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  • Writer's pictureNate Hermanson

REVIEW: Lucas Pope's silly community center work sim Mars After Midnight demands to be let into your Playdate library

After spending the last month getting up close and familiar with the Playdate, I've come away with a few key thoughts. 1) Dang, this thing is so cool, and more people should give it a shot. 2) Creativity thrives within the limitations of the system. 3) The physicality of cranking adds so much more to a game's experience than you could imagine.

Mars After Midnight, the latest game from critically acclaimed developer Lucas Pope, embodies all three of those core tenets. Making great use of the Playdate's most unique feature, the crank, to open up a door flap and find some alien staring back at you never gets old.

You won't want to slam your door flap in the face of this Playdate hall-of-famer.

An in-game screenshot of Mars After Midnight. From a first-person perspective, a tentacle grasps a calculator and looks out a small hole in a door. The calculator reads: 92+98. On the other side of the door, an alien with a twinkling eye and feather-like scales waits to see if it is allowed entry.

​Just the Facts

Developer: Lucas Pope

Publisher: 3909 LLC

Platform(s): Playdate

Price: $6

Release Date: March 12, 2024

Review key provided by popagenda.

Simple, silly, heartwarming Martian support groups

Game developer Lucas Pope has only released two full games since 2013, but his impact on the industry is undeniable. He made that rare leap into the mainstream with indie darling Papers, Please. Then came the monumental, genre-defining mystery game, Return of the Obra Dinn. Now he's brought his third major release exclusively to Panic's niche crank-based handheld. If you needed a statement about how much developers believe in the creative possibilities with this new hardware, you've got it.

In Mars After Midnight, you take on the role of an alien running a community support center on an off-colony settlement on Mars, open from midnight to 6 a.m. Through a series of hosted events, you bring together niche communities of Martians and help them in a variety of ways. Your offerings run the gamut: a Cyclops Anger Management group, a Flinching Fellowship, a meeting for the Cracked Skull Crew. Every session organized in your support center is hosted by your robotic roommate, and at the end of the night, the two of you take note of who else needs help in the colony, plan your next event, and then go back to your tiny box apartment to dream about the future.

As the doorman (door-alien?), you try to suss out whether or not every person who comes knocking on your door is meant to be at the session or not. Using a variety of tools, simple tests, and sneaky gimmicks, you'll identify like-minded folks and grant them entry. For example, the Cyclops Anger Management group has you looking for guests sporting one eye and a frown — obviously. The Boxing Brush Up meeting? Use boxing arms attached to your door to swing at everyone who comes knocking. If they dodge, let 'em in. If they don't? Oops, a few bruises and a rejection, because clearly they're in the wrong place.

This alien-robo duo spends every day helping new Martians, and once they've helped everyone... they move on to a new settlement to do it all again, however and whenever they can.

There's no dialogue in the game. In fact, it barely uses any words at all, opting to communicate much information besides its tutorializing with simple visual cues instead. It's minimal, a little silly, but heartfelt. Mars After Midnight is a game entirely focused on helping others as much as possible — on helping people find community, through slightly extreme means at times — and it's exactly the kind of narrative we'd love to see more of.

When the game was announced, Pope said he hoped to make a game his kids would enjoy, and by reaching for such broad appeal, it makes for his most approachable game yet. Silliness goes a long way around here, and gamers of all ages will enjoy things like... waiting for aliens to toot for entry into the Farty Party and using a telescope to identify clogged pores on Martians for the Clogged Pore Clinic. I laughed harder at this game than many of the "funny" games people champion. Lucas Pope first crafted one of the best mystery games and now has brought slapstick back to gaming — and I'm here for it.

An in-game screenshot of Mars After Midnight. We're looking at the "Off Colony Community Support Center", as indicated by a marquee above a secure metallic door. In said door, a small peep hole can be seen with three eyes staring back. Off to the right of the door, a display can be seen that outlines the activities waiting inside. It reads: "Tonight 1 AM to 6 AM, Cyclops Anger Management, Refreshments provided". Visuals depict that one-eyed beings with a frown are allowed in, but not two eyed beings or one eyed beings with a smile. A drawing of a pie can also be seen.

Papers, Please + crank - complexity = fun

When Pope first pitched the game, he called it a Papers, Please-lite experience — and that's about the best way to summarize Mars After Midnight. Take the routine-driven, work-simulating, entry-guarding gameplay of Papers, Please, and strip away all of the nitty-gritty complexity and replace it with intuitive silliness, and you've got Mars After Midnight.

Your main gameplay loop consists of minding the door and deciding who to let in or reject based on the day's requirements, tidying up and resetting the refreshments table as each new person is admitted, and planning future sessions at the end by buying new devices you need and marketing in the relevant parts of the colony. Rinse, repeat, do it about 20 times, and finish the game in about three hours.

The first phase gives you the bulk of your crank action. You flip open the peephole on the support center's door with the crank and use some combo of buttons to validate that this person is meant to be there: let them in if they are, and flip the cover back down if they aren't. It's a simple use for the crank, but I find the best games on the Playdate don't overcomplicate things and find fun ways to blend the use of the crank with more traditional gameplay systems. That's exactly what Pope manages here, using the crank in a smartly intuitive way but not letting it take over the experience.

Each new session's puzzle is never too complicated, making it fairly easy to figure out when to let people in and when to slam the door flap in their face. I truly enjoyed some of the more playful gimmicks, like the "Shy Smiler Mixer," which has you yanking the peephole open and then slowly closing it to see if the shy person waiting on the other side cracks a smile once they think they're concealed.

That's about as complicated as it gets. Every session will make you smile, although it's more about that initial novelty of the gimmick, which slowly wears off. You've got to admit six people into each new session, and by the time you've granted entry to a few guests, you're feeling just about ready to move on and see what kind of shtick you'll be employing next.

Every so often, the folks you let through will rummage around the free refreshments table. They'll toss the table of various foods and plates and utensils willy-nilly, and you'll have to both clean up after them and reorganize things back to how you initially set it up. It's a simple game of moving blocks and a strangely accurate simulation of piling up a mess of plates to wipe a table down, but it does offer a minor distraction in between letting people in and out. Keeping it tidy and organized gets you tips, so there is some pressure to get this done right, especially as folks start banging on the door ready for entry. (It also features another use of the crank: turning it with plates in your hands will allow you to sweep the table of crumbs and mess.)

At the end of each session, you get a fun bit of management by choosing your next session and making sure the right people hear about it. You've technically got decisions to make here and money to spend, but if you're not making silly mistakes, it's little more than a more engaging level-select in this phase.

All these systems seem shallow in isolation, but when stitched together by Pope, feel like cohesive cogs in a genuine work cycle. What Pope has accomplished all throughout his career is transporting players into a very specific place where they live out a niche purpose, all amidst relatively mundane gameplay systems. And thanks to the silliness of Mars After Midnight, the humdrum routine feels so much more enjoyable, especially through its simplification. It may lack that complexity and tension of ever facing any real failure, but it's fun. And we could all use some more fun.

An in-game screenshot of Mars After Midnight. It depicts the game's colony map, showing various districts of the city with various square markets identifying the remaining Martians who "need help" across the map. A big banner takes up the middle of the screen and reads: "60 martians still need help".

You're tellin' me a procedural generated this alien?

Pope makes the most out of the handheld's limited screen space and comes out the other end with one of the best-looking Playdate games I've played so far, one that emphasizes big and bold designs over complicated attempts at replicating the things that work with more bits and resolutions nearly five times as large.

Using procedural generation and handcrafting a giant toolbox of alien features, no two Martians you greet look the same, and each one is genuinely a delight to uncover every time. Fidget spinner eyes, literal button nose, big rectangle face, three mouths, all attached to a body made of tentacles. It's alarmingly charming, and across my entire playthrough, seeing genuinely unique Martians the whole time made it feel believable that I was on an alien planet.

Just as magical as crunching these fun design aesthetics down into a tiny 400x240 display are the ways developers for the system manage to squish complex audio design onto the handheld. Pope developed a full alien language here, delivered with a satisfying bit-crunched squeakiness that feels like it was produced using a stylophone. The musicality of these Martians, when paired with their strange looks, only enhances that alien quality. Mars After Midnight's got a pretty light soundtrack, but its plonky victory tunes always had me boppin' my head.

An animated GIF of the Playdate game Mars After Midnight. Two tentacle arms float in perpetuity, wiggling, above a messy table. A stack of bowls with a pie server can be seen stacked on the left and a pie, a few bowls, and a sign can be seen stacked on the right. Crumbs lay across the tablecloth and a sign pointing to the "session room" can be seen on the far wall.

Mars After Midnight is a more than worthy addition to Lucas Pope's legendary lineup, an excellent showcase of the kinds of creative concepts you can find on Panic's crank-driven handheld, and the kind of game you can place in nearly anybody's hands and have them walk away with a smile.

It's not quite the system-seller I expected it to be, but it's a great game nonetheless. All Playdate owners should let Mars After Midnight into their office, but even at its best, its limitations are obvious.

Video Games Are Good and Mars After Midnight is . . . GREAT. (8/10)

+ clever identification puzzles, an alien world that looks and feels like an alien world, a narrative all about helping others

- those clever puzzles lose their freshness quick, each individual gameplay system is way lighter than you realize, not quite the killer app the Playdate is looking for

The key art for Mars After Midnight. A crowd of faces can be seen, of aliens, robots, and humans. You see aliens with various numbers of eyes, horn noses, and various other unique visual designs. The scene is washed in a blue tone.

Thanks for reading this Video Games Are Good review. If you're interested in learning more about our review rubric, click here! Wanna join our Discord, where you can discuss reviews and get early views at upcoming articles? Click here! Thank you for supporting our coverage!

Want to see Mars After Midnight in action? Watch our past Twitch stream, where we played one hour of the game as part of our month-long coverage of the Playdate in April 2024.


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