For better or worse, life finds a way in Waking Mars

, | Game reviews

In 1787, after things didn’t go so well with America, England decided to invent Australia. So they pushed out to sea some ships full of convicts and rabbits. They headed vaguely southeast, hit an island, and flourished. The convicts eventually produced Olivia Newton-John, Sam Worthington, and the Lord of the Rings movies. The rabbits produced more rabbits. A lot more.

The rabbits, which bred like rabbits, took to Australia’s mild winter-less climate. They enjoyed unchecked population growth as the colonists thinned out the predators that should have eaten the rabbits. The furry little darlings destroyed young trees by eating away the bark. They dined freely on plants that were supposed to anchor the topsoil. For two hundred years, rabbits wrought havoc on Australia’s ecosystem, single-handedly causing the extinction of plant species that occur nowhere else in the world.

I’ve done something similar in Waking Mars.

After the jump, Night of the Lupus, but on Mars and without rabbits

Waking Mars is just about the coolest new thing I’ve seen someone do with a side-scrolling Castlevania/Metroid exploration game. Instead of guns that open doors, it has seeds that open doors. As an astronaut on Mars, trapped by a cave-in, you navigate a strange but sophisticated ecology of Martian flora and fauna. It’s simple one-touch stuff, perfect for an iPhone, and featuring wonderful graphics, awesome space music, and actual characters with personality. It gradually unfolds its secrets without holding your hand. As you explore and discover, you fill in snippets of research data. These eventually come together in what passes for the game’s manual and hint system.

The genius of Waking Mars is that where other games would have combat, or spells, or inventory, or the usual gameplay vocabulary, you instead get ecology. It’s up to you to fit the pieces together. Parts of the game remind me of planting gardens or feeding ducks. And as you progress deeper, the interaction of various systems gets more complex, and more delicate, and more expansive. Waking Mars is full of surprises that all come down to nature being composed of interrelated systems, each affecting each other, each depending on each other. You might have the power to wake it up, but it’s not yours to control. This is a surprisingly thoughtful, delightfully atmospheric, smartly written, carefully designed game about a place nearly as intricate and mysterious as Australia.

To Waking Mars’ credit, it has let me all but destroy my own game. I’ve gotten to the “end” in that I’ve escaped and reunited with mission control, where the game tells me that the characters have only but to wait for a rescue. But there are still subterranean Martian secrets just beyond my reach that Waking Mars encourages me to explore while I await rescue. The problem is a room called The Meadow — I love that each room has a name — which I seeded with a particular plant in an effort to get through it quickly. Except that now that plant has taken hold so ferociously, and with such aggression towards other species, that it would be a long-term and tedious chore to re-engineer The Meadow. I’ve tried. Believe me, I’ve tried. It’s like reaching the end of a game and giving up at the boss battle. Although this is entirely my fault. I woke Mars up, but I made it grumpy. It’s going to take a lot of work to cull secrets from it.

If you choose to play Waking Mars — and if you have any interest in games that take you to cool new worlds and show you cool new ways to play reliable old genres, then you should play Waking Mars — I leave you with these words of wisdom: the feran is to Mars what the rabbit is to Australia. Apply sparingly.

5 stars