39 Days to Mars is a steampunk-inspired co-op adventure game, developed by Christchurch developer Philip Buchanan. It was crowdfunded way back in 2014, and Buchanan has continued to develop the game over the past four years. Now it has finally crossed the finish line, and thankfully it was worth the wait, standing as a great example of the charm, creativity, and polish that’s possible even within the tiny New Zealand indie development scene.
In 39 Days to Mars, you play as Sir Albert Wickes and The Right Honourable Clarence Baxter, two Victorian-era inventors who are attempting to take their rocket, the HMS Fearful, to Mars.
The game recommends that you and a friend share the duties of running, repairing and protecting the ship on its voyage. As well as co-operatively solving a series of puzzles and mini-games, you also need to work together to execute solutions – all actions require a coordinated effort, in which each player controls a single hand. This coordination brings a unique new approach to the puzzle formula, adding a layer of humour and whimsy that these kinds of puzzles games generally lack. The goofiness it brings is almost QWOP-like, as you and a friend try and coordinate to pour a kettle or arrange a row of plugs.
While this is a fun challenge in multiplayer, I thought it really shone in single player. Solo, you must execute the same moves on your own, using the keyboard to manoeuvre one hand and the mouse for the other. The result is best described as a “rub your belly, pat your head” simulator. It pushes your brain to operate in a different and multi-faceted way that I have not experienced in a game before.
However, the reason they make helicopter pilots do this is to weed out people whose brains cannot operate in this way, so this approach may not meld well with everyone. In fact, speaking to someone else who had played the game, they found this multi-dexterous challenge incredibly frustrating, while I found it enchanting.
Taken on their own, a lot of the games puzzles are not particularly challenging, especially as they all represent standard formulas such as a match-game and a build-a-pathway mechanic. But while you are unlikely to be stumped, the puzzles are still well-constructed and fun to solve. As with a good Sunday crossword, the tried-and-true formula here doesn’t make solving it any less satisfying.
Less effective are the mini-game challenges, such as a task in which you must cycle out into the vacuum of space to collect coal for the ship’s engines. While these mini-games offer a break from the core puzzle mechanics, they are easily the least satisfying part of the game – mostly due to the difficulty in suddenly having to manoeuvre characters in a game which is otherwise point and click.
All of these activities are presented with a charming aesthetic and tone. Like Vince Vaughan movies and the music of The Black-Eyed Peas, steampunk is something I generally try to avoid. Like any genre, it has examples of greatness, such as the work of H.G Wells and Jules Verne, but almost all its modern permutations I find utterly cringe-worthy – especially its associated sub-culture of busty men and women who jam themselves into ill-fitting Victorian garb adorned with sprockets and $2 shop pocket watches. Thankfully, the 39 Days to Mars approach to the genre is far more akin to that of the early masters of science fiction than that of a weird dude walking around the supermarket in a top hat.
The art style does the game a lot of favours in this area, leaning more into sepia tone of the Victorian-era than the garish metal-tone photo-realism of modern steampunk culture. The art is minimalist and charming, with a hand-drawn style that makes the whole game feel like a Victorian inventor’s blueprints.
The contraptions depicted also feel like they came straight from the mind of this Victorian inventor, especially in how they emphasise style over logic, with rooms stacked haphazardly skywards despite gravity. As a result, the game expresses the optimism and excitement of technology at the dawn of the industrial age, when it seemed possible that you could get to space with nothing more than a metal cylinder that has a rocket strapped to the bottom.
Adding to the stylistic charm of the game is its simple piano score, which plinks along with an upbeat melody throughout your adventure. In more cinematic scenes, the score brings in synth elements which create the sense of grandeur I associate with majestic Victorian adventures like Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days.
The style, puzzles and mechanics of 39 Days to Mars combine to make a special addition to the adventure genre. In particular, I think the coordination the game requires in both co-op and single-player mode really taps into some new potential for the genre, and I am excited to see if Buchanan will expand on this idea with future projects.