Kerbal Space Program is one of those games that, despite being out for several years now, I feel like it hasn’t really gotten the attention it deserves. While its goofy characters and cartoonish aesthetic might lead you to believe the game is simple, the truth is it offers one of the steepest learning curves of any sandbox game I’ve ever played. Today I want to give a general overview of KSP, to explain what it is, what makes it special, and why it’s built up such a dedicated fan base.
At its most basic level, the premise of Kerbal Space Program is simple. You’re placed on the planet Kerbin, populated by small green creatures known as Kerbals (naturally), and tasked with helping them run a NASA-style aerospace program. This includes everything from designing your own rockets and spacecraft to tracking celestial objects to eventually heading out and exploring the final frontier. Even though the current iteration of KSP does offer a decently thorough career mode it’s still at its heart a sandbox game – you’re given an assortment of parts and the tools to use them and beyond that you’re given the freedom to invent your own solutions to the game’s many challenges.
And make no mistake, the game is definitely challenging. Even though your Kerbal pals look like low-budget cartoon characters KSP takes a surprisingly realistic approach to celestial mechanics. Planets, moons, and your own spacecraft all follow the Newtonian laws of gravity, which means if you want to actually get anywhere you’re going to need to learn how actual orbital physics work and design a spacecraft that can go from pad to orbit under realistic constraints. This is one game where looking up Youtube tutorials isn’t only fair – it’s downright expected. Don’t be surprised if the first few (or first dozen!) rockets you build crash and burn without reaching their mark – this trial-and error approach is the cornerstone of how the game works.
It’s also why the game is so ridiculously satisfying. When you do finally reach low orbit for the first time, or execute your first in-space rendezvous, or land on a celestial body for the first time, you’re going to be filled with a terrific sense of pride and accomplishment. Hitting those milestones is HARD, and being able to meet that challenge simply tastes sweet. What’s more, those milestones get progressively harder at a very gratifying rate, so you’re always left with the sense of a well-won victory.
The scale of the game is also expansive. Thanks to the magic of procedural generation the game map is quite seriously an entire solar system, complete with 7 planets and 8(?) moons. All of these bodies are completely explorable – if you can build a hardy enough spacecraft and figure out the orbital mechanics to get you there. Much like with real-world space exploration, you have lots of different options for surveying these worlds – you can choose to build unmanned craft to explore cheaply and safely, or you can pick a handful of brave Kerbanauts to pilot a manned vessel to strange new worlds. You can opt to do basic flybys, establish a stable orbit, or even land on the surface to examine the world in fine detail. There’s a large collection of different science experiments you can perform at these places, garnering science points with which to research new spacecraft parts. Or you can forego all of that and simply scour the solar system searching for the plethora of Easter eggs the developers left behind.
Each approach has its own strengths and weaknesses, and you’re encouraged to experiment and figure out on your own what works best. The fan forums are chock full of amazing spacecraft designs, from gigantic orbiting capital ships to incredibly minimalist single-seat vessels.
When you do finally get tired of the base game, Kerbal Space Program also has a huge and very active modding community. These mods offer all sorts of things from graphical enhancements, to new spacecraft parts, to even whole new gameplay mechanics. In short, you’re never really going to run out of things to do with this game.
Kerbal Space Program has been a dear favorite of mine ever since the studio released the beta as a crowdfunding measure. It’s grown and expanded steadily since those early days in to an incredibly rich and challenging sandbox experience. Even if you choose to ignore the career mode there’s still so much to do – literally an entire star system to explore. If you’re a fan of spaceflight, sandboxes, exploration, or just love a good challenge, then you definitely need to give Kerbal Space Program a look.