Let's head back.
The red soil crumbles gently as the drill burrows deeper, one level at a time, one mineral at a time. First a unit of bronze, then a unit of silver, or whatever the silver mineral equivalent is on the Martian planet. It's cold, and dark, and wet, and dead transmissions interrupt the comfort of silence with audible warnings that I'm not alone beneath the surface of Mars. My rover beeps, signaling the final drops of fuel burned up tunneling for smelted bronze, silver, and gold to make the more valuable White Gold.
The flight back to base keeps me on my toes and the finely dug-out path leads me snaking left and right until I see red soil and the surface once more. In the same sunlight that bathes Earth millions of miles away, I refuel, repair, and sell my haul. Before returning underground to the thick vein of valuable minerals I discovered last, I stop by the shop for an upgrade. This is Super Motherload, an awesome blend of challenge, obsessive-compulsive profiteering, and addictive, satisfying gameplay. This is challenging 2D sci-fi Minecraft, multiplayer Dig Dug, and an amazing next-gen indie rolled into one package.
XGen Studios first introduced me to Super Motherload at the Game Developers Conference earlier this year. At the time, four PS3 controllers let attendees group up and dig for cash in the shallow crust of Mars. This setup introduced me to one of the first mechanics that sustains the satisfying rhythm of digging, smelting, and cashing in: fuel. As you dig and fly about on Mars, a fuel gauge will tick down to empty at which point you can no longer drill, whether you've stuffed your rig full of valuable minerals or not. You and any co-op buddies have to collectively watch shared fuel and carrying capacity, though playing solo alleviates this by simplifying the group-think required by co-op.
Playing by myself at home, I didn’t have the same satisfaction in guiding a group of newbie excavators. I couldn’t bark orders, but I could dig deeper into the smelting mechanics by which intelligent mining reaps even greater cash rewards. That bronze, silver, gold combo to make White Gold I mentioned earlier? That barely breaks the surface as that simple combination unlocks at smelting level one and there are several more levels to buy.
In the upgrade shop, you can increase your health, your carrying capacity, your drill and rotor speed, and your on-board smelter. The more money you pour into smelting, the more money you can make carefully carving a path between lesser-valued minerals to perfect combo chains and create valuable hybrids. These elements will be totally lost on cooperative dig teams who focus more on racing to the gold deposit or blowing up a chasm to open up the crowded flight path.
In single-player, Super Motherload drills into gamer psyche in two distinct ways. The first is the obsessive maximizing of profits, especially when it comes to extensive mineral chains offering cash bonuses. Every single mineral offers up a delightful ka-ching with combinations gradually increasing in value and audible joy. The second is the soul-crushing difficulty and despair you might get from playing the game in Hardcore mode.
Hardcore places even greater focus on managing resources by killing you if you don’t make it back to base before your fuel runs dry. On Normal difficulty, you fly slowly at zero fuel, but on Hardcore you’ll be one unit of red sand away from a valuable combination before you blow up on the spot for running out of juice. The characters you choose might not say much beyond the pilot select screen at the beginning of the game, but you’ll remember how Karl Redden died every time you pass by the skull and crossbones marking his corpse on the map.
Hardcore mode turns a fluffy, semi-shallow indie game into a resource-intense white-knuckled 2D adventure. Enemies won’t come bursting out of the silver deposits around your rover, but you might just drop a few hundred yards and bust your rig on a rock outcrop. Once you understand the systems in place, it can be impossible to watch your fuel closely enough to stay safe. You’ll want to reach a bit deeper to find the next base of operations or drill just a bit further to finish your combo, but you can kill several characters with eager or greedy behavior like that.
I also love the sound design in-game. Aside from the cash register sound effects you get for picking up valuable resources, each rover bounces after a long fall and clangs like a garbage can getting kicked. Drilling through dirt offers similar subtle feedback, but the handful of synthesizer tracks that pop up as you get deeper in Mars would be welcome addition to my iPod or long drive playlist.
If there’s anything keeping Super Motherload from being a truly next-generation game, it's that the experience isn’t all that connected. There’s no online multiplayer and there’s no overarching goal for the community to reach for. While Hardcore mode is aided by a sense of loneliness, the overall package would benefit from online multiplayer with party chat, especially since there's a big focus on connectivity in PlayStation 4.
In the end, XGen’s writing is entertaining enough, the digging puzzles are devious, and with co-op and Hardcore mode anyone can find an experience they’ll enjoy. Super Motherload belies the complexities of its systems by providing an unassuming, low-fi aesthetic, but dig in and you’ll find hours of play time in the dirt on Mars. If PlayStation can continue discovering gems like Super Motherload, indies might really make the difference in this console war.
Code provided by developer. Based on PS4 version. Also available on PS3. Coming soon to PC.