It is March 15th. A boy named Mars goes to his first day at a new school after an incident that forced his family to move. The day is uneventful. Mars heads downtown to meet a new therapist. Mars takes his new medication.
He wakes up and it is March 15th again. And again. And again.
Mars Underground is a game made in RPG Maker MV by Matt Sanderson. The story revolves around a boy named Mars, who finds himself going back in time every time he takes Dr. Kronus’ medication. After an initial loop of the game where Mars cannot make his own choices, the medication had the side benefit of making him more deterministic, allowing you to guide him around the world, making new choices to split off from the original timeline.
To past readers of this blog, you may think, “hey, don’t you hate things made in RPG Maker MV?” Well, the thing is that they never actually ran well on my old laptop. However, on this new computer, anything is possible. (RPG Maker VX Ace remains my personal favorite of all those engines, though.)
The gameplay of Mars Underground has you continually going through loops of the same day, carrying stuff you found and topics you learned from past cycles to create divergences. Outside of the initial timeline there are multiple endings to attain to charge up a weapon and to get the true ending, you have to charge it to 200%. As you play through the game it quickly becomes apparent that everything runs on a strict schedule, so getting around means learning where things are at certain points and when people are available to try to reach them on future cycles.
I’m a bit biased since I made a game that requires multiple cycles with divergences to get through, but it’s a gameplay loop that I think is really cool. As the game opens up you kinda get a sense of how things fit together. For instance, every morning Mars gets the option to eat breakfast – either the breakfast his mom cooks or trashy junk food you brought from past cycles. Eating the trash food gets you sick, which can free you up to explore in the morning; alternatively, as it is your choice to initiate eating, you can choose not to eat, which will exhaust Mars and lead to one of the endings.
So, getting the endings will require some thinking. A fair amount of them is from screwing Mars over, which means deliberately ignoring a bunch of warnings. Some, however, require some more set-up that kinda makes sense in hindsight but feels like esoteric adventure game nonsense on the path to getting.
Mars Underground does try to help players in-game, as the beginning of some cycles will offer advice to nudge you in the right direction. The thing is, I’m not sure what triggers these nudges. Starting the first step of a route but not knowing how to follow up on it? Several cycles of inactivity? If that’s not enough, the developer at least includes a walkthrough in the game’s files, which I ended up looking at for one of the last, multi-step routes.
I really like the overall structure of Mars Underground. So, it’s too bad that I’m not invested in the narrative at all.
Taken individually, some of the game’s endings are interesting. However, as I got more of them, I realized that they just don’t gel together at all. A lot of the ending scenes are radically different from each other, to the point that it feels like there is no central idea to what the plot is about. Is it about aliens? Is it a meta journey? While Dr. Kronus is an antagonist figure, he ultimately serves more as a facilitator than an active threat.
There is a general theme of determinism present throughout the game, like how Mars starts out being unable to control his actions and the occasional meta moments. Life is full of unexpected things that you just can’t do anything about.
And this is highlighted in a meta ending where you meet a stand-in for the game’s creator. One of the things you can say to him is that the game doesn’t make sense and he’ll justify it as, “well, that’s just real life.” Like yeah, life is full of senseless things, but the game really stretches that idea.
Like Mars, you can just be crossing the street one day and die in a senseless car accident. But also, you’re never going to shovel poop into a chef’s food and the chef won’t kill you out of retribution, because everything about that is just dumb. The idea of determinism in the game and dying to the whims of fate is undermined by the fact that most of the endings means intentionally doing dumb stuff to get yourself killed or doing a multi-step journey you have to go out of your way to do. You know, just living your life.
I feel that Mars Underground needed more mundane things like the ordinary car crash for its ideas to work, but it leans too far into the absurd. There can be a good balance between seriousness and silliness and I think a whole lot of nonsense can work well depending on the context, but Mars Underground takes itself seriously enough that it doesn’t.
And back to that meta ending, you can call out the claim that the game is representative of real life on a grand scale and the developer will be upset, wondering if he’s just wasting his life, which kinda sucks? Because with how the scene is presented, it really felt like the developer was trying to guilt trip me over not liking the game’s writing, which I have no respect for.
I do respect the music in Mars Underground, though. It is an original soundtrack with multiple variants of songs to play in areas depending on context, which is the kind of shit I’m really into. The oppressive track of the school dynamically changing into a variant with drums when Mars gets bothered by the local bullies is a real good example of how these kinds of soundtracks can not only establish but go along with changing mood. It’s real good and probably the game’s high point for me.
If I actually gave scores, I would say that Mars Underground is a 6. That’s not necessarily a bad score (because man, gaming culture really made “7” the Low Score). Mars Underground has a cool game structure and a fun soundtrack, but it’s wrapped around a story that doesn’t seem to know how to present itself. If the writing in Mars Underground was better and if it upheld the game’s theme in a more cohesive way, I would be enthusiastically for it. But as it is, I’ll have to say that Mars Underground is just okay, at best.