The best Wii U game this year didn’t come from Nintendo.

More than any other recent Wii U release — and maybe any since Nintendo Land at launch — Affordable Space Adventures uses the GamePad right. While Nintendo relegated the touch-screen, wireless behemoth to the role of a horn (OK, and a second screen/mini-map) in Mario Kart 8, Danish developer KnapNok Games, along with Sweden’s Nifflas, went much deeper. Working together, they managed to turn the GamePad into the living, breathing heart of a hunk-of-junk spaceship, and it’s an absolute joy to behold.

That engine noise

Affordable Space Adventures had me hooked the moment my engineer (my 12-year-old son) cranked up the fuel engine on our tiny, beat-up spaceship for the first time. It sounded more like a recently reclaimed 1970 Oldsmobile than something suited to space travel, and it made me grin like an idiot.

As we prepared to set off into the unknown, my son took charge of the engine room — armed with the Wii U GamePad, which was slowly blinking back to life while the ship’s computer rebooted — while I was in the cockpit, beeping the horn impatiently. I could picture myself rooting through the glove box for something to eat while I waited for our bumbling space adventure to begin. It set the tone perfectly for what proved a brilliantly quirky little action-puzzler.

Think, don’t shoot

Set in the aftermath of an ill-fated interplanetary tourist trip, Affordable Space Adventures pits your crew — of one, two, or three members — against an increasingly hostile planet, armed with … well, not a lot. The more players on the crew, the more the jobs are shared out. We played with just the two of us, so I was in charge of moving around and aiming while my son dealt with the technical side of things, including controlling the engines, the anti-gravity generator, and the heat shutters. He loved it because he had complete control of whether we could actually move or not, and he got the chance to (repeatedly) cut the engines at really inopportune moments. … Oh, how I laughed as our ship blew up for the hundredth time.

Over the course of the game, many of your spaceship’s core functions reboot, adding flares, an electric engine, landing gear, and a scanner to your non-lethal arsenal and keeping gameplay fresh. The scanner is particularly vital to your survival as it lets you discover what the planet’s other inhabitants (the mechanical ones, at least) are most sensitive to. If a sentry bot can sense sound, you’ll need to figure out a way to cut the engines and sneak past. If they can sense heat, you might need to close the heat shutters and hope you don’t combust. Having no weapons forces you to use the ship’s other, more mundane capabilities in smart ways.

It's scary being this small.

Above: It’s scary being this small.

Image Credit: KnapNok Games

The best $20 you’ll spend on the eShop

Affordable Space Adventures starts off really gently, carefully introducing new concepts and new challenges, but by the end, the puzzle difficulty ramps up a lot. You can actually switch the difficulty level on the fly, which is a thoughtful inclusion in a game where players of differing skill levels might be working together.

Splitting up the ship’s tasks — into engineer, pilot, and navigator — forces you to really collaborate, and that’s where the game shines most. Carefully talking things through invariably leads to heated debate, then much hollering and despair before you can finally celebrate — with high-fives all round — nailing a particularly tough section.

Affordable Space Adventures is worth the $20 eShop purchase just to experience how well the GamePad can actually work when it’s used thoughtfully. The fact that the game will make you think, scream, and laugh alongside your friends and family only sweetens the deal.

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