Earth isn’t doing so well. Most of the planet is submerged underwater, and humankind is nowhere to be found. So when a new threat emerges, it’s up to some unlikely heroes—a pair of dolphins named Jupiter and Mars—to save the day. You can help guide them in their globe-trotting adventure in Jupiter & Mars for Meta Quest 2, which is out today for $14.99 USD.
The setting of Jupiter & Mars is meant to show what could happen if climate change is left unchecked in the real world. But developer Tigertron made sure to create an entertaining game around that message, too. You’re in control of both dolphins: Jupiter is represented from a first-person perspective, and Mars swims dutifully by your side, ready to act with the press of a button. Jupiter’s echolocation can reveal new paths within the ocean depths, while Mars’s ramming ability can help clear obstacles.
When creating the Quest 2 version of Jupiter & Mars, Tigertron took the opportunity to further refine the gameplay, resulting in improved navigation mechanics, new sea creatures to discover, and even a brand-new song for the soundtrack. According to Creative Director James Mielke, it was important for the studio to bring the best possible version of the game to a whole new segment of VR players.
We spoke with Mielke about what it was like to revisit Jupiter & Mars after its original release on consoles in 2019, a memorable moment he had with a legendary narrator and historian, and why the team considers this the definitive edition of the game.
Tell us a bit about Tigertron. How did you end up working in VR?
James Mielke: It goes back to my time making games in Japan, when I was a producer at Q Entertainment in Tokyo. We were known for embracing new technologies like motion control, portable handhelds, etc. So, a few years later when Tigertron was presented with an opportunity to work on a VR platform, it was a no brainer. We really wanted to do it because VR is a game changer. I personally love it. It’s a whole new way to play. You can really put players in a game like never before, so this was a technology we wanted to explore through game design.
What was the inspiration behind Jupiter & Mars?
JM: During the time I was living in Japan, a movie called The Cove came out, and it deeply impacted me when I saw it. Documentaries don’t usually make me cry, but The Cove and the director’s follow-up film, Racing Extinction, did. I was always passionate about marine biology and the ocean—I’ve been a certified scuba diver for 37 years now—so to see the way various nations like Japan still hunt intelligent creatures like dolphins was really disturbing to me. I immediately designed a game around two dolphins that explore the oceans. VR makes it possible for gamers to virtually dive in and explore our immersive underwater game world without the need for scuba gear.
What kind of research did the team do when creating the sea creatures and underwater environments?
JM: We did quite a lot, actually, but first and foremost we set out to make a fun and interesting game. We were later surprised to find out that a lot of the concepts and mechanics we designed actually had real-world equivalents—like acoustic harassment devices to repel sea life from scientific research areas—so that really enriched the things we were creating because it felt more authentic.
One of my in-laws is actually a marine biologist specializing in underwater noise pollution and its effects on sea life, so he was a great resource to bounce ideas off of. Another collaborator we met with in New York City is wildlife photographer and environmentalist Paul Nicklen—we showed him an early build of the game, and he came back to us with feedback on details like our 3D elder whale models and gave us insights only a knowledgeable, experienced expert in his field could provide. His SeaLegacy partner, Cristina Mittermeier, who is a renowned nature photographer, TED Talks speaker, and environmentalist, actually provides the game’s narration for us, and she really brings the story to life.
Of course, the game is still a sort of futuristic, sci-fi underwater fantasy adventure, so we took liberties and gave the dolphins powers and power-ups. It might not be immediately apparent, but Jupiter & Mars is really a Metroidvania-type game, which rewards exploration with abilities that unlock access to deeper, darker areas where you can find legendary creatures like the Kraken. But with Jupiter’s echolocation powers, you can always light the way, and with Mars’s companionship, you’re never alone. In a VR game where you’re surrounded by water and where it can become very dark, we felt it was important to have an AI-driven friend at your side and to be able to “see” in the dark. I think it’s a very interesting dynamic to play a single-player game while having two characters to control.
You even got in touch with David Attenborough at one point to possibly work on the game. What was that experience like?
JM: Well, when I was in Melbourne working on the original game, I spent a day one weekend at the local shopping center and hand-wrote a letter to Sir Attenborough. I figured he’d appreciate receiving a letter written by hand. I told him how I grew up on his nature specials, that my own kids were now watching them, and how we’d love to have his voice grace the game. He’d recently ventured into VR, narrated entire nature specials in 3D, and has also narrated things like Peter & The Wolf. Since he was embracing all of these cutting-edge technologies, I thought I’d write him a letter.
Graciously, he responded in a timely fashion, which is amazing enough because of how prolific he is, even in his ninth decade. But ultimately what he felt was that he should stick to documentary-style projects to ensure that no one ever confuses his work with fiction, and that anything he says is factually true, which is entirely fair.
I was so blown away to receive a letter from him, though, that I framed it and hung it on my wall.
What makes the Quest 2 version of Jupiter & Mars the definitive edition of the game?
JM: We’ve had a couple years of player feedback to reconsider how to better help players navigate an underwater world. We always wanted to avoid using Crazy Taxi-like arrows to guide the player, as that felt like an inelegant solution for dolphins to use. Instead we use Jupiter’s echolocation to light the way and certain colors and visual elements to draw people’s attention one way or another. That said, with time and hindsight we were able to refine this so that guidance is clearer, objectives are less obtuse, and certain HUD elements are now easier to read. So it’s easier to get up to speed, immerse yourself in the game world, and spend less time fussing around.
Also—and this may seem minor but it’s a big deal for me since music is integral to the projects I work on—in the original version of the game, we weren’t able to license a song we really wanted for the epilogue, so we commissioned a track that offered a similar vibe, but felt more like a placeholder than something I was really happy with. So for the Quest 2 version of the game, we enlisted my friend, Japanese techno legend and DJ Ken Ishii, to compose a new ending track just for the game. It’s a super beautiful song called “Blue Life,” and while we primarily use the ambient break in the song for the epilogue, the full song that he did is an astounding composition that’s a little outside of his usual body of work, which makes it extra fascinating. He's planning to release the full track, and maybe some remixes, in the future, so I hope everyone checks it out.
Why did you want to go back to make these improvements years after the original release on PSVR?
JM: Because we always wished we had more time to work on the original version. The great part about having the game out in the wild during the pandemic these past couple of years is that we received a lot of great feedback we couldn’t have had prior to the release of the PSVR version. I wouldn’t call it a beta version by any means—I think what we achieved in the time we had, and on the budget we had, is pretty impressive, and you rarely see a VR game of this scale. But with enough hindsight, you can always improve things given enough time and resources.
In my opinion, time is the greatest asset a game creator can ask for, and that’s especially true for a small developer like us. Jupiter & Mars is our baby. It’s very important to us, and we want the game to reach a lot of people, so we always want to give people the best version we can produce. To be able to tell people “Jupiter and Mars ride again on Quest” is a really happy thing for us.
Did you face any technical challenges while optimizing the game for a mobile chipset? How did you overcome them?
JM: When we were originally developing this for PSVR, Sony announced the PS4 Pro halfway through our game’s development and wanted us to support that. And with PSVR itself being a new and emerging technology at the time, we were always developing for a moving target. That meant we had to hack a lot of things together to make them work on PS4/PS4 Pro. Taking a game that utilized all of that hardware horsepower and carrying that experience over to a mobile chipset was challenging to say the least. I wasn’t sure it could be done.
Fortunately, we had a few things going for us. The first is that our lead engineer is a flat-out wizard. He knocked down every obstacle that confronted him, and once he was able to get a few key things running on Quest 2, we knew that putting Jupiter & Mars on the system would be possible.
The second thing we had going for us—and this is a little unusual in an era of prioritizing graphics—is that we actually always wanted the game to be a little more minimal visually, so optimizing our visual style guide, reducing geometry, and cleaning other things up under the hood really helped reduce the demands on the chipset. Not only is the full game experience intact on Quest 2, it runs beautifully, too. I’m still amazed we got it done. That said, it’s mostly down to our lead coding wizard. He’s really the source of how this game got onto Quest 2, looking as good as it does.
What do you hope players take away from Jupiter & Mars?
JM: We’ll never make a game that qualifies as “edutainment.” That’s not our goal with any of our titles. We’re all gamers at Tigertron, and we want to make games like the ones we call our favorites, grew up with, and consider all-time classics. We want to make those kinds of games, but we also don’t feel the need to stick to an industry-proven formula or to make endless sequels. We’d prefer to make original titles you’ve never seen before. But as far as our desired takeaway from Jupiter & Mars, I’d hope that seeing familiar places in shocking new ways, like New York City or London submerged underwater, would be enough to make a gamer wonder, “Could this really happen?” And if they were to Google something like, “If all the ice caps melted, how high would the sea levels rise?” then we’ve achieved something that few nature documentaries could achieve in a similar way, and that’s to engage gamers into considering the world around them.
What’s next for Tigertron?
JM: We’ve got so many ideas up our sleeve, it’s hard to know which one is going to stick, but we have a lot of exciting opportunities and concepts going on that I hope we can announce sooner rather than later. We have one high-flying idea that I think would be an amazing VR showcase, but we’ll see how that goes. For now, it’s just really exciting to know that a whole new audience of VR gamers are going to be able to enter the watery world of Jupiter & Mars on Quest 2. To be able to play this anywhere, wirelessly, is going to be flat-out fantastic.
Discover the mysteries of the deep in the futuristic world of Jupiter & Mars on Quest 2 today.