Space Adventure's most memorable moments come when you're faced with hostile elements. Alien craft patrol the planet, each of them triggered into life by the sound, heat or electricity emitted by your own ship. It's up to you to keep each of those things in check, managing them in order to sneak past enemies undetected.
The combination of puzzles and stealth feels unique, and Affordable Space Adventures comes up with enough permutations over the game's 38 levels for it to never feel tired. There's a level of invention that keeps it fresh, and makes it all feel like more than a mere novelty - where new ideas are folded in at just the right pace, and providing just the right amount of challenge before whisking you away to another part of its alien world.
What an intoxicating place it is to spend a few hours, too. There are rough edges aplenty, but while the world Affordable Space Adventures conjures is never quite pretty it's certainly immersive, one which draws you in as you struggle in the space between the main screen and the GamePad. This is one of those rare games that could only ever be possible on the Wii U, and if you've any measure of affection or interest in Nintendo's console and what it's capable of, you owe it to yourself to check it out.