A wacky, inexplicable, one-of-a-kind take on the ancient PC moon-landing simulation.
It’s our pals from Pack-In Video again, and they’ve given us another fascinating release. Pack-In Video didn’t really trade in good games, but at least everything they made was interesting. In this case, they’ve given us what will almost certainly be the oldest game ever to show up on Game Boy.
We’ve seen plenty of ’70s vintage works pop up on Game Boy, including the likes of Space Invaders and the beloved Heiankyo Alien, but Lunar Lander stretches all the way back to 1969. It’s the only Game Boy release ever conceived while the Beatles were still together. And since Pong would only appear on Game Boy Color rather than the monochrome system, this is also the only original-model Game Boy work to have been created while Nixon was president. In short, this game is old.
Of course, Lunar Lander for Game Boy barely resembles the original iteration of the game, which a high school student by the name of Jim Storer created for the room-sized minicomputers that existed in the year 1969. That original iteration took the form of a text-based exercise, similar to the earliest versions of Oregon Trail. Back in 1969, of course, video games didn’t even really exist, so the mere concept of typing words into a computer and having it return some sort of constructive descriptive text was profoundly novel.
It makes perfect sense for a game of that time to have echoed the real-life moon landing. The drama of Neil Armstrong’s extraplanetary walk had captured the public’s interest, and Lunar Lander was a chance for nerds everywhere (or at least the ones with access to a PDP-8 computer) to live out a simulation of the actual moon landing. The one that was happening on television, right then, in real-time.
This 1990 release, of course, barely resembles that primitive minicomputer creation from more than 20 years prior. Even if the gaming audiences of 1990 had possessed the same tolerance and awe for text-based games as they did in 1969, the Game Boy didn’t precisely lend itself to text entry. Rather, Pack-In Video’s release has more in common with Atari’s arcade version of Lunar Lander, which had shipped a full decade after the original. Pack-In Video doesn’t appear to have licensed Atari’s game, however; Lunar Lander’s fuzzy origins as an academic work seem to have left it without a firm trademark or copyright. Once Atari adapted the concept to a graphical version, the clones began flooding in. This, then, would be one of those clones.
Clocking in a full decade after the arcade game’s arcade heyday, Lunar Lander for Game Boy doesn’t simply reproduce the stand-up version’s design any more than Atari’s version reproduced the text version of the game. Pack-In Video greatly expanded on the concept of Lunar Lander here, to the point that the part people think of as “Lunar Lander” constitutes a minority of the Game Boy experience. While the classic Lunar Lander game is here, you have to work to find it.
The original concept behind Lunar Lander was all right there in the title: Players had to guide a Lunar Excursion Module safely to the surface of the moon. It was an exercise in physics modeling and math, really, as your task involved a lot of using counter-thrust to nudge the LEM safely to the ground by negating its descent and minimizing its horizontal shear. The original game involved typing in a lot of numbers and hoping for the best. Atari turned it into a vector-based game with a control setup similar to the one that would appear the following year in Asteroids. Players had only four controls to work with: Buttons to rotate their LEM clockwise or counter-clockwise, an abort button, and a very satisfying thrust handle that could be pushed forward or pulled down to adjust the power of the LEM’s retro-rockets.
The Game Boy release obviously couldn’t incorporate that huge analog lever, so Pack-In Video did the next best thing: They added new modes. The original Lunar Lander element of the game appears here, but only as the second of a three-phase experience. This makes for a pretty weird take on Lunar Lander.
The game begins with a seeming emphasis on a realistic launch and landing experience, but once you touch down, the whole thing takes a swerve into kooky fantasy. Before you can land your module, however, you need to complete the game’s first phase, which is naturally enough a launch sequence. This involves helping a Space Shuttle break orbit by holding an optimal course and building up engine pressure. It’s a pretty simple sequence, though not wholly intuitive. As the shuttle ascends, it wanders out of the sweet spot in the center of the screen, and you need to nudge it back into place with the D-pad.
That much is obvious. What doesn’t immediately present itself is that the central play mechanic here is actually to mash on the A button as quickly as possible to keep engine pressure as high as possible. This mode presents you with three meters—fuel, compression, and altitude—and your objective is to max out the altitude meter before the fuel meter drops to zero. The shuttle only gains altitude when the pressure meter is in the critical zone, though, and the only way to maintain pressure is to mash A quickly while the shuttle is in its sweet spot.
Once you pull that off, the shuttle enters orbit and you’re given your choice of targets to explore on the lunar surface. It’s here that the traditional Lunar Lander begins, though it’s over in almost no time at all. Each landing site has a slightly different layout than the rest, but your objective is always the same: Descend safely to the near-surface zone, then touch down gently on one of the target spots. Some landing zones have multiple landing targets, though the higher the point value of a target the more difficult it is to put down there without smashing into a rock overhang or something.
This part, of course, plays like the classic concept of Lunar Lander. Your options here are about the same as ever, though of course presented with the Game Boy’s interface vocabulary. You rotate your LEM in either direction (though the controls work in reverse of how you’d probably expect) and tap the A button to generate thrust. Unlike the older versions of the game, there does appear to be some small amount of friction and resistance as you descend, so it’s a little easier to counteract your lateral drift than in the vacuum-based classic Lunar Lander.
Really, the biggest hazard here comes from the meteorites that fall randomly, constantly, and unpredictably as you attempt to touch down. There’s no way to know when they’re going to appear and no time to move out of their way, so they amount to a randomized instant-kill threat that can literally end your game before you know what’s happening. It’s a bit annoying, even if it does keep things unpredictable.
Considering it’s the heart of the game, though, the actual landing portions go by pretty quickly. It’s what happens after you land that makes Pack-In Video’s take on Lunar Lander so bizarre. Once on the surface, your goal is to go foraging for mineral deposits. At the same time, you need to avoid… moon men. Yes, for some reason, the game takes a total swerve here and shifts from being a fairly straight-laced take on the science-y aspects of the moon landing to instead force you to dodge marauding beasts on the lunar surface. I mentioned Heiankyo Alien earlier, and this portion of the game will likely remind you of that. It almost feels like an attempt at creating a grand unifying theory between two classic computer games: Centuries ago the aliens invaded Kyoto, so now we’re looting their home in revenge.
Anyway, this portion of the game plays out through a top-down view and allows you to roam a few screens away from your LEM in search of resources to take back to Earth. The moon monsters aren’t deadly; they don’t actively seek you out. They’ll sap 20% of your air supply if you make contact with them, but that’s it. As a peaceful astronaut, you’re armed only with a surface drill that allows you to dig into the ground either to the left or right… and unlike in, say, Dig Dug, the drill doesn’t double as a weapon. Your digging efforts simply create pits on the lunar surface which you can fill back in. These create obstacles for both you and the lunar citizens you encounter, but there’s no trap-em-up element. The moon critters just change direction once they bump into a hole.
Occasionally, digging into the ground will reveal some sort of weird Pac-Man flower thing. The flowers don’t pose any sort of threat; they sit in place making harmless chomping motions. However, they create a permanent barrier that you have to navigate around, so it’s ideal to avoid unearthing them.
The digging process isn’t totally blind, though. Your astronaut is also equipped with a metal detector that starts to emit sound when a buried resource is near. When you pass directly over the mineral, the sound becomes intense and high-pitched, so there’s no aimless wandering to be done. You merely need to keep an ear open—or an eye, if you prefer, since the sound is accompanied by a change to the detector icon that runs along the bottom of the screen.
Once you’ve acquired your requisite quota of resources, a 30-second timer kicks in and you have to scramble back to the LEM before it runs completely down. If you can make it safely, you launch back into orbit and select another landing site. And that’s about it, really. Lunar Lander for Game Boy is a vastly more involved game experience than Lunar Lander for PDP-8 or arcades, but it’s still pretty straight and to the point. At the same time, it’s also rather a drawn-out game experience… the game allows password continues, but you have to clear all eight landing sites in a mission in order to get each new password, and that process accounts for nearly an hour of play time. It’s not really Game-Boy-friendly.
Still, Lunar Lander is remarkable simply for existing. It’s the oldest game we’ll ever see on Game Boy, unless there’s an official conversion of Computer Space I’m not aware of, and it’s also the more elaborate rendition of this ancient work. Lunar Lander for Game Boy never came to the U.S., which makes it another one of those fascinating blips of history lurking in the uncharted regions of the Game Boy galaxy. Someone alert Commander Shepard.