One Giant Pixelated Leap
Take the fantasy of being Elon Musk running SpaceX, shrink it into an app, and you’ve got Tiny Space Program by Cinnabar Games. Should-have-been astronauts and lovers of outer-space can experience the fantasy of running their own space program wrapped in an 8-bit shell. Are you capable of reaching the Moon and perhaps beyond?
As the owner of your own space program, you are tasked with exploring the solar system. Reaching further out into the solar system might uncover a mining spot or a celestial body rife for tourism. Should you spend the credits sending satellites first or eject a crew of astronauts and hope for the best? Their terrified, 8-bit lives are in your hands.
Cinnabar Games stumbled onto something special with Tiny Space Program. By implementing real-world orbital mechanics and ship propulsion, it added a layer of realism. For example, a planet orbiting closer to Earth saves a ship fuel and shortens the travel time. What’s impressive is space programs, like NASA, use the same tactics.
Once a ship reaches its destination, astronauts can be issued commands. But before you send them out to collect rocks or take seismic data, be aware that astronauts have a life support system. It limits the number of tasks a roundtrip can perform, though certain tasks do not consume life support. Sending a message back to Earth, for example, will earn you credits but won’t sacrifice life support. Sending astronauts out to build an outpost will, but worth the risk if it means a better foothold for future missions.
I love that I had to plan ahead. It really adds to the immersion of running your own space program. Sending ships into outer-space requires attention to detail and a critical eye on the orbit of the planets. When credits are scarce, relying on what you already have in space is crucial for a steady flow of funds.
Taking a Vacation to the Moon
Watching a ship take off, even one of 8-bit design, was such a wonderful spectacle. Tiny Space Program goes the whole nine yards. The rocket takes off to touch outer-space where it then breaks away from its main thrusters and sends your package into the unknown. Because you’ll be doing it often, sending stuff to a nearby planetary body requires a level of foresight. If you want to create an outpost on the Moon, you need to send the necessary tools before you embark on the journey. It’s tough in the beginning due to the cost but setting up shop paves the way for one of the best ways to make credits: space tourism.
Yes, these cute, little blobs of pixels want to pay for flybys to moons and planets, as well as walk on the Moon and maybe see Buzz Aldrin’s footsteps. You can then invest those funds in the exploration of other celestial bodies. It’s a tight gameplay loop that I rather enjoyed, though I’m jealous that these tourists stepped on the Moon before me.
Light on Explanation
While Tiny Space Program offers a lot of great features it, unfortunately, fails to explain how many of them work. There’s a tutorial right off the bat, but it leaves much to be desired.
For example, I didn’t realize astronauts had life support because few of the commands list it as a prerequisite resource. Some lack any explanation at all as to what their purpose is, aside from a little icon. I was desperately looking for any kind of clarification, but I ended up feeling my way in the dark.
This also extends to stats. When you make the decision to build a ship, you get a list of its stats, such as mass, speed, cargo, seats, range, life support, and chemical fuel. On the surface, those terms are self-explanatory but not in context. Will mass affect anything? Does a ship’s range mean the limit it can travel? It measures that in AU, but what’s AU? I personally know that AU means “astronomical unit,” which is a rough estimation of the distance between the sun and Earth, but others might not.
The reason the game is missing key explanations is because it’s an early release. Tiny Space Program is being updated on a weekly basis, which includes free content. However, I don’t feel that’s an excuse to skip explaining crucial gameplay mechanics.
What’s the Catch?
Tiny Space Program has so much packed into an 8-bit aesthetic and it’s free. So, what’s the catch? Microtransactions cast a shadow over Tiny Space Program, albeit a small shadow. There are two types of currency: in-game credits and crystals. Everything can be done with in-game credits from upgrades to building landers and ships. These are handed out slowly at first, which is to be expected—you start off small and grow. If it feels too slow, you can hand over $1.99 for 1000 credits, $54.99 for 45,000 credits, or somewhere in between. For some easy credits, watch a 30 second ad.
Crystals allow the player to skip wait times and immediately unlock new technologies to research. Tiny Space Program insists you endure egregious wait times. They can be as short as 60 seconds or as long as 15 minutes. It’s a common trait among mobile simulation games. With that said, rather than spend crystals, you can spend 30 seconds watching an ad.
Thankfully, microtransactions are more of a nuisance than a problem. Credits are earned frequently, especially if you plan your routes and take advantage of assignments, so I never felt cheated. The key is to be smart about the number of satellites you build and astronauts you send off-planet. Stick to the neighborhood before hitting up Venus or Mars and you’ll be rolling in credits. Then again, I would’ve preferred to pay for the game rather than deal with in-app purchases.
Is it Hardcore?
Despite lacking important explanations of game mechanics and an early release, Tiny Space Program is packed with awesome outer-space content. Microtransactions are nothing more than an annoyance. Running a space program to expand the reach of humanity was a joy, especially with real-world orbital mechanics implemented.