2021: Moon Escape was definitely a title that made me curious. It was the first title I’ve played that was made in GB Studio. It’s no secret that developing games has gotten exceptionally easier as time goes on. In the time of the Game Boy, there were no pre-made assets. There was no Unreal Engine, no Unity, no Havok Physics engine. You couldn’t just throw in an MP3 file to serve as music. Everything had to be made by hand in assembly code, something a programmer wouldn’t wish on their worst enemy nowadays.
GB Studio attempts to make developing games for Nintendo’s Game Boy as easy as it is for modern engines. Anything that helps makes game development more successful is a win in my book. If it results in more developers like Mike Yamato (2021: Moon Escape’s creator) getting to take a stab at making their masterpieces on the console of their choosing, I’m all for it. 2021: Moon Escape is a nice example of what can be done with GB Studio, even if it might not place among the Game Boy’s greats.
2021: Moon Escape is an original monochromatic Game Boy game sold by Incube8 Games for $59.99, and is playable on anything that can play Game Boy cartridges, including the Game Boy, Game Boy Color, the original and SP models of the Game Boy Advance, the Super NES via the Super Game Boy, the GameCube via the Game Boy Player, the Nintendo 64 via the Super Wide Boy or Pokémon Stadium Rom injection, the Retron 5, and any other Game Boy hardware clone one can think of. Or Incube8 sells a digital Rom file for $8.99. And it’s getting a Switch port in May.
Story: To the Moon
The galaxy is in the midst of a horrific war against the Kisur Barbarians, an army of rapidly regenerating robots. Tars Nunien, having stolen war plans from the Kisur, is flying back to his home planet Astra Nova, so that his people may plan a counterattack against them. In the midst of his flight, his ship stumbles across a gravity anomaly and crashes on an uncharted moon. Accompanied only by an AI assistant, it’s up to Tars to get off the moon and save Astra Nova.
If there’s one thing the game excels at, it’s setting a strong mood. The game world feels appropriately bleak, uncharted, depressing, and lonely. There’s a strong Metroid vibe to the game. It and Moon Escape cover a lot of similar ground. There’s very little dialogue, a focus on ancient, abandoned civilizations, and nature and technology being mashed together in strange and horrifying ways. It’s not the most original setup for a game, but it’s one that works very well.
Gameplay: Colossal Cave Adventure
I know that Game Boy games can be somewhat archaic in nature. That’s just the nature of the hardware. The hardware is nearly 35 years old, so most of the games will be 35 years old. They won’t have the sort of modern-day design decisions that people are used to. That’s perfectly fine. But I would expect a Game Boy game made in 2023 to be more smartly designed.
Energy management is one major area where gameplay suffers. You have an extremely limited amount of energy at default, with your main weapon only capable of four shots before running empty. I understand the vibe this is supposed to result in, it’s supposed to feel like an inhospitable environment. But it doesn’t work when there are one-tile walkways blocked by enemies. If you don’t have enough energy to clear the passage, your only course of action is to kill yourself and respawn to get more energy. The game desperately needed some kind of melee weapon to prevent situations like this.
Compounding this is the fact that this game makes Ninja Gaiden look sensible when it comes to enemy respawns. Enemies respawn whenever you leave the screen, with the game rationalizing this as the Kisur having an advanced regeneration ability. I’d be okay with this, enemies respawning when leaving the screen is normal for Game Boy games. What is not normal is enemies respawning every time you access the menu. So if you try to access the map, a monster will appear right in front of your face and get a cheap hit off. This is would be an annoying design choice on its own, but the limited ammo and confusing world design make it much worse.
I do like the world, but world navigation is extremely annoying. Navigation is performed in an overhead view, in a manner similar to a 2D Zelda, only sci-fi themed. You have to explore for items and upgrades to unlock new dungeons, which is a classic setup that works well even here. The dungeons are all really solidly designed, with the final dungeon in particular having teleporter puzzles that I enjoyed. You do get a richly detailed map, which is nice, but navigation revolves around the use of an endless series of jump pads, and thus, you always have to find the right jump pad to go anywhere, which can be extremely annoying. The right jump pad can, and often will, be multiple screens away. This design makes the overworld unnecessarily maze-like, something I’m not wild about.
My main problem with the game is that it just generally feels half-baked. The game needs more variety, especially more items to collect. Your main quest has you collect four expansion modules, which are such a massive waste of design. One would hope that these items would unlock additional abilities for the player. The only thing they do is unlock the ability to access different types of jump pads, which is a massive waste of design. Having more items to collect and use would massively increase the game’s variety. I wish the developer had taken more inspiration from similar games because there is a wealth of variety that other 2D Zelda-likes have that this game lacks.
Graphics and Sound: A Planet of Pea Soup
I like the game’s visuals. The Game Boy’s monochromatic display is a classic visual style, and it’s one that will never get old. For new games that are developed for old hardware, you have to judge them based on the standards of the hardware that they’re played on. Because of this, I can confidently say that this is a good-looking Game Boy game. The sprites are nice and well-detailed, the visuals suit the game’s mood well, and there are a lot of nice visual flourishes that I appreciate. I like the game’s menu in particular, with it all being contained on Tars’ wrist communicator. There is no on-screen HUD for some reason, which baffles me because there is very little feedback when you get damaged. An on-screen HUD should have been part of the design from day one, and its absence is felt constantly.
I prefer chiptune music for these old consoles to more contemporary music, but I was never really sure why. Maybe it’s because I appreciate the technical wizardry that had to go into composing them. But the sound design here is very weak. The music is either quiet or muted or loud and abrasive, with nothing in-between. I don’t know the first thing about programming music, but I’m sure that a better job could be done.
The Box! The Box!
As Incube8 chose to send me a physical boxed copy of the game, I felt it relevant to evaluate the quality of the box it came in. All components, including boxes, manuals, and other paper inserts are manufactured in Montreal, Canada, so you’re not getting cheap Chinese garbage. This is a premium, high quality product. The manual is nice and glossy, the box fits the dimensions of an actual Game Boy box and has embossed foil details, and the cartridge even has an image of the eponymous moon embedded onto the back of the PCB, which I thought was a nice touch. You also get a sticker sheet, because who doesn’t love stickers?
My one complaint is with the price. $59.99 is very pricey for a package like this. Other companies that specialize in making new or new-ish Game Boy cartridges tend to price them much cheaper. Limited Run does Game Boy carts at $40 for instance, which feels like a much fairer price for games like this. Even for the very limited community that would be willing to buy new Game Boy carts, the price is too much.
2021: Moon Escape was played on a Game Boy Advance SP, using a copy provided by Incube8 Games.