I love finding clusters of games that are built around similar concepts but which differ in important ways. I’ve previously argued that good games are beacons in design space, pointing us to an area likely to have many other good potential games nearby - it’s fun to see it prove out.

Helldivers, for example, is a top-down co-op shooter starring space marines killing aliens and completing tasks on hostile worlds. It’s clearly a good game, but I’m not quite in the audience for it. The tone of Starship Troopers-like dystopian satire casting the players as obvious bad guys if you pay attention to the mission descriptions isn’t an appealing fantasy to me, and I dislike the way the game basically must be played online with strangers, especially when its mechanics (friendly fire, easy-to-alert enemy patrols, etc.) require coordination and cooperation between the players. I played it a bit with Senpai-chan, and when we screwed up near at the end of a mission in a way that delayed our escape shuttle, our online teammate team-killed us in order to safely escape themselves - and as far as I can tell, this was mechanically the correct choice to make. I’m not attacking this design - but I want to be clear it is not for me.

But there’s so much else about Helldivers’s theming and structure that is for me. I like twin-stick shooters! I like co-op! I like sci-fi! I like mission-based structure! If Helldivers let me pop the hood and tweak things, then - like Razbuten with Halo 2 - I’m sure Senpai-chan and I could have found a version of the game we both loved.

That’s not an option, so I’m glad there are other games exploring nearby regions of design space. There’s Battle Planet - Judgement Day, which casts the players as escaped criminals and has a more roguelike structure but otherwise hits a lot of the same beats - twin-stick co-op shooter about killing aliens and completing tasks on hostile worlds. I tried it, it was also clearly solid, but still not for me (I don’t find playing as a murderous criminal more appealing than playing as a fascist soldier, and roguelikes are the wrong kind of repetitive for me).

But now we’ve also got Space Pioneer - another top-down co-op shooter starring space marines killing aliens and completing tasks on hostile worlds. And this one finally tries a version of the formula that resonates with me. You don’t play as a bad guy. You don’t need to go online. Your progress is never lost. Gameplay varies at a good rate, with objectives that encourage you to change up your play style, weapon, and gear on a regular basis. It’s Helldivers with much more chill and that’s was I was looking for. I’ve barely put the game down since starting it.

Some might call Space Pioneer a Helldivers clone, but I wouldn’t. I like when games take inspiration from each other but don’t stop there, and bring their elements to new audiences.