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Cargo Commander is a forgotten classic

Crate stuff!

It was the laundry that got me. A neat little line strung between gantries, and pegged upon it a cap, a nice pair of space-trousers, and underpants with, of course, a heart pattern. Cargo Commander is a game that gives quite a bit of real estate over to camera control. You can use a bumper to pull way, way back - so far out your character becomes a dot and the procedural 2D mazes he runs through become unreadable. But you can also use the other bumper to zoom in, far closer than is practical. And when you zoom in you see a world of careful details: the clothes line with its laundry, paper spooling endlessly from a printer, a glitchy animated hammer working away on a laptop that's sat on the game's upgrade bench.

Cargo Commander came out in 2012 and it was a cult hit rather than a smash, which means you can return to it now without having to navigate a lot of popular thought and opinion surrounding it and obscuring it. What I find, each time I come back, is a beautifully scrappy kind of bottle universe, a chaotic, living game with some ideas that were pretty thrilling for 2012, certainly, but also a self-contained game with total confidence in its own identity. Actually, identity isn't quite the right word here. This is that rare game that has an actual force of personality. It's lost in deep space, it's orbiting a wormhole or somesuch, it's pegged up its underwear and it doesn't care who can see it.

Even now, the big stuff you can do in Cargo Commander is strangely dazzling. It's a sort of space truckers future, filled with all manner of grease-splattered blue collar types toiling away in a galaxy that feels a bit like Detroit - metal plate, lots of wrenches, nothing that can't be fixed with one of those guns that fires nails. You operate a salvage ship, which is basically a living quarters attached to a huge magnet. At the start of every game you turn the magnet on, and then--

--And then a huge crate comes thudding in from space, colliding with your living quarters and allowing you to jump down into it and explore. Each crate is a different 2D maze of platform and trinkets and enemies. You race in, get as much cargo as you can, and then zip back out again before the magnet fails and the crate drifts back into space once more.

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Or rather, you zip from crate to crate, making things up as you go along, because your magnet generally pulls in more than one crate, which means more than one platforming gauntlet to fight your way through. Each crate smash ruptures the membrane of the crate it hits, which can be useful, sucking enemies out into space, or hazardous, sucking you into space. A little space-walking is pretty much mandatory anyway, as when things start to fall apart, the crates fly back into space in the reverse order to which they arrived.

This is where Cargo Commander is really thrilling, I think: when you're rushing through platforming mazes that are coming apart around you, gantries and flooring being stripped back as you use your drill arm to either spike baddies with hot nails or drill through walls to fudge yourself an escape route. Gravity leaves you wonderfully disoriented as you bounce from one crate to the next, changing your idea of what's up and down as you go, and when you're back home you often land in a kind of mad dashing panic. It takes me a while to calm down between runs in Cargo Commander, which is probably the ultimate compliment for a game like this.

Procedural environments, loot, upgrades in every direction and a bit of messing about with gravity? Cargo Commander wouldn't be out of place as a 2019 indie release. But back in 2012, just as my own focus was moving from consoles to the PC, this glorious oddity seemed to speak to everything that was enticing about the kinds of treats that lurked in my future. It was vivid, characterful and weird enough to require a bit of effort: you had to put in the time to understand what it was trying to do. A strange, neglected classic, in other words.

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