This is a story about an intergalactic disaster involving mega-corporations, alien artifacts and an accidental hero. All of it caused by one illiterate uncle. Space Miner: Space Ore Bust is a weird and endearing mix of space opera and banjo plucking. It’s one of the most polished games available on the App Store. Unfortunately, its flair begins to fade once introductions have been made and the game is well underway.
You star as the young pilot of a beat-up space rig—either a hapless guy with an everyman look and tousled hair or a plucky girl who may or may not be a cosplayer on the side. You’re coasting along in an asteroid field to meet your Uncle Jeb at his Gritstone Mining Station, a town itself built into a huge asteroid. It’s hard to understand how Jeb, who seems to have a dim awareness of his immediate surroundings at best, keeps things running. And indeed, you spend the game rescuing Jeb and undoing his mistakes, most of them caused by a surprisingly true-to-life scenario involving a bank loan and an unfriendly company—the Mega Space Corporation.
Space Miner is a smart mix of Asteroids and Elite. After a few early missions teaching you how to pilot the ship, you are given complete freedom to explore the asteroid field surrounding Gritstone. It’s conceived as a grid whose squares you uncover by finding nav beacons in the world, which open up adjacent squares. You can finish the game without exploring the whole grid, but you’ll want to—there are some real surprises to be found.
In each area, you get a top-down view of your ship surrounded by asteroids (and, soon, mining bots out for you and your money). The shooting works just like arcade classic Asteroids—everything behaves according to zero-gravity physics, so you can point your thrusters in one direction while turning to fire your guns in another direction, still traveling along the same line. The game’s controls are tight and responsive; you shoot and thrust with your right thumb and steer a virtual wheel with your left. Naturally, all this steering and shooting is motivated by capitalism. Blasting rocks and bots leaves ore and scraps that are worth a good deal of money.
When you return to Gritstone after filling up your ship, you get a tally of all the different types of ore you’ve collected and the percentage of asteroids you mined in the region. Then you can buy upgrades for your ship from the refreshingly likable, down-on-himself alien stereotype Galactus, who runs a store in Gritstone. These range from better weapons, shields and engines to entirely new ships. This Elite-style upgrade system is a perfect complement to the asteroid busting. It adds a sense of depth and development to what could have been a run-of-the-mill iPhone shooter.
In between mining the field you’ll be pulled away to do side missions for a small, diverse cast of characters. These might include rescuing stranded space tourists or playing bodyguard to a self-styled space celebrity. These are optional, but provide easy ways to make a load of money in a short time.
Which brings up the main issue with the game. On the normal setting, it’s too easy to get rich fast and pile upgrades upon your ship that upset the balance of the game. What began as a somewhat tense game of carefully avoiding and aiming at asteroids becomes a vaguely tedious grind for levels. (In the game, this is your “mining license,” which grants you access to more regions in the asteroid field. The license stops at level 6, which is said to be a big achievement, but doesn’t feel like one.)
Once your little space tug has been traded out for a battleship with four guns, a mega-laser and a rotating turret, the game is all but over. You’ll rain destruction on asteroids and enemies alike, taking little damage as you plow recklessly ahead. The handful of boss battles become predictable and disappointingly easy.
And, less drastically but more disappointingly, the down-to-earth bond that you and your uncle shared in the first half of the story gets sidelined as the game tries to build a climax. Uncle Jeb sinks mysteriously into the background. It starts to feel like you really are all alone in space.
But by the end the game’s humor and surprises just edge out its shortcomings. Space Miner takes a little more than four hours to complete, a short and memorable tale of accidental space heroism. It’s an adventure worth revisiting, if only for its unusual, illiterate charm.