Kerbal Space Program is a game that puts players in charge of an entire space program. You’re basically running NASA, and if you’re anything like me, running it poorly. I’ve killed tons of Kerbins through botched launches, and while that’s pretty funny, it’s not exactly that fun. In fact, I didn’t have that much fun with Kerbal Space Program at all, despite it being highly reviewed on PC. Some of that may be on me; it’s admittedly not the perfect game for me, although I wanted to give it the old college try. However, I think the deeper issues of why this game lost me so early on has to do with it being a very poor port.
Game Name: Kerbal Space Program
Platforms: PC, Mac, Linux, Playstation 4, Xbox One
What is it?
Running NASA is undoubtedly difficult in real life, and while Kerbal Space Program is a video game simulation, players aren’t let off easy. Every aspect of the titular space program must be overseen, from marketing and research to rocket construction and space navigation. This all sounds pretty great, but trust me when I say that it’s really involved—this is no ‘NASA Tycoon.’
It’s really quite impressive just how involved you can get. I really like the R&D portion of the game. In order to further your knowledge of certain technology and gain the ability to build better rocket parts and explore the unknown, you need to learn it by spending Science points. This is done in the same manner of knowledge tree you might see in a Civilization game, with each new technology learned opening up the ability to gain others.
Building a space-ready rocket isn’t anything like building a Gummi ship in Kingdom Hearts – randomly slapping some parts together to make something cool. It has to be precise and functional, and if it isn’t, Kerbins will die. Trust me, I know; I’ve killed many.
Because this game has done so well on PC, and also because it has been so well-received on that platform, I’m not going to waste everyone’s time re-reviewing a game that everyone already knows is good. And it is. It’s a very good game… just not on consoles. That’s why I’m instead going to focus on why this particular game translated into such a bad port.
Why is it a bad port?
I can’t really fault the game for its in-depth exercise in space program simulation. If you’re a cosmo-nut, there’s plenty of stuff for you to explore. The only problem is that, on a console, Kerbal Space Program is incredibly tedious and plain un-fun to control. When porting a game, specifically when porting a game from PC to console, figuring out how to transfer the controls is a unique problem. The keyboard and mouse to controller considerations do not always work out, and Kerbal Space Program is a prime example of this, and one that future developers should consider when deciding to port games of their own.
I think most people will agree that first-person titles make the jump from PC to console somewhat seamlessly (programming aside). Those same people might also say that there is much more precision in an FPS on PC, given that the mouse allows for precise aiming, but that’s not exactly the problem here. The problem we’re getting with Kerbal Space Program is not one of precision or aiming, but of cursors.
Cursor based games rarely make it out of the PC realm, and I think, for the most part, it should stay that way. Controllers are simply not built for cursor-centric game navigation. It can be done, but if you want a specific example, think about how tedious it is to browse the internet on last-gen consoles, or even how difficult and slow it can be to select items and words in retro games like Maniac Mansion for NES. No matter how great that game is (seriously one of my all-time favorite titles) it is, quite simply, a pain to control.
I’m not sure if Squad expected players to use a keyboard and mouse to play Kerbal Space Program on consoles. While that might make this game better, I’m simply not going to do that. Because of this, some parts of the game suffer more than others. Pre-launch menus – selecting missions, learning technology, building rockets – are relatively better than the launch menus (relatively). The launch menus are so jumbled and non-intuitive with a controller, and that’s really a shame. Launching rockets should arguably be the best part of a space-flight simulator, but it’s just confusing. Because of this, the game lost me pretty early on, and never got me back.
Even when going into sandbox mode, which allows players to skip most of the businessy, researchy side of things and start out with everything unlocked, the troublesome launch controls make the game near unplayable. Sure, I did play it, and I eventually managed to launch a rocket successfully into space after killing tons of innocent pilots. However, it wasn’t as if I felt I had made a huge accomplishment in terms of skill – like when I finally killed the Nameless King for the first time – but instead just felt like I wrestled with the controls long enough to make something successful happen.
This was definitely not the kind of persevering gratitude one feels in a Dark Souls game. It’s more like the feeling a freshman community college student feels after finally figuring out how to submit homework on a non-intuitive academic software program. Both situations may elicit a, “Yes, I’ve finally done it!” response, but where the Dark Souls player is now encouraged to go on to greater and more challenging feats, the other is simply glad it’s over.
This game simply should have stayed on PC. With its confusing control scheme and burdensome cursor navigation, it was never destined for consoles. I imagine that the game’s success on PC made it a pretty safe bet to make some money on consoles (and I’m sure that with the initial $40 price it did just that), but it simply doesn’t port well.
- Solid simulation
- Terrible controls
- Confusing mission fulfillments
- An underwhelming port of a much-loved game.
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