Author’s Note: I paid for this game when it was in early access on Steam and have played early versions of the game before its full, version 1.0, release. Take that as you may.
Space exploration is one of the more enrapturing and romantic endeavors humankind has undertaken. I grew up fascinated with the idea of space exploration and am probably more comfortable with it than my parents. Today’s generation talks, almost casually, about sending humans off to other planets to explore. The difficulties of space flight were once immeasurable engineering challenges, but to a modern eye they now seem trivial. Kerbal Space Program taught me how hard it really is just to liftoff.
For a lack of a better description, Kerbal Space Program is a NASA simulator. In career mode you start exactly where NASA started in 1958: with some excited daredevil pilots and only the basic understanding that rockets should, hopefully, go up. You have the basic parts to begin with, a small capsule where the Kerbin pilot sits, a parachute to hopefully return said pilot safely, and a small choice of rockets. From there you begin to earn money, reputation, and most importantly, science points, which can unlock branches of a tech tree and open up more rocket parts. Along the way, you’re pushing the boundaries of space, reaching new heights, speeds, and eventually going into orbit and beyond.
The beauty of Kerbal isn’t its modes however. Career, Science (which is sort of a light Career mode), and Sandbox (which is the most fun) are just means to an end. The exploration of your imagination and pushing the boundaries of what you know is possible is the real meat to this meal. Building bigger rockets only to watch them fail miserably, while fun, gets stale at some point. Discovering how to send an astronaut into orbit and recover them safely is thrilling.
Launching a rocket into space to discover new worlds isn’t all there is. The planning and construction of your next rocket is my favorite part of the entire game. Watching your idea liftoff and explore the stars is exciting, but iterating, assembling, and watching that idea form is more fun. You’re given an item gallery from which you snap together fuel tanks, cockpits, booster rockets, wheels, wings, science gadgets, and anything else you might find useful for the journey. Each piece has its benefits and drawbacks and experimenting to find which is part best at which stage is half the fun.
Kerbal isn’t a perfect game however. It very much is a product of the PC, with complicated, deep, and often ill communicated controls. I only recently discovered that holding shift while scrolling the mouse wheel would zoom in and out during rocket construction. There are tutorials, but they still don’t teach every nuance there is to simulated space travel. While Kerbal does take an intensely scientific subject and place it gently in your hands, it doesn’t make it simple enough for just anyone to use.
I’m still finding myself having trouble with Kerbal. While I can make it to orbit on occasion, the Moon (or Mun as it’s spelled in the Kerbal universe) is very far off for me, to say nothing of reaching some of the other planets in the Kerbal solar system. I still have rockets that veer off wildly during takeoff and I don’t know why. I still find myself conceiving of implementing new ideas and the tiniest of changes to my designs. Kerbal Space Program stands out as both a serious physics simulator and a light-hearted stab at teaching the complications of space travel, and while it doesn’t get everything right, it’s still a game almost anyone can look at and understand. I’m still unable to make it all the way to the moon, but I’ll enjoy my time failing to do so.
All Systems Go
This is more than a physics simulator. Kerbal lets your explore science and space on your own terms. Those terms just so happen to end with fiery crashes and rocket explosions.