the artistry and psychology of gaming


Mars Rover Landing

Mars Rover Landing

Welcome to Gaming on the House; don’t look down and and mind your step! Each week, we’ll be climbing the rooftops of the gaming industry to seek out great experiences that everyone can track down and play, and the best part is they’ll all be free! That’s right; FREE! Gratis. Comp’d. Unbound. Unrestricted. Zero-down. On the House!… we talk about free games here, is my point.

Many may be surprised at how many fantastic games are really out there that everyone can legally enjoy with no monetary commitment. Taking together all the flash and browser games, freeware downloads from the independent scene, speed programming archives, free-to-play business modules, and even promotional re-releases from big name publishers, there’s a never ending supply of great games new and old waiting to be played, and it’s our goal to play them all! So, if you’re strapped for cash or just waiting around for that next big release to hit retail, why not give these games a try? After all, they’re free; what have you got to lose!

August 2012 is the final month of NASA’s Year of the Solar System, a public outreach initiative that first began in October 2010 (lasting one Martian Year in full). Each month, YSS has offered a new theme for educational projects, and to celebrate the successful completion of the program, Gaming on the House will be joining in on its final recorded theme “Discovering New Worlds,” focusing on freeware games that look to the stars, and warm the hearts of explorers everywhere, including our own “small step” for the feature, a step into the Xbox marketplace!

Mars Rover Landing

Can you believe this was the plan? This was the plan!

Genre: Motion Sensing Simulator
Link to Game:
Game Info: Released by NASA and Microsoft Game Studios in July 2012 for free on the Xbox Live marketplace to promote the landing of the Mars Curiosity rover. Curiosity successfully landed on the surface of Mars on August 6, 2012.

We’re on Mars again! As you read this, the Curiosity rover is rolling around on the surface of Mars gathering all sorts of data we’ve never known about our neighboring planet. The mission, in case you missed it, was one wrought with peril, as the landing was one never attempted before, requiring precise measurements and a crazy amount of rocket power to land the approximately 1-ton rover on the surface (previous rovers were so light they could get away with balloons to cushion their fall). Sure, we’ve already been to Mars within this feature with the browser game Redder, but this time it was for real! Luckily, the excitement of the landing lives on, with thanks to Mars Rover Landing, a free game that allows players to relive the mission’s “7 minutes of terror” by entering the Martian atmosphere, deploying the mission’s unique “sky crane,” and bringing the rover down for a successful touchdown through the use of the Kinect sensor.

Alright, I may be breaking my rule somewhat about free games here, as this one may come with a bit of an investment. In order to play Mars Rover Landing, you will need to have a working Xbox 360 and a Microsoft Kinect. I admit that this bit of a hardware requirement may limit the reach for this entry, however if you happen to have these two devices at the ready, the game is only a download away, and is well worth your time. Not only does Mars Rover Landing offer a fun chance to try your hand at an official NASA simulator and a way to relive the excitement of the official landing, but it also offers one of the tightest and most responsive games to be had with the Kinect device! It’s just a shame that it’s so short.

Amazing. It apparently DOES take a rocket scientist to make intuitive Kinect controls.

Mars Rover Landing offers a quick 5 minute simulation with three different stages of play, each using the Kinect sensor in different ways. The first of which is the entry stage, where you control the mission capsule with your whole body to balance the heatshield for a smooth ride in. Here you must position the rover within the circled area as quickly as possible without touching that circle’s sides. Now normally if you’re playing a Kinect game, here’s where you end up quitting out of frustration, due to the poor detection of the device, however I’m pleased to say that this is not the case, as the capsule carries with it a weight that becomes rather intuitive to read, allowing you to grow accustomed to its speed and trajectories with each directional step. It may take a bit of floor space to allow for the full range the game calls for, but this portion of the game honestly comes off as more polished than most Kinect retail products.

The second phase (descent) is the weakest of the three, however is still well developed and enjoyable. Guiding you through the various actions of the landing (deploying the parachute, separating the heat shield, and releasing the sky crane) is a simple rhythm game where you must hold out your arms in four directions, timing your extensions just right; akin to a “more science-y” take on Samba de Amigo.

The final phase is the landing itself, where the rover is coming down on the sky crane, and your left and right arms manage the crane’s retro rockets to slow down, stabilize and aim the rover as it comes in for the landing. This portion is the most fun to play, and the most visually arresting as you simulate the events of what actually happened a few days ago on the red planet. Similar to target flying games like Pilot Wings, your score is determined by how soft your landing is, and how close you were to the center of the drop zone. The game’s ending alters based on how smooth your landing is; if you let the rover drop from too far, you’ll sense narrator Allen Chen’s  disdain over how the systems have received structural damage and the rover is not fully operational.

Your rough landing disabled the extending arm that was supposed to give the Martians a free Coke. NOOO!!!

On the lighter side it’s somewhat fun to see the rover crash into the surface, or burn up attempting to enter the atmosphere with the heat shield misaligned. If you’ve ever wanted to cause harm to something worth approximately 2.5 billion dollars, this is certainly the safest and most cost-effective way to do it. You will however get a “Mission Failed” screen, and that phase of the challenge will start over.

Mars Rover Landing is a good demonstration of how the Kinect can be successfully used in short bursts for a fun and entertaining experience. It is very short, with the only lasting pull being three unlockable awards for continued play (landing 10 times, and pulling off 5 star scores in phases 1 and 3 (thankfully not in 2, as timing is still not one of Kinect’s strong suits). The game also comes with an informational gallery so you can read about the mission, the rover, NASA’s plans for Mars, and more along with some nicely rendered backdrops. It may only be a 5 minute experience, but it is one worth trying out for free, and a great introduction to the power behind the teams at NASA and the Jet Propulsion Labs.

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