Space is something that has always interested me. It's deep, mysterious, inhospitable, and possibly full of awesome space aliens who may or may not be cool/hostile/totally hot. Space is the de facto home of everyone's favorite genre: science fiction. Home to cool space ships, lasers, and wildly different star systems. And lately, I've seemed to have built up a small repetoire of reputable space games, otherwise known as games with space in them.
Like I mentioned before, space is one of the pillars of science fiction. If you're not traveling space somehow, you're either a high-tech, geo-political futuristic story or you're fantasy with a bunch of damn elves and orcs. Space is a weightless environment where you get to explore all the different axes of movement: X, Y, and Z. And with the mysterious nature of space comes the veritable space cornucopia of ideas that make space more interesting: giant space structures, crazy alien monsters, hot alien babes, black holes, super suns, gaseous nebulas, asteroid fields, spacecraft, the phenomena of gravities, and so much more.
So let's take a moment to act like (space) scientists and compare notes on some of our favorite space-based games. However, we're talking about space here, not sci-fi. That means I'm excluding anything that doesn't have any particularly strong ties to the void of space itself. A game doesn't count if it simply takes place on an alien planet or several alien planets with space travel that only amounts to a map and fast travel. No sir, these are true space games, taking place in the cold vacuum itself, where no one can hear you scream and that means the explosion of the Death Star would be impossible to hear.
1. FTL: Faster Than Light
Heralded as a space captain simulator or just Star Trek with more deaths, FTL puts you in the wings of a spaceship traveling the galaxy carrying information vital to The Federation against The Rebellion. FTL has several quirks that keep you immersed in its incredibly unforgiving world, such as onboard fires being both a hot thing and draining the oxygen from a room. It also stands to reason that if fire needs oxygen, venting the rooms to space will quickly snuff out the fire and anyone unlucky enough to stand around in a pressureless, oxygenless room. As your scrappy ship escapes from a pursuing Rebellion fleet, you'll see all the classic space settings: plague ridden mining colonies, flare happy suns, zero visibility nebulas, abandoned space stations, research stations on fire, and of course pirates. How do you make exploration and combat in space better? You add pirates; space pirates.
2. Kerbal Space Program
KSP is a game completely coded for a consistent set of physics that depict all the trials and tribulations that astronautical organizations like NASA have to deal with on a daily basis. Turns out, sending a rocket full of flammable rocket fuel isn't as easy as just pointing it to the sky and turning it on. KSP has you learning how real space travel works with concepts like asparagus staging, curved escape from orbit, and calculating burns to alter your trajectory. These are all concepts that real rocket scientists deal with in order to get real astronauts into space and with the Kerbals of Kerbal Space Program, so can you! From something as "simple" as achieving stable orbit to landing on Mars, KSP is basically NASA the game with you in complete control while the stoic Kerbals just stand around and look important.
The caveat of course being that 95% of gamers are also not rocket scientists. Make no mistake, actual rocket scientists play and even develop mods for KSP! But expect a lot of terrestrial explosions before you even make an actual orbit that has no deterioration. But when you slip those surly bonds of Earth though, the feeling of reaching the vast emptiness of space is indeed a rewarding feeling.
3. Spacebase DF-9
Spacebase DF-9 is an early access game from Double Fine that hasn't gained a lot of buzz. Its up to you to command a trio of astronauts who are transported someplace distant to start a space station that will support the lives of many additional cosmonauts who will inevitably barge in. Your first astronauts arrive in hypersleep, preserved with the bare minimum of life support with only 8 minutes of oxygen to either build a fledgling space station with oxygen recyclers or a tin coffin. But once you do get something hospitable up and running, the problems don't end there. Space travelers will stumble upon your base and while you can usually deny them if you think your life support isn't prepared for more bodies, some will force their way on, even if it means dipping your oxygen levels into the red. You'll have to contend with meteor strikes, raiders, parasites, and derelict space bases filled with either useful matter or hostile space crazies. And of course you'll also have to contend with your own brand of space crazy unless you're attentive and build space beds, tv monitors, research labs, and pubs to keep morale up, lest you let your technician's mind wander in a fit of boredom as he performs routine maintenance on your oxygen recyclers. It's probably a running theme that fires in a tiny cramped space surrounded by an inhospitable void is a terrible, terrible thing.
4. Mass Effect 2
Mass Effect 2 satisfies my criteria for what I'm looking for in a space game that takes place in space. While you do indeed spend a lot of time on alien planets, you also spend an excessive amount of time in the Normandy, your signature spaceship. While you can whittle away the hours talking to your crew as the Normandy travels at sub-light speed, there are also several story important missions that take place in the vacuum of space as well as a few side quests. While the core of the game doesn't change much in space, you do get to take in incredible settings and vistas as you travel through them. The most important change is probably how you and your squad mates look in their oxygen rebreathers. The N7 helmet covers Sheperd's whole face and keeps his suit pressured since humans have a tendency to shrivel up and die in vacuums, but there's a wide array of different options among your alien allies. Grunt's helmet is a wild, Beholder-style face design while Garrus wears standard issue Turian soldier helmets. And then there's Tali. There may be some contention as to whether or not you and your team travel into true vacuums, especially since some characters wear simple plastic rebreathers over their mouth but you're still entering an area where you and your allies obviously require some external help in survival. Who's to say Salarians can't withstand vacuums? But I'm sure a human like Miranda is as human as they get.
The Collector ambush has you entering a Collector ship with no obvious signs of an airlock or sealing. The biggest highlight being when your squad enters the main chamber filled with millions of compartments for kidnapped victims. The derelict reaper body also floats along in the upper atmospheres of a failed star, straddling the border between thin atmosphere and true space. Still, organic creatures will obviously need oxygen at least. And then there's the curious case of the Geth heretic station, which is a purely functional structure devoid of aesthetic design since the Geth are more digital life forms than physical. Since the Geth are inorganic lifeforms, they don't need trivialties like oxygen, windows, warmth, or light. Those clever Geth!
5. Super Mario Galaxy
Clearly, if exceptions are made in Mass Effect's space levels, something should be said about Super Mario Galaxy. He's not even wearing a goddamn spacesuit, much less a rebreather. Kidding aside since we're talking about the cartoony world of Mario, Galaxy takes the idea of putting Mario in space and takes it to logical extremes. Mario's classic level design becomes planetary bodies that Mario is bound to by the physics of gravity. Unless there's a soul crushing gravity core holding the planet together, you can fall through and ride the momentum clear to the other side of these tiny planetoids. Weird space structures that constitute to Mario design exist in a dispersed formation, waiting for Mario to careless fling himself via high velocity launchers in the shape of stars. Ever try swimming in a water planetoid that has no obvious crust holding it together? It doesn't make a lick of sense for the water to just exist as a bowl in the middle of space you can fall out of but damn if it doesn't look cool.
And yes, let's mention that subtle joy of sprinting and long jumping complete laps around the tiniest of planetoids. Though I'm pretty sure an atmosphere can't possibly hold itself together on rocks this small, we've already confirmed that nobody cares because Mario does what he wants, including being an astronaut without a billion dollar suit.
6. Colony Wars
This little diddy from the Playstation is easily one of the most forgettable Playstation titles ever. But for anyone who did play it, you got one hell of a space combat game. The entirety of Colony Wars took place in deep space in a war between the probably good League against the most likely evil Empire. Probably my favorite thing about Colony Wars was the sense of scale between you in a fighter craft against the variety of frigates, dreadnoughts, and space stations. There was also a variety of different weapons for different missions and scenarios. It was one of those games that needed you to switch weapons between disabling a shield and attacking a shieldless target and there was of course a bounty of powerful secondary ordinance to fire. Still, Colony Wars is the forgotten relic that is the spaciest of all space games. One mission placed you right next to a wormhole/black hole! It didn't do anything but it was an impressive visual effect while you shot down enemy fighters who were warping in.
7. Solar 2
All of the games on this list involve you playing as some sort of person or an implied person in control of a crew of people. Solar is different in tasking you with progressing from the smallest meteorite into a planet, to a star, to the pinnacle of space-ness, a black hole. If Colony Wars made you a man flying through space, Solar takes out the middle man and makes you a celestial body flying through space with absolutely no cares in the world. Except for catastrophic planetary impacts but who cares about that? You can however, grab other celestial bodies into your orbit and nurture it into a life supporting rock that gives way to a space faring race of laser spewing jerks, starting from shooting lasers from their surface to commissioning short range spacecraft. Wander the universe like a sun borne raider, stealing planets from other star systems to add to your improbable collection of satellites. Let them orbit you freely like interplanetary flails or absorb them to continue your solar evolution (yes, absorb them, Galactus-style). And once you become a black hole and consume enough matter you just recreate the big bang. And really what else is there in life besides becoming the big bang.
VVVVVV is the story of one space captain, a strange open space, and his space crew who gets lost. And its up to you and your innate control over gravity to explore the different ways in which you can die often in this inhospitable area. I feel like this does in fact take place in a breathable environment and yet breathing is the least of your worries. There are so many spikes here that weird rock people must've lived here prior because this place is beyond livable unless your skin is tougher than any flesh. But our eternally smiling space captain never gets down about it. Even after his 200th impalement he'll only frown for a few brief seconds before respawning into the world without losing so much as an ounce of his courage. It doesn't matter what weird symbolism, enemies, physics warping effects, or scrolling screens happen, the little guy runs through space bravely and never falters.
Now that's a space captain.
9. Rogue Squadron 2: Rogue Leader
Like Mass Effect 2, despite thinking the IP would take you to space constantly, the number of time you actually are in space is debatable. Like ME2 though, key missions take place in space, giving the title an edge into acceptance. Need I say more than the famous Death Star trench run? Complete with surface skirmish. How about you hold that and let me pile the Battle of Endor on top of that. The Battle of Endor is arguably one of the coolest space battles in all media, let alone Rogue Squadron 2. Complete axis freedom, firing onto Star Destroyers freely in any direction, with dozens of TIE fighters barreling down on you. For the time, it was one of coolest, rawest space skirmishes you could play. While Rogue Squadron started it all and Rogue Squadron 3 is arguably the worst of the trio, the second entry in the series easily gave us some of the best set pieces, missions, and settings you could ask for in a space flight game. Plus remembering how it looked back then, I distinctly remember how well those Death Star defense towers looked even with Gamecube era SD television screen. These visuals of space with iconic Star Wars moments are some of my favorites.
10. Dead Space
This holds a place as the only game on this list I have not played extensively but in my defense, I do not prefer the terrors of the horror genre and Dead Space was a hallmark of horror design. Before it got all actiony, there was just Dead Space, a game with a silent protagonist and the lurking, shambling monstrosities who will not hesitate to completely eviscerate you in the most gruesome ways possible. And Dead Space's claim to fame were its zero G segments, taking place both inside the U.S.S Ishimura and outside in the soundless void of space. It even got the soundlessness down, which only amped the frightening tension when the only thing you could hear was your own heartbeat and your own screams echoing in your helmet. If there's anything on this list to convince you of anything, it's that space is a cold, frightening place, tense with uncertainty. But like other games like Kerbal Space Program, we must forge ahead in the name of knowledge, even if we distinctly lack the knowledge needed to make space travel a smart choice.
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