Review: Super Motherload

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Many games have benefited hugely in jumping from Flash or other indie formats to commercial releases. Spelunky, N, and Super Meat Boy all come to mind as titles which grew into fuller, more polished products by moving to a larger marketplace. So too is the case with Super Motherload, transforming the classic Flash game into a more stylish and structured adventure beneath the surface of Mars (complete with couch co-op, too!). This transformation also took a few unexpected turns in the process, and as you’ll see they may not all be for the better.

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Just as its predecessor did, Super Motherload drops you onto the surface of Mars in a nimble little cube of a mining rig. The other miners have all bugged off for reasons unknown and it’s up to you to drill down and turn a profit for your corporate masters. Tunneling Dig-Dug-style shafts into the planet, you’ll find riches and hazards alike as strange radio messages start filtering in to reveal the terrible fate that befell the other spelunkers. In the end, your quest for loot will fund a journey into untold depths and the bizarre secrets held beneath the Martian surface.

Mechanically, your goal here is to dig as deep as you can. In the original Motherload it was a straight shot but the soil became harder to drill and the hazards became more… hazardous, so you had to spend your wealth on upgrades to balance everything out. Super Motherload follows a similar tack but gates your progression more firmly, making some soils completely untouchable until you unlock new drills through the story instead of your wallet. Those story beats sometimes require the completion of tasks like finding some number of probes or artifacts for the strange and unfortunate characters you meet in your descent.

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It’s not just the progression that’s more structured, either. OG Motherload had a map of randomized resources and dangers that became more dense on both ends as you descended, mimicking what you might imagine actual geology to be like. Super Motherload doesn’t ditch that entirely, but I was surprised to find a lot of puzzle-type constructs to contend with. Mazes of unbreakable blocks, tricky networks of overhanging ledges (your driller can fly but can’t drill while flying), and goofy shapes like skulls and arrows litter the underground. I appreciate the challenges they present but it takes something away from the remote, isolated atmosphere when you’re very obviously working through a hand-made puzzle instead of an interesting geological formation.

Mining out ores and gems and returning them to your base earns you cash to upgrade your rig, as well as refuel and repair. Your little driller takes serious damage from slamming into things too hard or trying to drill lava, and once you run out of fuel you can’t drill any more. The latter is a welcome change from the instant death upon running dry in the original, and takes much of the edge off of exploring. Upgrades let you drill faster or hold more loot or take less damage from hazards, but they ramp up in price quick. A neat addition to this edition is the smelter, a system that lets you passively combine two consecutive ores or gems into a more valuable one. Upgrading your smelter unlocks more combinations, so the latter game is less about filling your hold and more about finding profitable chains of gems.

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As you spelunk further you’ll get ominous radio messages from the other mysterious denizens of Mars, gradually unfolding the story of what happened to the previous miners and what exactly you’re drilling towards. Unlike the original you’ll pass subterranean bases with all the amenities of your surface complex, cutting out the long treks up and down of the original. Super Motherload succeeds in cutting out a lot of the tedium and potential losses of the original, but not without adding some of its own. The addition of new bomb consumables that clear blocks in certain patterns goes hand in hand with requiring their use more and more the further down you go. The endgame sequence in particular gets ridiculously cluttered with hazards and blocks needing bombs. Also, while I like what they came up with for a “boss” to this kind of game I can’t say it was a super fun experience to work through, and it feels like you’re expected to grind out all the upgrades and tons of bombs before you even attempt it.

Motherload was a solid little mining game with surprising depth, and Super Motherload stays faithful to that vision. Though it offers different challenges and has its own foibles, the core is just as solid and the updated graphics and sound further enhance the experience. I’m not entirely sure I prefer this one over the original, but either one is a stand-out in the odd little mining genre they occupy. If you’ve never tried Motherload you’re in for a treat, and if you’re an old sand hog then you owe it to yourself to see what this version has to offer.

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