XGen Studios' first game out of the gate with the PlayStation 4's new indie program is Super Motherload. At first glance, it's easy to dismiss Super Motherload as a repetitive platformer with little to keep you playing. But there's a puzzle game laying just beneath that surface...
Super Motherload puts you in the boots of a miner who's been tasked by the Solaris Corporation to go to Mars and dig for precious minerals. Drill down, gather the minerals, then bring them back to the surface to sell for profit. Of course the more valuable resources are located deep within the planet and your humble rig won't be able to reach them without some upgrades, so you'll spend some of that hard-earned cash on making it possible for you to delve into the deepest depths. Once you’ve upgraded and refueled, then it’s back down you go. The further down you go, you also start to learn more about the company that’s employed you and not everything is quite as it seems.
I'll be honest, the first couple hours I spent with Super Motherload I didn't get it. I thought surely there's more to it than dig down, collect some minerals, take them back to the station, refuel, maybe buy and upgrade, and repeat. Surely there's some mind-blowing twist, like all of a sudden your drilling rig turns into a spaceship that uses its drill to deliver intergalactic justice. Or maybe the unobtanium is a lie? How about it's all a metaphor for the Industrial Revolution and the minerals actually represent the children consumed and spat out by the unfeeling, heartless machines of the time period?
It's none of those things. Super Motherload is just as it appears... yet, not quite. While the game moves like a platformer, has skill-leveling elements like many action platformers, and just feels like a platformer, it's not. It's a puzzle game.
One of the first upgrades you'll purchase is a smelter, which allows you to combine two elements into a new one that sells for much more. This is Super Motherload's game changer. Instead of a bunch of minerals scattered about the place that you casually drill towards to collect, the Mars underground becomes an intricate strata of possibilities. If you drill across to grab Bronzium, then go back and drill down for that Silverum, you can create Sterling Silver. Then, if you go that extra little bit further, you can snag that Goldum to make some White Gold. It's working through and deducing these kinds of combinations that not only yield you the highest payouts, but also make Super Motherload so oddly addictive.
That’s the mindset you have to be in when you approach Super Motherload - that you’re playing a puzzle game where the goal is to get the biggest combos to get the most points (cash). You spend the cash to make upgrades to your mining rig, which carry across playthroughs, so you can dig deeper and get bigger combos. If you approach it like an action game or any other platformer you’ve played, something just feels off about it. Part of that is due to the casual nature of it (the developers even state it’s a “casual” game on the website), but the other part is that that’s not how the game is intended to be played. Even if it appears to have all the trappings of a different genre, it is still a puzzle game. Now, add another player (or two or three) to the mix, and that puzzle becomes a little more competitive than cooperative.
Super Motherload supports up to three other players locally. All players share the same fuel pool, so when one player is out of fuel, you’re all out, and drilling operations have to cease until all players return to the surface and somebody buys some more fuel for the group. However, that’s the only resource that’s shared. Each player has his or her own cargo space for the minerals they collect, and each player has his or her own health bar and cash collected. So even though you’re all using up the same fuel, you’re responsible for collecting your own minerals to sell off. Finally, player progression is only tied to the first player, so while he or she will reap the benefits of everyone’s upgrades to the different characters/rigs, the other players will lose out.
Within the framework of the game, having individual cargo spaces makes sense, but it doesn’t make sense from a cooperative perspective. When you shout at your buddy for being greedy and getting all the best minerals, that’s not exactly engendering a “go team” spirit. What’s more, players are all tied to the same screen so if you need to go back up a bit in order to get to a better spot from which you can drill for some minerals, you may be asking your partner(s) to stop whatever he or she is doing to “move over here so I can get these.”
With all of that, teamwork in Super Motherload often feels like it’s more of a negotiation than a given. I’m just glad it’s couch co-op only as I can’t imagine trying to play this online without getting frustrated at the other players who just expect you to let them get everything.
Super Motherload is, above all else, a casual puzzle game, and it’s one that’s likely not for everyone. It does have a Hardcore mode, where running out of fuel or health leads to permanent character death, to add that little bit of extra challenge to those who seek it, but it’s still a casual game all in all. It’s the sort of thing you sit down and play when you have just a few minutes before heading out for the day, or after a long day of work when you want something where you can just turn off your brain for a while. The gameplay is straightforward enough that any type of gamer - be they new, casual, or serious - can hop in and play, but the co-op is missing a sense of natural team play that would encourage gaming with friends. There’s fun to be had in Super Motherload, but you might have to search for it a little.
Editor's Note: The Co-Optimus Co-Op Review of Super Motherload was based on the PlayStation 4 version of the game. A code for the game was provided by the developers for review purposes.