The games that shape you in your childhood tend to linger in your memory long after you finish playing them. I can't open an exploratory game like Gone Home or The Room without thinking of my first stumblings into Myst years before, insisting my dad not leave the room because I was too scared to go alone and too excited to not have someone to talk to.
Playing Space Age stirs a very different set of memories — ones founded in explorative delight, or frenetic frustration from just missing the final piece in a boss fight for the fifth time. They trust the player and tease them, compelling them forward with a great narrative all the while confounding them with dastardly puzzles and note-perfect timing.
It's been a long time since I played a game and failed a mission with a smile on my face and a goofy "aw, rats, I almost had it!" exclamation, but Space Age brings all that out and more.
Several years in the making, the pixel-art phenom is the brainchild of designer Neven Mrgan and developer Matt Comi (collectively known as Big Bucket), with some heavy sonic lifting courtesy Panic co-founder Cabel Sasser. Set in 1976 — which the game kindly reminds you is "THE FUTURE" — Space Age takes you on a journey to alien planet Kepler-16, where a team of U.S. military space explorers has just landed.
As the team — and its protagonist, Private — soon discover, there are many strange things afoot on Kepler-16, none of which I will spoil for you here. The game is a fantastic play on story, humor, and characterization alone, and I'm hesitant to ruin any of that in a review.
Instead of talking plot points, let's talk emotional resonance. Throughout various points, the game is zany, heartfelt, gripping, and even... delicious?! (Because it truly wouldn't be a 90s-inspired game without a strange non-sequitur, there's a recipe for apple pie that pops up halfway through. Excellent easter egg, Big Bucket, and one I can't wait to try cooking later.)
You get the excitement of exploring a new planet through the game's map reveals. A delightful bit of G-rated romance. Hilariously-timed dialogue and sound effects. And the puzzles. Oh, the puzzles.
Though Private is your main window into Space Age, you'll end up controlling various characters throughout the game — sometimes several at once, RTS-style. That gives Space Age the freedom to really let loose in the puzzle and strategy arena, resulting in multi-tiered puzzles and fights that require the assistance of several crew members simultaneously to carry out a successful mission. It's delightfully frustrating: The game teaches early-on that you will fail or die a few times — or, okay, if you're me, many times — before you figure out a puzzle's pattern, so it takes away the stress of succeeding on the first try. You experiment more, or send out a crew member to explore.
I do wish the first few missions had a couple of overt hints about the different ways you can control crew members — for instance, you can draw a box around multiple members of your team by using the pinch-to-zoom gesture, but there's no official language that hints at that; you just have to muddle your way through. (Of course, muddling is what I did through many an SNES and Sega game, so I can't really fault Space Age for its lack of tutorial levels.)
Of course, the story and the gameplay can't work without a huge helping hand from Space Age's visuals and soundscape — both of which are superb. Mrgan is a pixel art master, and the game's 8-bit visuals not only homage the games of the 1980s and 90s but also capture their own wondrous sense of whimsy. Space Age's bizarre alien landscapes and Kansas flashbacks connect together through carefully chosen color schemes and design notes, and Big Bucket went a step further, offering color modulation Accessibility support for two different types of color-blindness. The animation styles are also wryly familiar — I laughed out loud the first time I saw Space Age's mouth-bob movement for speaking.
Cabel Sasser's soundtrack weaves in and out amidst animations, cutscenes, battles, and interludes. There's a reason Space Age encourages you to plug in stereo headphones — the game's scoring is a thing of beauty. (Don't listen to the soundtrack before you finish the game unless you want to be a wee bit spoiled, though.)
What really stands out for me about this game is just how fluid everything feels. I have tiny quibbles here and there, but they really are just quibbles, nothing more. I love the story. I love the music. The design, the atmosphere, the characters, the dialogue. It's hard to find anything about this game I actively dislike. Even its replay value is pretty great — Space Age offers special achievements at each stage for finding bonus objects, or completing a puzzle in a certain way, each carefully hinted at in their titles.
I could ramble on about Space Age for a little while longer, but instead I'm just going to end things here and tell you to go download the game. Your 1976 pixel-art future is waiting.