Lunar Lander Beyond evolves an Atari classic into something new

By Charlie Wacholz, Contributor

Lunar Lander is an odd piece of gaming history. Even though it’s one of the most famous games to predate the 1983 Video Game Crash and its impact survived the near-medium-killing event, a lot of gamers probably don’t know it by name because it’s not just retro, it’s downright primordial. But even if you’ve never played or heard of the original, you’re likely to recognize it. Like Kurosawa shots in a George Lucas film, you’ll notice homages and references to it everywhere. It paved the way for so many games that we love today—both new and old.

Thanks to the limitations of PC and Atari hardware back in the day, its distinct gameplay loop is as simple as it is airtight: Gently land your unwieldy, slow-moving Apollo Lunar Module or face certain death due to a rushed re-entry or over-shooting the landing platform. It’s pretty impressive to look back at, and it remains really fun (and tough as nails) to this day. Since it’s so tight and simple, fundamentally changing one aspect within such a Swiss watch of mechanics interacting with each other in perfect harmony would only throw the entire contraption out of whack.

In bringing Lunar Lander into the 21st century, you can’t mess with what works. Not just for the sake of keeping the eponymous shuttle properly on its course, but for the sake of video game history as well. Instead, it needs to serve as a foundation for Cris Tales developer Dreams Uncorporated to play with and build a story and world around while adding minor tweaks that act as flourishes on top of an already winning formula.
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I had the opportunity to sit down with studio lead and Lunar Lander Beyond director Carlos Rocha and go hands-on with the studio’s upcoming reboot and talk through why, after roughly 45 years, now was the time to bring back this influential game. As it turns out, the fine folks at Dreams Uncorporated happened to be big fans of the original. As multiple folks involved with the project told me, Atari approached the studio with a list of classic Atari properties that it would be willing to license out; Dreams Uncorporated chose Lunar Lander, and the rest is history.

Rocha laid out the studio’s vision for Lunar Lander Beyond simply and clearly: “We’re always looking for new, unique stuff to add into our games. And working with something established allowed us to take a fresh perspective on an established game.” In the case of Lunar Lander, that new twist was bringing a narrative-driven focus into the game while incorporating RPG-lite and rogue-lite elements to give that gameplay hook a modern facelift. Rocha said the studio wanted to approach Beyond like a licensed project more so than a revival. This opened a lot of doors for the Colombian studio to emphasize character by infusing personal stakes through its visual novel-inspired story.

Instead of a nameless, faceless ship, you play as ship captains and crew members. Complete with voice acting and well-animated moments, Beyond’s story does things the original simply couldn’t. It’s set in a dystopian sci-fi world where pilots are as disposable as ships and madness runs rampant among the people steering these rickety crafts.

But Dreams Uncorporated didn’t stop there. Instead, they built on top of the established aspects of Lunar Lander’s mechanics by introducing a handful of new systems. By far the most important new mechanic is the stress meter. “One of our favorite parts of Lunar Lander was how stressful it was,” Rocha said. “The stress meter felt like a natural way to expand on character and narrative while working something new into the game.”
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As you bump into walls and obstacles (which is a matter of if, not when in Lunar Lander Beyond), madness will begin to take over. Hallucinations will begin to pop up. Benign at first, they’re warning signs of worse things to come as giant pink elephants start chasing you and attempt to throw you around. You’ll need to collect pills scattered throughout the level to save yourself from madness and eventual death.

This mechanic is a great example of how Dreams Uncorporated has infused narrative into not only the world of Lunar Lander but its gameplay as well. The way it handles pilots is yet another smart way its narrative trappings infuse new ideas into the original Lunar Lander’s setup. Every pilot has their own strengths and weaknesses; maybe one pilot has a high level and brings better bonuses to the table compared to others, but their madness level is dangerously high, leaving less room for error while another has lower stats but improves fuel efficiency. This becomes an even more important choice to make in the game’s hardest difficulty. 

“The hardest difficulty is really hard and there’s permadeath, so you can kind of approach it like a roguelike if you want,” Rocha said. “It maximizes the tension that comes from the fear of losing a character.”

While I didn’t have a chance to check out other new features during my demo, like the game’s new ships or scoring systems, I won’t have to wait long to see how Lunar Lander Beyond’s story and mechanics continue to gel as the game releases on Epic Games Store on April 23.