Waking Mars is possibly the most chilled out 2D jetpack game in existence. I came across it during that lazy, turkey-stuffed interim between Christmas and New Year's Eve back in 2013, and I've never felt such inner peace while playing a video game. It's a story of quiet wonder, where the aim isn't to destroy, evade or do battle with hostile, alien creatures, but to watch them grow and flourish as you venture further and further into the depths of our neighbouring red planet.
Guided by the gentle, pondering tones of space man Liang and his admittedly irritating AI pal ART, I'm still amazed I got so hooked on what essentially amounts to chucking alien seed pods at piles of weeds and watching them burst into life. Planting seeds is something I'd normally find boring and repetitive after 30 minutes or so, and it's part of the reason why other notable farming games like Stardew Valley have never really held much appeal for me. And yet, somehow, Waking Mars gripped me for its full 8 hour run time.
Part of its appeal comes from watching different types of seed ricochet around the caves and take on a life of their own. Yes, you can hoover up every last seed pod you clap eyes on and plant them all manually with great precision in order to raise the biomass of an area just to your liking, but it's much more satisfying to let each plant's natural behaviours do it all for you. Whether it's the flailing tendril of a water plant lobbing one of its fragile, liquidy sacs across a chasm and it landing just right in another grassy burrow, or simply watching harder, more durable pods drop from plants in the ceiling and bounce their way into other nooks and crannies, it's the kind of chain reaction that makes you feel all warm and fuzzy inside. You may have set these events in motion, but it's the game's ecosystems that make it come alive.
It's quite an incredible feat, really, considering each life form has about three different frames of animation to their name. They may look static and primitive by today's standards, but compared to your effortless comings and goings on your gravity-defying jetpack, they have a surprising sense of physicality, each one seething and teeming in short, sharp bursts of slideshow-like movements as you glide by.
There are deeper questions the game asks about our place in the world and what kind of impact we're having on the natural environment, but you can just as easily play it as a kind of easy-going, alien basketball gardening game, like me, and have a grand old time regardless. It works both ways if thinky-thoughts aren't your bag, especially if you end up playing it in a turkey-induced food coma over the holiday season. The red caverns of Mars might not seem like the ideal holiday destination away from today's swell of big blockbuster games, but this chilled out horticultural tour might surprise you.