Tactical Tuesday: One Humongous Leap for Man

Hands up who played Moonbase Commander. No? No? You…no? Right. Moonbase Commander.

For those who missed out on this Infogrames-published piece of bargain bin permanency, you did forgo a real treat. I will be painfully honest in saying that strategy gaming and strategy gamers in general do often take themselves far too seriously. They harrumph and plod about in smoking jackets, puffing on mahogany Petersons and maligning systems thither and yon. In short, strategy gamers can be stuffy, po-faced bores at the end of the day.

Those, of course, not salved and immunised against such social and philosophical ills. One form of protection against this malady is Moonbase Commander.

In 2002, Humongous Entertainment deployed a curious and abstracted arcade strategy game. To the casual observer, it might have camouflaged itself behind an aesthetic of shareware compendiums or in the dark, forgotten recesses of a hobbyist coder’s hard drive. However, Moonbase Commander is anything but amateur. At its lunar core, Moonbase Commander is a physics-based game of territory control. It’s an immobile, top-down Worms of sorts, with players battling for supremacy using a variety of installations and ordnance across a Vangers-esque landscape.

I do hope folks remember Vangers: One For The Road, but if not, that’s your homework. And perhaps a story for another time, ??????.

In Moonbase Commander, a player expands by firing nodes from an initial hub. In much the same way as Worms, a player chooses a direction from a 360° arc and proceeds to fire their item of choice — be it an observation balloon, missiles, cluster munitions or installations like secondary hubs. The firing mechanism works in the same way as Worms as players must manage the distance via the launch gauge. As you’re traversing mountains and rivers, it’s quite a skillful game in terms of landing buildings with efficacy and bombarding enemy locations.

Where the real strategy comes into play is the fact every building is connected. Buildings are not simply fired and forgotten. The energy lines act as a tether, limiting distance and requiring careful planning when expanding. Lines cannot be layered atop each other, putting a premium on balancing defense, offense and resource-gathering positioning as well as being able to deploy ordnance from the hubs.

Energy resources are gathered via landing extractors on hotspots, or lakes, scattered around the maps and form a point stockpile to use during a player’s turn. Like any resource-based strategy, killing economy is one of the crucial elements in conquest. This can be done through conventional artillery strikes with bombs and cluster munitions, missile strikes, viruses, tether spiking and so on. Once you become familiar with Moonbase Commander‘s arsenal, there’s few games that can match it.

It truly is a forgotten triumph. A game of simple premise, simple interface and simple design, Moonbase Commander might have exploded, had the internet infrastructure of direct download arrived a touch earlier. Scooping up IGN’s rather tragic gong of “Best Game of 2002 Nobody Played” and receiving critical accolades across the board, including a veneration by Penny Arcade’s Jerry Holkins, the title simply slipped by almost everyone. One of the decade’s saddest tales, because unlike many of the games I love dearly, no caveat is served in recommending Moonbase Commander.

Let me just celebrate the aesthetic, which probably helped in part to relegate the game to an immediate pass by many. The aforementioned Vangers: One For The Road is a good place to start when identifying the unique visual trappings of Moonbase Commander, but while Vangers evoked an insane biologic surrealism, the look of this particular game is pared back to a cool, uncomplicated display of beveled geometry. Featuring a brash but not kitsch color palette, there’s an innocent visual charm that you’d expect from a game such as this. Easy to parse, easy to play.

The good news is that if you want to experience the fundamentals of what made Moonbase Commander a fantastic game, Old Owl Games are creating a spiritual successor in Kingdom Commander (http://www.kingdomcommander.com/index.php). Transcribing the visual aesthetic to a Fat Princess-esque medieval landscape and replacing the Gouraud-shaded blobs and blocks for stocky, stylized towers and fortresses, the developers hope to bring back the simple yet tactical mechanics of Humongous Entertainment’s creation in a time where there’s a good chance it will not only survive, but flourish.

Kingdom Commander is currently in a pre-alpha state and playable in your browser, so find a friend, set up a game and see what the fuss is all about.

If you do want to experience the mitochondrial masterpiece, GoG.com has Moonbase Commander for the cost of a caramel macchiato. It does require Gamespy to play online, but a few mods out there like Zauron’s MoonbaseIP connector allow you to bypass Triassic-era online gaming clients and just get down to hurling turrets and bombs and crawlers and towers over mountain ranges.

As someone who feels they need to make pleading hard sells about the games this column covers, let me not deviate from my modus operandi and prostrate myself before you, blubbering into the carpet and begging not only the horn-rimmed scowlers of the strategy sphere, but also the everyman, to bend down and comfort a man with the soothing words of “Stow that anguish, my child. I shall command a moonbase, and make amends for my past transgressions.”

It is as simple as that.


Tactical Tuesday is Games Are Evil’s bi-monthly deep dive into the compelling and complex world of strategy games, hosted by our own Alex Connolly. Follow Alex on Twitter here.


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