Imagine how exciting space travel must have sounded back in the days of Jules Verne. Those were the days when a few brilliant and daring scientists could rig up a clever contraption and venture to the moon - without fear of decompression, radiation, the prolonged effects of zero gravity, and all of the other boring and annoying consequences of the laws of physics. There were no government bureaucrats debating the merit of the billions of dollars of funding the space program. All that existed was the excitement and the mystery of the unknown.
It's in this simpler and happier time that 39 Days to Mars takes place. The game tells the story of Clarence Baxter and Albert Wickes, two British gentlemen who one day decide to venture to Mars in their homemade, mechanized, and coal-powered dirigible. The two adventurers encounter all kinds of challenges during their journey, but their biggest worries are not whether their fuel calculations are correct or whether they can actually make it back. Clarence and Albert have much more pressing problems to solve - like defending themselves from space monsters and making good cups of hot tea. It's a story that perfectly captures the spirit of 19th Century steampunk science fiction.
Clarence and Albert must, of course, work together to solve their problems, and that is where the game's cooperative mechanics enter into play. 39 Days to Mars has been designed from the ground up as a two player, couch co-op experience. Although a single player experience is technically allowed (with a computer-controller cat replacing the other player), it's clunky and difficult. The game makes no attempt to apologize for this aspect of its design and all but openly recommends that you don't buy it for solo play. Suffice to say, you will likely not get your money's worth out of the game if you do not have a partner for it.
The gameplay in 39 Days to Mars is, for the most part, a series of seemingly simple puzzles. They usually have some sort of physics aspect to them, like tilting a teapot to pour water into a cup or grabbing plugs to put them into sockets. Frequently, one player will pivot an object by grabbing an edge while the other player holds it in place. These puzzles are not necessarily hard to solve, but they all require the two players to work closely in sync with one another. Each challenge presents tasks that must be completed simultaneously by the two players. Clarence and Albert have a specific role to play in each scene, whether it's driving a bicycle while the other player collects bits of coal, or capturing baby space squid while the other cleans up ink. It's this feature that separates the game from, say, Lego titles where two people can play at the same time but rarely need to work together. A lot of thought clearly went into the game's design.
It isn't necessarily easy to find a couch co-op partner for a game like 39 Days to Mars, but if you can, then you will find it to be a fairly refreshing experience. It's a solidly designed niche title that ensures that both players will have something to do in essentially every scene. You will have to make quite a few cups of tea, but those sections are the only parts that suffer from any repetition. The other challenges - repairing your ship, finding the key to your house so that you can get out of your front door and so on - are different from one another and usually take a minute or two of trial and error before you can fully figure out what you're supposed to do. It's this process of problem solving and experimentation that lends the game much of its charm that would likely be missing on a second playthrough. That's disappointing since the game clocks in at no more than about two hours. With a release price tag of twelve dollars, it makes for a shaky value proposition.
Since 39 Days to Mars is a small budget indie title, it shouldn't surprise you that it does not feature Triple-A caliber graphics. The art direction, however, is very solid and consistent for its entire length. Clarence and Albert's crazy spaceship in particular is an imaginative piece of work that perfectly fits the game's steampunk themes. The piano score soundtrack also makes for very pleasant listening.
The short length of 39 Days to Mars is arguably its only major flaw. There are, however, a couple of difficult sequences towards the end that can't be retried if you fail them. Given that it usually takes a few minutes to figure out exactly what is going on and what you need to do, failure in these scenes is almost guaranteed. Throughout most of the time you get the opportunity to try challenges (many of which have some kind of time constraint) as many times as you need, but at the end the game simply auto-skips these challenges after one failure. It's a puzzling decision in otherwise solid game design.
39 Days to Mars delivers on the experience that it promises; a tightly designed cooperative experience with a jovial atmosphere. The game is over too fast and it ends with somewhat of a thud, but nevertheless you should find it enjoyable. 39 Days to Mars is a decent way to spend an evening and a good use of a few bucks if you can find it on sale.