Review: SimpleRockets

By Phil Scuderi 13 Sep 2013 0
Oh, the humanity! All we need now is someone to fly it. Any volunteers?

I've long fancied myself a student, and even a steward, of neglected game genres. In the mid '90s when RPG's lay cold and forlorn, I made a point of playing all those creaky, cumbersome dungeon-crawlers that eventually starved the genre of life. Then when adventure games succumbed, I replayed the old classics once a year lest their memories fade. As various genres waned and went dormant, I pledged to hold vigil until their inevitable return to market.

When Kerbal Space Program appeared in 2011, I realized I’d been derelict in my duties. Despite all my historical doting I’d forgotten there ever was such a thing as a realistic space simulator. The genre died abruptly after 1994’s Microsoft Space Simulator, which I recall seeing in stores alongside all the crappy edutainment titles that used to clog the shelves, and with which I fear shoppers may have hastily lumped it.

After 17 long years without a major commercial space sim, KSP seemed utterly fresh, as though it were the first of its kind. Its remarkable success shows that demanding simulations can thrive in today's market. In its wake a couple of pared-down rocketry sims have appeared on mobile devices, and today’s SimpleRockets is one of them.

I hate cute. The solar system is your playground. Okay, fine! "Smolar" system.

Its chief competitor in this realm is Space Agency, a casual take on the genre that I felt was pretty well put together. SimpleRockets is so similar to Space Agency that it’s hard to consider it on its own merits, so forgive the abundant comparisons below. The two games are nearly identical in scope; they both task you with constructing rockets from an array of components, launching them into orbit, and wrestling with a simplified 2D physics engine in hopes ultimately of visiting the moon and the planets beyond.

SimpleRockets’ physics simulation is the more robust of the two. Most notably, the game’s orbital mechanics actually work as Johannes Kepler intended them. In Space Agency, faster orbits could be higher than slower orbits (physics majors: close your eyes; breathe in; breathe out) but SimpleRockets sets matters straight. Unlike Space Agency’s point-and-shoot approach to interplanetary navigation, here you’ll need to time your burns properly if you hope to reach the moon or other bodies. SimpleRockets’ crashes are more dramatic too, with errant rocket stages spinning off into the sky like mad, reminiscent of that one scene in Contact that we all rewound again and again.

However, SimpleRockets doesn't allow for orbital docking maneuvers, which were among Space Agency’s more compelling challenges. It streamlines the Space Agency formula in other ways, too. Although you can burn your engines to change the shape of your orbit, your main engines and your maneuvering thrusters share a single fuel supply, whereas Space Agency kept them distinct. Apart from its sandbox mode, SimpleRockets only has twelve structured missions. Space Agency has over twenty. The disparity in rocket parts—engines, payloads, fuel tanks—between the two games is even more pronounced. The exception to this trend is that SimpleRockets will let you launch from any planet in the solar system, not just Earth. Designing a rocket capable of escaping Jupiter’s gravity is like a game in itself.

Quaid, start the reactor. Get your ass to Mars. Get your ass to Mars.

So by sheer combinatorial explosion, there’s more to do in Space Agency than in SimpleRockets. If you’re a stickler for more accurate physics, SimpleRockets will throw you a few more bones. The former is a dressed-up, addictive Flash game; the latter is a dressed-down proper simulator. They’re both good at what they do, each appealing to a different attitude.

Regrettably neither game offers the true killer feature: a persistent career mode. I want a simulation not just of isolated rockets, but of an entire space agency, with budgets to manage, engineers to train, and off-world colonies to establish. Give me a reason to visit all these worlds! Not even Kerbal Space Program achieves this—at least not yet. For now I’m content toying with these Newtonian-themed baubles, but I expect far grander things still to come from this revitalized genre.

Review: SimpleRockets

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