May 28, 2024
Almost as old as video games get, Lunar Lander Beyond has been rebooted 45 years after the original. But is it retro goodness, or stuck in the past? The Finger Guns review:

Recently playing Final Fantasy VII Rebirth, I’m reminded just how old I am when I was of an age to play and appreciate the original back at release in 1997. 27 years, makes you feel old. Booting up Lunar Lander Beyond, similarly a reboot of an old classic, but this time from 1979, was a moment to, for once, feel young.

I was not even around in 1979, but even since then I have had little to no experience of the original Lunar Lander or of the series as a whole. Going in my understanding level was something like, fly a cumbersome lander a short distance and then, umm, land it on a plinth. Though popular for Atari and spawning any number of sequels, it was superseded in the early gaming consciousness by Asteroids, which I was more familiar with. Beyond that I know little about the original games, and will instead be reviewing this more through the lens of a player new to the series in 2024.

Atari reboots and Lunar Lander Beyond in particular do like to retain as close to a retro gaming experience as possible even with sharp new visuals and lots of animations. The gameplay and controls are incredibly aged and will feel very constrained to new players, but what can you really do? The moment you add more controls, or make that ship any more manoeuvrable, it becomes a different flying game and no longer Lunar Lander. It is defined by those controls as it was originally designed around them. Instead the developers have build around it, adding everywhere they can around those restrictive 2D controls for the ship.

The Lunar and the Lander: Milky Way Drift

You are a trainee trained to pilot the very hard-to-master Lunar Lander. Hired by a big corporate machine that barely cares if you live or die, you make your living getting the little ships from point A to point B through a horrendous warren of 2D obstacles to eventually land on a small dais (I was right!). Partnered up with a sassy AI who’s impressed you survived more than a couple of missions, you quickly pick up a couple of corporate shmucks, some capable pilots and a smattering of characters and become a hero on the front line of a story involving a strange phenomena that has destroyed stations, planets and asteroids across the system.

Your role is to take on rescue missions, supply runs and various other excuses to go from one end of the map to the other, collect powerups, money and pilots, and often get home again. Once you pick up Sandoz, another ace pilot, the story pivots away from doing the corporations bidding and instead saving those caught up in the destruction.

The story adds a welcome layer of fluff to an otherwise grunt-like gameplay loop. I was pleased to have a few moments of sassy voiceover from Sandoz and the AI before I invariably had to get back out and rotate like my life depended on it. Which it did. That said the story is pretty shallow and never really went anywhere very interesting. I think within the confines of Lunar Lander, it’s probably far more and far better story than needed, but in comparison to narratives of the video game scene, it didn’t really do anything of note.

Just Keep Rotating!

So the bulk of the time you’ll be piloting. Lunar Lander Beyond consists of rotating a 2D lander left and right, and hitting thrust to go in the direction you’ve chosen. You need to use the thrust carefully to keep from just careering into things, or coming a cropper of gravity. Say you launch left, and a wall is fast approaching, you’ll need to rotate back round to face the opposite way, then thrust again to slow the ship down.

You do get a number of helpful power-ups and a few other controls; a tractor beam for items behind you; a pulse of air jets in all directions to bring you to a faster stop; and various boosts etc. You need to manage the integrity or health of the ship, which can be depleted fast if you start bouncing off pipes and girders, and your fuel which will also deplete fast if you hold the button down rather than just feathering it.

Missions often take barely 3 minutes to complete, but there’s some 8-10 missions in each of 5 planetary areas so it’s not over immediately. All said though, a playthrough by a skilled player could easily just be a couple of hours. More playtime comes from how hard it is, and therefore having to redo missions, or do them to a higher standard. What it may lack in first playthrough content, it tries to make up for in replayability. Missions have bronze, silver and gold requirements, to the point of flying that lander virtually perfectly.

I have no idea if it was featured in the original games, but the third management aspect I really disliked was pilot mental health. Each and every bop to the ship’s hull causes stress build up in my pilots and eventually builds to levels of insanity, hallucinations and your ship being unflyable. Between missions you need to spend (frankly ludicrous amounts of) collected credits to deal with your pilot’s stress via medical procedures, or lose them from your roster while they get much-needed counselling.

I’m not sure there was any part of this mechanic I found either fun or interesting – it’s really just stress and punishment for the player, wrapped up in some kind of ‘management’. I would stress about every knock, knowing it meant spending virtually every credit I had keeping my poor pilots functional. I stressed about their poor addled minds and the horrific space junk they saw, and I didn’t like it. It also puts a massive difficulty spike on that playtime of a few hours, because you can lose pilots all over and be unable to continue.

It’s also strangely depressing that instead of having much in the way of shops for ship upgrades, you almost only spend all the hard-earned credits you find on pilot wellbeing. I could try to look at this positively, putting people above products maybe, but the gameplay loop just did nothing for me.

You Spin Me Right Round, Baby

On a small screen, Lunar Lander Beyond can look okay – it suits a smaller handheld experience, but that’s only because you can’t zoom in. On a 50 inch tv, on my PS5, the moment the camera zoomed to show a landing or a pickup, the façade was shown for what it was – 2D environments that have just no depth or shadow, plain lifeless areas, poor enemy animations and sprites. A ship that looks like clipart. The visuals as a whole just did nothing for me. Is this what the art department wanted it to look like, or was there a decree from on high that it had to look a certain way? If there wasn’t I really can’t account for how unappealing the level design and art assets are.

Dreams Uncorporated have clearly tried to put their animation stamp where they could though. There is a nice opening animation, there are some okay character designs in there. Similarly with music, there are a few nice tracks and menu bops that didn’t hurt to listen to over and over. There is a lot of voiceover for the kind of game this is, and what’s on show is generally pretty good.

Pivot! Pivot!

The writing is on the wall if you’ve read up to this point. I’m not suddenly going to pivot and change direction. For a player new to Lunar Lander, Beyond felt so archaic and so of its time, that even the sprinkling of quality-of-life upgrades, animations and voiceover didn’t do anything like enough to ease you into the difficulty, or just the general dullness that is Lunar Lander. Remake this may be, but it’s still a game that plays like it’s 1979.

For an afficionado, an even older gamer, or anyone who has got into it at an earlier point, this may yield, at best, a collection of challenging missions for you and a welcome test of your skill. For those who already like the gameplay, I think the story is more of a distraction than an asset.

Lunar Lander Beyond attempts something of a reboot of the Atari classic with a modern wrapper. But underneath the shiny hood, the gameplay is virtually unchanged, difficult, and dull, and the extras have done nothing to implement a reward system that might keep newcomers trying to develop the skills needed to enjoy it.

Lunar Lander Beyond is available now on PlayStation 5 (review platform), PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch and PC via Steam.

Developer: Dreams Uncorporated
Publisher: Atari

Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a promotional copy of the game. For our full review policy, please go here.

If you enjoyed this article or any more of our content, please consider our Patreon.

Make sure to follow Finger Guns on our social channels –TwitterFacebookTwitchSpotify or Apple Podcasts – to keep up to date on our news, reviews and features.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.