In 2019, to pan for gold in an endless river of free Web-playable Unity releases, one can simply query itch.io. A decade ago, however, there was no such bounty. In fact, in 2008, Unity was only about three years old, and its expansion beyond Mac exclusivity was still fresh in the memories of those who were paying attention at that point. One had to actively seek out releases akin to those that make up today’s cornucopia. Discovery was far less centralised, much as it was for self-released music before Bandcamp made a name for itself (The story of how game soundtracks gave Bandcamp a significant popularity boost is for another time). Back then, it certainly felt as though a larger proportion of discoveries in “neat little games” came by chance, word of mouth, email, or one of many diverse aggregators.
Of course, to be clear, the engine doesn’t strictly matter. Naming Unity is rather: first, to evoke the meta-genre of “neat little games”, by way of the rapid prototyping such platforms permit; second, the setup to a coincidence of microcosmic scale. Unity Web games these days compile to something that can run natively in the browser; back then, it was the now-deprecated Unity Web Player, akin to Flash Player. Enter the “neat little Web-playable Unity game that turns out to be something truly magical”, hailing from a decade before you had a constant stream of that. Enter a path to popularity characteristically idiosyncratic of the era, a game that held top place for a month in, get this, Apple’s Dashboard widgets directory. Enter… Mars Explorer.