The first time I played Lunar Flight I spent over half an hour piloting my little lunar capsule head first into the many rocky craters of Earth’s largest, greyest satellite. It was hectic, spiraling lunacy that almost always resulted in some marvelous catastrophe. Mostly this was hilarious and I did at least feel like I was making some minor progress with the controls before I exploded at the end of every adventure into a ball of impossible flames.
The second session, the very next day, I came prepared. Johann Strauss’s Blue Danube was set to run on repeat in the background and now, with some swift practice I began to drift, to dance, to descend and – more often than not – to actually land. I had now, within me, the power to traverse the void with little more than the twitching of my own foolish fingers and it felt good – so good – to succeed. Suddenly I was Captain Davies, Master Moon Pilot and not merely some idiot junkie joyrider out for kicks and a quick death.
It’s worth noting that my success in the above instance was entirely coincidental of the epic classical beats pouring from my speakers. The game’s own score is wonderfully understated, tense science-fiction fare, but my God, Strauss did feel like an epiphany of sorts, from which I came to realise that Lunar Flight is absolutely the closest any game has come to fulfilling my Space Odyssey fantasies.
Here we have a modernised Lunar Lander, but to insinuate that it’s a traditional clone doesn’t do justice to the richness of the experience on offer. Certainly, it has its roots in that grand arcade tradition of firing all thrusters and fighting gravity to ensure a calm and respectable landing, but Lunar Flight is so much more than that. It’s three-dimensional for a start, which immediately gives you all sorts of additional difficulties when it comes to handling the yaw, roll and pitch of your little craft. And it’s beautiful, so beautiful in fact that you’ll likely forego the trickier cockpit interface with its full-screen dashboard and blinking bulbs simply to gaze upon as much of your external environment as possible. A final point: the game is simulator in style, but entirely playable on a 360 joypad.
The action unfolds from any number of perspectives. Initially you’ll be presented with a screen split into four – one panel for each available view – and it’s best to start out this way, with both first and third-person perspectives allowing you to rely less on the altitude and speed readings being thrown out by the shipboard computer. When you toughen up you’ll want to test yourself from a fully first-person viewpoint and this is where you’ll likely remain if you’ve any sense; inside and alone. Solitude is the overriding theme here. Loneliness must be embraced on when you find your only friends to be distant radio chatter, transponder beeps and the rumbling sound of your own rocket fuel sizzling away into space.
For a game that limits itself to one typically barren landscape, where Lunar Flight succeeds visually is in its sense of scale. Hopping between bases and watching settlements inch into view as you guide yourself by compass across the vast grey gulf is a mesmerising sight. Carefully decelerating on approach and touching down without overshooting the landing pad or taking a single scratch is something else entirely.
The game is fairly open in offering a selection of missions to choose from at each of four bases, but the mission variants are fairly restrictive in that you’re either transporting cargo from one base to another, finding and collecting lost cargo or performing surveys on distant plots of land by hovering awkwardly and scanning the dust beneath you. To be honest, they’re excuses to get out there and to fly, to allow you to feel the limitations of your fuel reserves, to engage in death-defying stunt maneuvers or possibly to make that one awful error which will send you tumbling away, screaming, from your goal. Fear in Lunar Flight is a common emotion.
As it is, the lack of an overarching series of tasks to keep you on your toes may seem an unfortunate omission – being relied upon to avert disaster or to meet a succession of urgent goals would have provided further weight to the experience of being just one man in his tin can – but this remark comes from a desire to experience more than this game is charging for. The price is astonishingly low as it is, and you’ll have plenty to keep you going in the form of continuous achievements, time trial leaderboards, ship upgrades and three separate maps of increasing difficulty in which to pootle around.
The fact is, if you’ve ever been at all interested in space travel – if you’ve ever been fascinated by footage from landing craft coasting gently over the lunar surface – then this game will appeal to you, not only from a technical perspective, but as a means of experiencing that unique sensation formed entirely of serenity, beauty and unshakable fear. Lunar Flight sets the bar for Lunar Lander-likes, but this isn’t the extent of the game’s achievement. On its own merits, Shovsoft have created a fresh-faced and wonderfully playable space simulator that I urge everyone to try.