Throughout antiquity, Mars has been a constant source of wonder and speculation. First recorded by ancient Egyptian astronomers in 1534 BCE, the Red Planet has inspired countless works of science fiction since the concept of “Intelligent Martians” first gained popularity in the 19th century. More recently, advances in technology have allowed science fact to take over, with NASA sending probes and rovers to our nearest celestial neighbour since the 1960s. This year, the Mars One Program has piqued international curiosity still further by beginning crew selection for a manned mission to Mars in 2024.
Amidst all the buzz and conjecture, Project Whitecard Studios has quietly released Starlite: Astronaut Rescue for iOS and PC. Developed in collaboration with NASA, with the backing of The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation and the University of California Irvine, this 20 minute mini-adventure simulates a rescue mission on the red planet. The games acts a precursor to an upcoming MMO, Starlite: Astronaut Academy, which is due to launch later this year. It is essentially a lesson in triangulation, rewarding those who complete the rescue mission with an official NASA badge certifying their proficiency with Physical Sciences on Waves.
Although the premise of the game is intriguing, it’s important to note that this title is primarily aimed at 11-15 year olds. It is definitely a game that was developed for the classroom; it would make a perfect addition to any science lesson aimed at introducing children to the wonders of space. Educators will find the content accessible and interesting enough to dissect with students at a rudimentary level. Of course, it can be enjoyed by any enthusiast, but be warned: the action is low-key, the perceived peril is non-threatening and the pacing is very relaxed.
You begin the game outside a huge mobile habitat on the surface of Mars, just prior to a crash landing that spurs you into an improvised rescue mission to save a downed pilot. You will learn how to hack together various components and calibrate them before attaching your makeshift transmitters to a number of Mars rovers in the bay of your habitat.
In order to track the distress signals from the crash site, you need to use various mathematical methods to triangulate the exact position of the ship. Sending out the rovers in quick succession, you manoeuvre them remotely across the landscape while scanning down the beacons. Once the rovers are aligned correctly, the coordinates of the ship are obtained and the mission ends. You enter your email details and are rewarded with an official astronaut badge, the first of many insignias the program will eventually offer.
The entire play-through is essentially a series of minigames designed to explain the basic fundamentals required to operate on the Martian surface. From unpacking equipment to capturing and extrapolating data, players are basically being given a tutorial in the basics and proficiencies of extra-terrestrial survival.
The controls are intuitive and the graphics are simple but, on such a barren planet, that is easily forgiven. The voice acting is compelling and the rovers you pilot are well crafted, highly detailed replicas of their real world counterparts currently patrolling Mars.
The 20 minutes you spend with this game are enjoyable, if somewhat fleeting. Playing through the mission with younger children amplifies the experience, especially when they being to grasp the basics of the formulas required to master the calculations. There is definitely a sense of achievement when the mathematics and theory come together, the rovers align, and the cavalry is called in.
The game in its current form is not much more than a short tech demo which showcases the potential for the MMO currently in development, but this is reflected in the modest price. Perhaps the most exciting prospect, however, is that the game will hopefully invoke interest from a younger generation of gamers who are eager for new experiences, opening their eyes to the real world sciences behind space exploration.
Fans of sci-fi action shooters and those seeking death defying thrills and spills need not apply, but parents of inquisitive youngsters are encouraged to check out what Starlite: Astronaut Rescue has to offer. It’s uplifting to think that some of the children taking part in the forthcoming Astronaut Academy may well find it the catalyst to developing a lifelong interest in science and astronomy. With the calibre of the organisations backing this project, that certainly seems to be the goal.