Better Red than Dead in Cosmonauts

There was this old hippie at a newspaper I once worked for, a guy who took a great interest in any New York Times obituary of a prominent Russian. He was your basic-as-bread conspiracy theorist, convinced the Soviets put a human—well, a human body, anyway—on the dark side of the moon. "They couldn't accept not trying," he said, like a lunar landing was a football game. He would have loved Cosmonauts.

In this iOS physics game, Mother Russia won the space race, making them the first to encounter extraterrestrial life. Hostile extraterrestrial life. It's now up to the good ol' CCC of P to save Earth, and that's where you come in. In a linear combat space, you're given a gunship, some modifiable weaponry, and a target to hit. Your shot flies along a parabola. The basic objective is to destroy your target in as few shots as possible.

Sounds familiar, and indeed a lot of the iconography in Cosmonauts and its menu layout smells like physics games such as Siege Hero or The Marbians or that game with the birds. The difference here is your foe returns fire. So while you have theoretically unlimited shots, you can't get too cute or else you'll join Sputnik in the hall of space debris.

Cosmonauts gives you a variety of charged shots to either add firepower to your volley or to toss up obstructions to your foe's. Smashing an asteroid and turning it into a scatter-bomb is also a favored tactic that the game teaches you early on. What I appreciated most was the gravity-assist you pick up by firing into the orbit of nearby moons. Get it close enough, and your shell will slingshot around the satellite. If you can time its release from orbit (with a tap at the right instant), it'll scream into the alien ship with a huge force multiplier, if not obliterating it in one take altogether. Theoretically, all of the levels I encountered could be completed in just one shot.

Gravity, or implied gravity, anyway, plays a big role in Cosmonauts. The higher your trajectory and the further your shell "falls," the more damage it does. That said, it's harder to gauge the correct angle because the higher you aim, the shorter the projected path becomes. The screen also scrolls up, which can reveal goodies high above your ship as well as obscure the enemy below.

Cosmonauts clearly encourages multiple gravity-assist shots, which can pick up health and firepower powerups along the way. Crafting these volleys takes a lot of care. Fortunately, trading fire is all turn-based, not real-time, and there's no time limit while you set up you shot.

The base game in Cosmonauts is free, but it consists mainly of a tutorial. There's a multiplayer challenge level that pits you against a tough AI foe; online multiplayer is available if you set up an account within the game, which is kind of unfortunate as it is already OpenFeint and GameCenter enabled on iOS. Loading screens between the game's first 18 levels constantly tout the additional levels and content packages you can buy, ranging from a buck to $1.99.

After finishing the 18 tutorial stages I wanted to see more of Cosmonauts. I was willing to purchase, at a buck, the next slate of challenges. Unfortunately, I dead-ended in errors that kept telling me "You must purchase the app that this item is for before you can purchase the item." Since Cosmonauts' base offering is free, therefore un-purchaseable, the developer (Superplay Games) probably needs to resolve this conflict with Apple.

Maybe I was doing something wrong. Still, Cosmonauts takes the iPhone's best gaming concept, the physics game, and applies just the right touches to make it different and uniquely challenging. It's probably a good thing for a game when I'm pissed off because I can't spend a buck to get to the next stage of a free-to-play title. I'll figure out how to make that happen in the morning. Like the Soviets, I can't accept not trying.

Cosmonauts [iTunes]


You can contact Owen Good, the author of this post, at owen@kotaku.com. You can also find him on Twitter, Facebook, and lurking around our #tips page.