There’s something inherently familiar with the top down, almost isometric view of most RPG Maker games. It speaks of days in forums downloading endless projects, played through at night. It speaks of childhood and of countless adventures through which I traveled. I suppose that’s why it’s called nostalgia; to be able to see the past through rose-tinted glasses. The fact is that in who knows how many attempts at remaking Pokémon, or however many Mother-inspired quirky games, I rarely, if ever, saw one of them be completed. I learned to see the signs, perhaps unfairly so, of a game that was likely to be abandoned; default textures and sprites, and generic, built-in fonts. Eventually, I started avoiding most RPG Maker games, because there were better options out there, and the ease of access meant that games would be uninspired, lazily designed, and predictable. Mars Underground is none of those things. By looping through the same day in a Groundhog Day mechanic, it manages to be so much more. (Editor’s Note: Some of you might be too young to have seen the movie Groundhog’s Day, please go watch it, it’s fantastic)
Mars Underground’s best feature is its story, which unfortunately means I must tread lightly, as this is one of those cases where it’s better to go in as blind as possible. What I can say about it is that, unlike many games and movies that share this particular trope, it is used to make a point, a statement. Whether or not that statement will resonate with you, as strongly as it did with me, I cannot say, but it’s refreshing to see it.
To see what? Nothing else than a games’ mechanics being used in order to tell a story, a good story, rather than adapting the story to a gimmick. There’s nothing saying you cannot make a good game by doing the latter of course. Portal, which is quickly becoming my go to example and a contender for most referenced videogame, does it, but there’s something earnest about how the game proceeds to tell its story.
I realise that talking in broad strokes, writing a lot while saying nothing, in an attempt at being verbose and to keep a certain air of mystery about the plot, might annoy some, if not most. Also I realise that I’ve been digging my own grave by talking only about the story, when a game is composed of much more. This isn’t to say that the other elements of the game aren’t good. While they don’t necessarily fully escape RPG Maker’s tile-set and sprite limitations, they are custom built and animated to great effect. The music suits the mood, which means it has to be wonderfully diverse, sometimes “beeping and bopping” and sometimes giving way to a creepy ambience.
There’s a certain focus to Mars Underground, in a way that speaks of tight level design, of thought and care put into it. Freedom is never a given, but rather a reward. Although the game starts out linear, almost painfully so, with every repeating day, every loop, it opens up a little more. Every decision, no matter how minuscule, has a way of affecting Mars on the following loop. At the same time through, little else but the items won are retained, so a sort of blank slate is given at the beginning of each loop. It is a reward, but it’s also a motivational force, a desire. As I played through the game I wished to unlock more areas, to open up the world to fully explore.
I burst my phone’s note feature while playing the game. If everything, no matter how small, affected my experience, then keeping track of the right and wrong and even the why the hell did I do that steps, seriously try jumping in front of a car, became a goal of mine. It had been years since I had felt the need to do that. Much could be said about the characters and their dialogue. Quirky, weird, and above all else, relatable. Of course, there are characters who simply exist to point you in a direction, but then there are those who, in the process of helping solve a puzzle, speak with a cynicism and jaded sense of humor that remind me that, quirky as this is, as obvious as the comparison might be, this isn’t a Mother game, it isn’t even Undertale.
Puzzles are clever and integrated into the world and game’s mechanics, but they mostly focus on doing the same sort of task over and over. Talk to this guy, use this item, such as it is with most RPG games. While they might not necessarily be inspired in their execution, they all require forethought and planning. The obvious comparison to make when this time mechanic comes up would be to Majora’s Mask, but this game rather reminds me more of Shenmue. And yet, as much as I love Shenmue, as immersive an experience as it is, missing a shop’s opening hours always felt frustrating, meaning a long haul of wasting time or waiting. By sheer mechanics, Mars Underground is never that punishing, because one can retire from their day at any time, and just restart it.
There’s definitely something extra in Mars Underground. It’s not just a standard modern day suburbia kids going on an adventure sort of deal. As I keep repeating, its story and characters are its strong point. The puzzles are clever, and integrated, the graphics nice and clean, and the music suitably creepy and cheerful where necessary. But if one is to play Mars Underground, they should do it not because of the RPG mechanics (which are mostly missing, in terms of battles), but to experience its story. Mars Underground reminds me that RPG Maker is a tool, not a shortcut. And that while there might be plenty of crap done with it, if one takes the time, effort, and care to pour over it, a good game is possible, and Mars Underground is a good game.
Mars Underground was developed by Moloch Media
Available on: Steam
A Review Copy was provided by the developer.
Mcportugalem has awarded Mars Underground the Indie Gamer Team Seal of Approval