Arcade Moonlander / Arcade Moonlander Plus

A game by Daniel Griffin for PC, originally released in 2017, with the Plus version released in 2019.
Arcade Moonlander takes its inspirations from Atari’s classic Lunar Lander, which inspired an entire genre – albeit a sparsely populated one – of gravity-based spaceship games that require players to maneuver through the environment and avoid obstacles on their way to a landing pad. Per genre conventions, touching any surface besides the landing pad results in instant death, as does coming down too hard on the pad itself.

At the start of the game, only the Arcade mode is unlocked, but an Adventure mode unlocks once this has been completed. The Arcade mode consists of 20 individual levels (10 in the original release), which are each designed to be completed quickly, with the player’s fastest overall time recorded and shared via online leaderboards. Early levels are straightforward, with short distances between the player’s starting position and the landing pad, but later levels offer more complex environments and tighter spaces to navigate.

In Arcade mode, the HUD shows the direction of the landing pad, total time taken, the player’s best time, and the amount of fuel remaining. Adventure mode adds a minimap that offers a slightly wider view of the area. Getting killed in the Arcade mode sends the player back to the start of the level to try again. Levels may be replayed at any time by selecting them from the main menu.

The player is able to rotate the ship to the left or right, as well as thrust with a button press, or perform a heavy thrust with a button combination. The heavy thrust consumes fuel more quickly but can be used to reach great speeds or brake quickly when approaching a wall. Levels do not require the use of heavy thrusters for completion, but players will want to use this function when going for the best level times.

Later levels in Arcade mode occasionally feature branching paths, with narrower routes often being shorter, thus allowing skilled players to complete levels more quickly if they have the ability to navigate these passages. Since the ship is oblong, the player occasionally needs to thrust and then rotate the ship to slide through very narrow openings, which requires deft use of the controls and some quick mental calculations.

Levels continue to grow more and more complex, offering tighter passages, more jutting projections, and less room for mistakes. Levels also grow longer, so failing a landing at the end of the level can mean quite a bit of repeated gameplay. Players must be mindful to set down easy on the landing pad, as there is very little room for error in terms of speed, and the ship cannot be rotated more than five degrees off the center axis to land successfully.

Levels take place almost entirely below the surface of the moon, consisting mostly of curved intestine-like paths, including an area where the player must literally fly into a formation that looks like a human mouth with an esophagus and stomach. Every now and then, the player encounters manmade (or alien-made) structures that offer 90-degree angles, and the player sometimes encounters space worms or satellites, but these are easily avoided and do not actively engage the player.

Overall, gravity is quite low, and gravity does not vary from level to level. As such, players don’t need to be terribly mindful of their fuel consumption unless they’re trying for a low level completion time, which makes the game fairly easy compared to other entries in the genre. In longer Arcade levels and in the Adventure mode, the player occasionally encounters fuel pickups that refill or extend the meter.

Adventure mode changes things up by offering a single contiguous level that is significantly larger than any of the levels in Arcade mode. Here, the player must feel his way through caves and subterranean structures to find the landing point at the end. There are multiple possible routes to take, including teleportation pads that send the player to other locations, potentially shaving minutes off of a full run through the area.

Adventure mode also features falling spike traps in some areas, and more frequent fuel pickups, which you’ll need to grab here since the level is so large. Fortunately, getting killed doesn’t send you back to the start of the level, but it does send you back to a checkpoint, and there is a fair amount of distance between these. Also, if you crash, you lose all of your collected fuel, but you’re still unlikely to run out. The level timer keeps counting when you die, so you’ll need to focus on a no-death run – and find the fastest route through the level – if you’re looking for the lowest completion time.

Adventure mode features a new level element in the form of a circle with a large outer band. Entering this outer band causes the screen to rotate, making the circle the center of gravity. This can be a bit disorienting since the screen doesn’t rotate in any other situations, so the player may need to rely on the minimap to determine when he needs to leave the gravity well in order to push forward.

Aesthetically, the game is done entirely in greyscale. Obstacles appear in solid black with white outlines, making it easy to parse the environment. In a nice touch, satellites, space worms, landing pads, and background structures appear in bright white, offset by dim grey backgrounds, offering similar visuals to vector-based games of the arcade era. The game has a sci-fi soundtrack, but in the longer Adventure mode, these tracks don’t blend into one another but rather stop completely before moving onto the next.

Arcade Moonlander was developed by Daniel Griffin and published by Back Of Nowhere Studios. Music for the game was composed by Eric Matyas.


Unknown said...

Thanks for reviewing Arcade Moonlander! It means a lot to me to see people still interacting with the product :)

Daniel Griffin

AJ Johnson said...

Absolutely! There are so few entries in this genre, and it's great to see developers breathing new life into the archetypes established in arcade classics.