Did you buy the Indie Royale May Hurray bundle? I certainly hope you did. Not only would you have snagged a copy of the superb Dungeon Defenders, but you'll also have a shiny new .exe for Weird Worlds: Return To Infinite Space. This unassuming little title presents an infinitely replayable adventure through a randomised galaxy, letting you live out your own epic space opera in twenty minutes or less.
What you might not know, however, is that it's the sequel to Strange Adventures In Infinite Space, which delighted those who first played it nearly a decade ago (though the word "return" was probably a dead giveaway). SAIS, as it's usually known, allowed us explore strange new worlds, seek out new civilisations, loot advanced technology and blow up entire fleets... in our lunch hour.
Digital Eel had a remarkably simple idea when it came to developing SAIS: delivering the randomisation, infinite replayability and quick permanent deaths of a roguelike, but with the depth and scope of Elite. To this end, players assume the role of a down-on-their luck, unemployed space captain who's presented with the chance of a lifetime. Shady kingpin Lextor Mucron needs someone crazy enough to take a ship into the Purple Void, explore its uncharted planets and return laden with exotic artefacts and creatures. But he needs you to take a loan out on the ship first.
Should you return before your five year mission is over (about 15-20 minutes all told), Mucron offsets your cargo against the loan, presenting you with a profit or loss that's translated into a scoreline. Maybe, next time, you'll get a bigger haul. Or fall prey to a star-killing menace from beyond the pale.
Each playthrough contained as much depth and as many twists as many games do in their entire campaigns. The randomly generated universe teems with planets to travel to, nebulae to navigate and back holes to avoid, with worlds providing an array of items to acquire. Sometimes we'd happen across a relic of an ancient emperor who makes an entire race bow to our will, or spend several days tracking down a rare and bizarre animal. A dizzying array of weapons, shields and gadgets turned our starting ship into a intergalactic powerhouse, packing more powerful engines to cover more ground within the time limit. Perhaps an alien wingman would even offer to join our flotilla, lending their ships to the cause. There was always something new to see and do, making every playthrough completely unique.
Not every encounter was so generous, however. SAIS even had plenty of deep yet streamlined inter-ship combat, which brought players into direct competition with warlike space barbarians, mechanical Tan-Ru and abstract, spiritual spacefaring rays. We had full real-time control over our flotillas, with freedom to plan strategies and vectors on a 2D plane, providing major tactical depth in less than a minute of gameplay time.
Of course, oftentimes, we wouldn't make it back. The randomised galaxies were frequently just too difficult, miring us in enormous battles without powerful ship upgrades or sometimes just popping a black hole or two in the way. But with such a short play time and a persistent high score table, each defeat was a self-contained story, and one that just spurred us onwards to bigger and better things.
SAIS only had one major problem: a $20 price tag. This was arguably too much for a graphically primitive indie game (even by 2002 standards), and thus became a cult classic rather than a ubiquitous heavy hitter. Now, though it's free to download on PC and Mac, while the the poorly-optimised iOS version is available on the App Store. And with luck, you'll now be the proud owner of its superior sequel. You did buy the bundle, right?