Hop on Xbox Live and search for Mars Rover Landing. You’ll find a Kinect game made by NASA and Microsoft that’s meant to simulate the tense experience of landing Curiosity, NASA’s rover that will land on Mars on August 5 after eight and a half months of travel.
It’s “seven minutes of terror,” is how NASA describes the landing sequence, according to a USA Today reports. And Mars Rover Landing is a simulation of that terror. Or at least that is the intention.
Kinect games aren’t a gamer favourite in the enthusiast collective, but that doesn’t necessarily mean motion-controlled games can’t offer educational entertainment. Unfortunately, Mars Rover Landing misses that mark regardless.
I downloaded the roughly seven-minute game today and spent those minutes awkwardly side-stepping and flailing in front of the office Kinect to simulate the very fidgety landing of Curiosity on Mars. First, the pod carrying Curiosity has to maintain an appropriate trajectory, which means players have to move around a lot until it’s carefully aligned within the designated circle. Once Curiosity enters a safe, non-melting zone, player have to release the heat shields. In Kinect terms, players will flail their arms at this juncture in rhythm to a light hitting a node. Once the landing engine engages, players raise their arms to steady Curiosity’s descent onto dusty red Mars.
But then what happens? Then, the game ends. Nothing was particularly frightful about the experience. For newcomers, who may not know anything about NASA and its project to land the rover Curiosity on Mars, this could all be very confusing. There’s no set-up. There’s just a heap of metal that you’re given instructions on how to handle.
Browse through the informative, Powerpoint-styled descriptions of the rover and the project that you find in the main menu, and you’ll learn that Curiosity has 17 cameras, a laser to zap rocks, and a drill attached to its arm for collecting samples. Wait a minute. A laser? A drill? Did this not cue a thousand flags that, maybe, Mars Rover Landing could have been Mars Rover and given players a chance to explore Mars themselves to get excited about Curiosity’s real-life landing? For a simulation, it’d be far more accurate than the Kinect moves you’re required to perform to land Curiosity, too. Unless NASA scientists are actually using honed DDR moves to land the thing, that is.
I’m all for educational games. I’m all for using a hobby that kids and adults alike love to introduce them to important, interesting, real-life events. Unfortunately projects like Mars Rover Landing seem to forget the fun of games in trying to make something that’s both functional and relevant. And even its educational aspects are buried in menu-ed text and still images that are, while interesting to someone who is already in tune to modern science, not accessible or exciting.