Spaceflight Simulator Review: The Final Frontier? Not Quite.

When Drew and the Couch Soup Crew (Crewtons? Crewshions?) flicked across the early access code and press kit for Štefo Mai Morojna's space-faring rocket building simulator Spacflight Simulator, it's fair to say I was unsure whether I was going to enjoy this game.

The press kit makes the game seem like something that would interest me at its face value. I enjoyed messing around in Kerbal Space Program and did physics as my "fun" subject in year 12 (mistake), and this game purports to be a realistic simulation of space travel.

However, I'm always hesitant about reviewing or talking about games that are in early access. Not only do you get to be an unofficial QA tester with all the perks (I'll let you know when I think of some) without that pesky issue of being fairly compensated for your work, any criticism of the game could end up being invalid once the game releases.

Before I started playing, I did a bit of a dig around about the mobile versions of the game, and my gut feeling was that the game looks a little light on features and not worth playing.

I've spent a couple hours with the game so far. And you know what? Sometimes you should totally trust your gut feeling.

Screenshot of Spaceflight Simulator game settings
Welcome to all those Independence Day fans.

First thing to address with this game is that a whole bunch of features that are listed on the menu and game options just simply aren't there right now. Career mode? Listed but not there. Sandbox mode? Listed, not there. Different types of solar systems? Absent.

So yeah, there are not a lot of options to play at the moment, but again it's good old early access. Credit where it’s due, the game does have some pretty good tutorials that walk you through orbiting, docking and the moon quite well.

Screenshot of Spaceflight Simulator tutorial menu choices
The only tutorials the game has... and non to help you actually launch off the ground.

Unfortunately, there’s nothing to help you get off the ground. I had to look up a YouTube tutorial on how to turn the engines - never a good sign for any game where the player needs to resort to YouTube to find out how to start playing.

Early access stumbles aside, is the game worth your time and money? Well, let's dive in further.

Visually, it's not too impressive, but the simple graphics and textures create a nice underdog fledgling rocket scientist feel to it. I'm not going to kick the game's teeth in because it's not running 4K, 60 frames per second. I'm more interested in the nuts and bolts of the gameplay mechanics.

The gameplay is split into two distinctive parts: the building of the rocket and the launching of the rocket. If you’re anything like me most of your early launches are going to be an exciting start and ending with a fiery crash resulting in yet another budding astronaut life snuffed out.

Image from meme from the Simpsons showing a distraught crowd pointing with the caption 'He's already dead'
The other astronauts watching one of my launches.

At the building stage for the rocket, the building tools are pretty basic. Don't get me wrong, they’ve got an extensive range of little bits and bobs to stick on your rocket, and it’s relatively easy to cobble something together. The grid and symmetry tool are both welcome and useful to help construct the rocket of your dreams.

However, the components you're using to build this astronaut execution device only have a little text description when you hover over the part. There's no clear explanation for what they do, although some are obvious (fuel tanks, engines, etc.). Some could really benefit from a bit more explanation of when and how these parts are used.

For the launch, once I figured out how to actually launch the thing, the controls are relatively straightforward and easy to use. Press a couple of buttons, toggle a key switches and you are flying a rocket my friend. The map screen is a great tool to plan your journey across the stars using the projected trajectory. In my case it was good to plan where I’d be sending the (hypothetical) salvage crews once the rocket smashed into the Earth.

Screenshot from Spaceflight Simulator showing Mars and the orbits of the rocket and Phobos.

Also, there's something incredibly therapeutic about scrolling out and getting a true sense of the relative size of the planets compared to the vast expansive solar system itself. Brings a bit of perspective to compare the insignificance of the rocket with the grand scope of everything. A little bit of existential dread about our place in the world as well but who hasn’t had that from time to time?

Unfortunately, the game isn't all peaks. There's one undeniable fact that the game can't hide from even, in the depths of deep space: this game just doesn’t make me feel anything when I play it. The menus are bland, the art is basic—the entire presentation for this game just falls flat. Nothing the game did was presented in a way that conveyed the inherent wonder of space travel.

This is space we’re talking about, something our best minds understand very little about. It’s vast and majestic and goddamn terrifying in its scope and none of that comes across when I’m travelling through it in this game.

In Spaceflight Simulator, there's just no outer context to keep me invested in the success or failure of these rockets. No goals like colonising the Moon, or reaching the next solar system or even just not killing your astronauts. We never get to see the engineers or astronauts we're working with, and there are no buildings to upgrade or research to do.

It's pretty much summed up like this: I built this rocket with as much fuel and thrusters as I could and launched it. I reached space, saw on the map all the far flung planets that looked identical that I would maybe reach one day and just couldn't see the point.

Image of two astronauts and their rocket in space in the game Kerbal Space Program.
Kerbal Space Program is Spaceflight Simulator's main competition.

No game is released in a vacuum, and we really have to look at the other competition on the market in order to make an informed recommendation. Obviously, the colossus blotting out the sun on the horizon is Kerbal Space Program. Some of you would say this is an unfair comparison considering the sizes of the development teams. However, Kerbal has pretty much everything Spaceflight is missing and it’s only $30 more.

There's an early access roadmap where the developers could have shown how they plan to build up the game to rival Kerbal. Unfortunately, they should rechristen it in memory of the Talking Heads because it's pretty much a road to nowhere.

It's a little concerning for me because if I had bought this game at early access (regardless the price), I'd want to know the developer has a plan to get the game from early access to a full blooded release. 

Marketing image promoting the release and updates to BioWare's Anthem.
Totally unrelated picture of the ultra successful MMO Anthem that's totally still playable.

Although even the best laid plans can go awry as Bioware has taught us time and time again.

Overall, Spaceflight Simulator is a competently made game, but there was just nothing the game put in front of me that made me want to keep playing. It didn’t hook me in and in the face of such strong offerings from its competitors, mainly Kerbal Space Program, I just can't recommend this game at its current state.

But, again, this is early access, so who knows? By the time the game actually releases it could be about you building a rocket to escape the Mecha-Stalin v. Mothra global war and gathering the best glam rock legends of the galaxy to free the Earth… hold on I'd better write that down. 

What keeps you invested in games like Spaceflight Simulator and Kerbal Space Program? Let's chat in the comments about what makes a truly great rocket-building game.

Allowing Cowboy Bebop to Evolve

Does this new live-action Cowboy Bebop from Netflix still preserve the unique style and feel fans love from the anime series? Or is it something altogether new?

Classified in genres like neo-noir and Space Western, the Cowboy Bebop hit the Japanese anime scene in 1998 to both critical acclaim and commercial success. When it became part of Cartoon Network's Adult Swim lineup in 2001, it gained a solid fandom in the West, too. Creator Shinichirō Watanabe has been behind several hit anime productions, but Cowboy Bebop is his signature work and biggest global success. While fans would have loved to have more than the 26-episode series, Watanabe did state that he did not want the series to go on for years. He had a specific ending in mind, which was ultimately the ending that made it into the anime.

Spike Spiegel from the Cowboy Bebop anime series
Spike Spiegel from the Cowboy Bebop anime series in 1998 was voiced by Kōichi Yamadera in the original Japanese and by Steve Blum in the popular English dub.

When I heard that Watanabe was a creative consultant in Netflix's live action Cowboy Bebop revival, I was hopeful that creator and writer Christopher Yost and directors Alex Garcia Lopez and Michael Katleman would honor Watanabe's vision and maybe add in some things that didn't make it into the anime. My hope grew when I learned that Yoko Kanno and the Seatbelts were back together to do music for the series.

But I was worried... 

Fans like me are attached to the anime series because of its singular combination of characters, visuals, music, dystopian sci-fi, and a noir/Western blend of storytelling. It's a one-of-a-kind experience. And I kept hearing people around me who had already decided, without even seeing the show, that Spike and Faye were miscast.

So I prepared myself mentally... 

I reminded myself that this isn't going to be my Bebop from two decades ago. It can't be, and, honestly, it shouldn't be. The anime series is a unique experience that can't be replicated. It was perfect as it was, and it will always be something I go back to and enjoy.

Ein on the Bebop
Ein on the Bebop

I adopted the mindset that the live-action Bebop would be an evolution, not a retelling. It may tell some of the same stories and have many of the same characters. But, it will be its own thing, and its quality and value should be evaluated independently, not held in comparison to the anime. That's the approach I've taken with Dune recently, too. It freed my mind to experience the new creation as its own experience that's inspired by the original work but not seeking to duplicate or replace that work.

The result now that I've seen it? I'm in love. Like... totally heart-eyed emoji in love. 😍

Netflix's Cowboy Bebop hits all the right notes for me. 

While I'm still only about 80% happy with how the story has evolved from the anime, the overall experience has me enthralled. The music sparks nostalgic feelings throughout each episode. John Cho absolutely rocks as Spike Spiegel, and his performance is easily my favorite part of the series. Mustafa Shakir as Jet is perfect, with Jet's character being the most faithful to the anime. And Daniella Pineda as Faye works perfectly for how this series has evolved that character, making her more grounded and sensible than her anime counterpart.

Faye (Daniella Pineda), Spike (John Cho), Jet (Mustafa Shakir), and Ein

As for the story, to make it cohesive, Yost chose to reimagine almost all the familiar bounty hits we encounter in Season 1 as part of a larger story that ties back to the Red Dragon Crime Syndicate. As a result, Spike is continuously forced to face his past as a Syndicate hitman, even when his old Syndicate partner Vicious isn't around. This cross-connecting and continuity resolve the issues that Watanabe had in his series with the bounty hunting being episodic adventures loosely connected by the main characters and the mysterious underlying story of Spike and Vicious. Watanabe's structure left his series open to continue (if he ever wanted to), but at the risk of becoming formulaic.

A flashback of Julia and Spike
A flashback of Julia and Spike (a.k.a. Fearless).

The cross-connected stories also make this new series much easier to follow than its anime counterpart. This is where I have to admit that I didn't connect to the Cowboy Bebop anime when I first saw it. I liked the story of Spike, Julia, and Vicious, and I cried at the end of "Hard Luck Woman." But it took asking friends questions and rewatching the episodes a few times to understand the world and to follow everything they talked about. In contrast, I think this evolution from Netflix makes it easier for a new audience to get into Bebop and to engage with the characters and story.

It's definitely an evolution, though...

The most common thing I've heard negative about the Netflix series is that it's "not Cowboy Bebop." What they really mean is that it's not the anime series. I feel like this type of criticism is short-sighted and not open to the idea of allowing the story to evolve or be told in a different way. I don't think it's reasonable to say, "If it's not like the original, it's crap." Is it, though? Wouldn't an exact match just be... boring?

I can empathize, though. If someone is looking to experience exactly what they experienced in the anime, they may be disappointed. Episodes 1-8 are definitely not what the anime was. Instead, they feel like Yost called in Guy Ritchie and Robert Rodriguez to consult, appealing to fans of their films (like myself). But maybe that was the natural path for Bebop to follow since Watanabe drew inspiration from some of the same places as Ritchie and Rodriguez. Ritchie stated in a 2008 interview that Sergio Leone has been an influence on his filmmaking, and Bebop is often associated with the Spaghetti Western genre that Leone is famous for. Rodriguez has cited influences from John Carpenter and Quentin Tarantino whose combined film credits have subtle reflections throughout the Cowboy Bebop anime.

Episodes 9-10, though, follow a style that's closer to Watanabe's original work and tell a backstory that fans have been eager to see for two decades. They feel like a hybrid of Cowboy Bebop and Blade Runner, a franchise in which Watanabe created the anime short Blade Runner: Black Out 2022.

A flashback of Fearless (Spike) and Vicious being debriefed by their Syndicate boss after a hit.

The most notable and, perhaps, the best overall change to the story in live-action is getting more character development for Julia and Vicious. Julia has a fully fleshed-out story from the start, and we learn that Vicious has a more concrete motivation for his actions. I won't say more about that to avoid important spoilers, but suffice it to say Elena Satine (Julia) and Alex Hassell (Vicious) take those characters to the next level in their performances. Julia's story at the end of the season, though, is part of that 20% I am still not sure I'm happy with. It's still very new to me, so I'm hoping it will grow on me after some rewatching.

Adding to what I've mentioned so far, here are some other ways that Cowboy Bebop has evolved with this new series:

Genre shift -- The first eight episodes trim back the original neo-noir elements from the anime, shifting more heavily toward the cyberpunk style that was more of a backdrop in the original series. Season 1 also minimizes the themes of loneliness and just scraping by, which were big throughout the anime. In place of those themes is a heavier emphasis on each main character "carrying that weight" of their respective pasts while seeking connection and trust with this new Bebop family.

Rebalance of comedy and drama -- The anime was a drama with some added humor, which is how Watanabe envisioned it. The first 8 episodes of the Netflix series boosts the humor factor, adding in more comedic moments, even during action scenes.

Cowboy Bebop clock showing 15 hours
Clocks across the solar system in Cowboy Bebop use 15-hour cycles instead of the 12-hour cycles of Earth.

Alternating pace -- The first eight episodes of the new series click off at a steady pace, saving the long, dramatic camera shots to slow music (a staple of the anime) for the last two episodes of the season. Those who like the slower pace may feel like those early episodes are rushed. I wonder if it's an effort to pack in as much as they could in Season 1. With the Netflix episodes being 45 to 60 minutes each, a single live-action episode is like watching three of the anime's 24-minute episodes in one chunk.

Dialog drives things forward -- The new series develops a lot of the story and characters through clever dialog. Occasionally, that dialog is delivered at a break-neck pace, usually to a humorous effect. The way dialog was woven into each scene reminded me a lot of Guy Ritchie's films. I'm always hungry for engaging and memorable dialog, and this show definitely delivers!

Gren from Netflix's Cowboy Bebop
Mason Alexander Park plays Gren in Netflix's Cowboy Bebop, a character who has been reimagined for this adaptation.

Gender and race switches -- Some of the characters who were male in the anime series have a different gender identity in the Netflix series. Also, the casting for the new series adds more racial diversity across all the characters.

Sexuality shift -- The new series shows a future where humans accept gender and sexuality differences as normally as they might accept differences in hairstyles and clothing. This manifests in several scenes and in characters like Gren, Faye, Spike, and the nice woman on the bus (you'll know what I mean once you see it).

Language shift -- The new series is loose with profanity. For a Western audience, you might say it has a language profile that matches the maturity level of its other content (violence, sexuality, etc.). 

Quick note for fans looking for Radical Edward and haven't seen the show yet: Be patient! She'll be in there, just not much, and her appearance is more of a tease for Season 2. I love Ed so much and I look forward to seeing more!

I sincerely hope that others, especially long-time fans, give this new Cowboy Bebop a chance. I think it's brilliant and evolves the story and characters in good and interesting ways. Plus, the Season 1 ending changed the game from what we're used to knowing about the story, and it's kind of exciting not knowing what's going to happen next!

Have you checked it out yet? What do you think of the series? And have you spotted all the fun Bebop and non-Bebop Easter eggs throughout? Let's jam in the comments!