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.
The brainchild of then-teenage Aubrey Falconer (@aubrey_falconer), Mars Explorer was, at heart, a sandbox game, when that label still caused excitement rather than exhausted eye-rolls. Specifically, the player drives around some Martian terrain in a sporty rover that can… sprout wings while it’s getting some air time, and glide from the momentum it gathered on the ground. It was also definitely a shooter: in a multiplayer setting, buggies can blast one another in a game of laser tag. Dear me, cars in space that shoot are getting to be something of a theme this week.
This simple basis was enough for a community to grow around the game. In short order, Mars Explorer got the hovercraft, a vehicle incapable of flight but capable of driving at speed across the lava ocean of the map. Speaking of maps, it got maps aplenty. The original “freestyle” was great, with its own unique quirks, such as sinking into the pit of an active volcano, full of weird spikes that messed with the physics engine and launched you way up, gifting you plenty of flight speed. However, as is also the case with many far more ambitious commercial games, a huge variety of community-made maps gave the unmistakeable impression of deep affection. More earthly canyons with real roads, a Unity Island port for giggles, metagame-specific Martian-textured maps for racing and cover shooting… It was all there, and made it into the official releases. Then came the anticipated jet, a vehicle that could not drive, but could provide actual thrust in flight, dangerous in the hands of an experienced dogfighter; then there was the tank, which could drive up steep slopes and along the bottom of the lava ocean, but could not fly. All these came with input, 3D modelling assistance, scripting contributions, and more, directly from devoted community members. Entire new mechanics cropped up thanks to the community, too, such as the Xorb concept, force fields one could sprout akin to the iconic wings, inspired by the real-life human hamster balls. I remember being in the fifth grade or so and anticipating the morning of the 25th of December incredibly eagerly, not because I was expecting some particular present from my parents, but because I knew that was when one of the most anticipated maps of the game’s history would be available to play in. That day, play I did, indeed.
Considering how much technical love it got, it’s no surprise that various Mars Explorer servers, in a callback to last Friday’s piece, doubled as fun places to hang out. An integrated chat window styled after IM bubbles rather than anything IRC-esque gave the impression (at the time) of a thoroughly modern and approachable form of chat. Many jokes, facts, miniature blog posts about our lives, and much more all poured in and out of that chat box as we raced after our quarry.
Of course, in another theme consistent with Friday’s article, that’s all gone now. The game, thankfully, wasn’t silently abandoned – it was given a proper farewell, then subsequently rebooted into the ambitious but terribly titled Syn3h. Still under development, this spiritual successor looks promising, but is currently baroque and impenetrable. Some day, when it’s a little further along, it’ll definitely get its own feature.
For the sake of nostalgia, I decided to give it a spin again. The Mac version is just thoroughly broken, and the Web version won’t work with the legacy download for Unity Web Player, but the Windows version, thankfully, works to this day. Presented are a few little screenshots, which, indeed, prove that it’s still possible to give this a spin, which I do suggest. It really is something special, even without rose-tinted glasses.
Yestin Harrison is a dilettante fascinated by anything from games to graphic design to planetary-scale distributed systems. When not performing his duties as webmaster at Rebind or kicking the site an occasional article, he's found anywhere there's a lark to chase. Reach him on the Web at ylh.io, and on twitter @yestinharrison.