July 5, 2000 - There were a lot of PC games released before IGNPC was conceived through the union of IGN and PC, and some of these games were so good and influenced the design of so many other games that they deserve a little space of their own on IGNPC. That's why we stopped by our old bud Tom Chick's house, woke him from his drunken slumber, wiped the crust out of his eyes, and asked him if he'd like to evaluate some of the PC gaming classics as compared with their contemporaries. He wittily replied, "Uh, sure," and thus PC Retroview was born.
M.U.L.E. is to gaming what Citizen Kane is to movies: everyone knows how great it is, but do you know anyone who's actually played it? You've all heard of it, but most of you (especially you twentysomethings) have never played it. I know I hadn't. But I'd heard enough about it that I was able to sing it's praises with the best of them.
"M.U.L.E.? Oh, yeah, that was a great game," I could say with a feigned air of certainty, "They don't make them like that any more. Yeah, M.U.L.E. was one of the all time greats." I would let my voice trail off as if I was wistfully recalling its greatness.
M.U.L.E.s are labor robots you use to extract resources from a distant planet. The game opens with four players dropped onto a colony and given a certain amount of time to make their fortunes before the ship comes back to pick them up. Electronic Arts published the game in 1982 for the Atari 800 and the Commodore 64. You probably don't have one of those lying around right now, which is why God made emulators. I played M.U.L.E. on a freeware emulator called Personal C64, which comes with this download courtesy of Home of the Underdogs, a great website for abandoned games you won't find in stores any more. Just unzip MULE.ZIP in a subdirectory and run MULE.BAT to start playing.
M.U.L.E. was created by one of the industry's strangest and most wonderful game designers. Dan Bunten is from Arkansas. If that weren't strange enough, he had a sex change operation and became a woman named Dani. When I first heard this, I thought it was one of those urban legends like John Romero dying in a car wreck or Derek Smart having a Ph.D. So I slinged some email around, tracing the friend of the friend of the friend, until I finally came to someone who knew Bunten. When I found out that, yes, it was indeed true that he had a sex change operation, I felt foolish and slightly dirty for having asked. Her web page, which is embarrassingly candid, alludes to failed marriages and hints at a sort of sad loneliness. When Bunten died of cancer in 1998, I was shocked: game developers aren't supposed to die! This industry is too young. Like anyone who goes through such an extreme medical procedure (she refers to herself as "reincarnated recently"), Bunten was obviously looking for something she didn't have. Did she ever find it? Did she die a happy person? Did she realize what she had accomplished with her superlative game designs? So as I play M.U.L.E. and all this comes to mind, there's an eerie irony in its 8-bit simplicity and CGA elegance.
Here's the thing about M.U.L.E.--no one else has made a game quite like it. It did not begin a genre. It did not spawn an army of clones. No one is describing games today as "it's like M.U.L.E. meets Diablo" or "it's like M.U.L.E. meets SimCity". It's one of those rare games that can't be described in the context of what we know today. People might say of Civilization: "they broke the mold after they made that one." But for M.U.L.E., they didn't even have a mold. For this reason alone, M.U.L.E. is worth playing on an emulator.
I suppose the most straightforward description of M.U.L.E. would be a supply and demand sim. Sounds dull, huh? But the fun in M.U.L.E. is the way you compete with the other three players, second guessing their intentions and trying to fake them out in tense real time auctions. There's no combat, but there is ruthless competition. There are random events that can turn the game around in an instant. A pirate raid at the wrong moment or an unexpected spike in Crystite prices will turn everything upside down. M.U.L.E.s go crazy and run off. Pestilence screws up food production. Sunspots and planetquakes and space gypsy in-laws are all ready to throw a monkey wrench into the works when you least expect it. This adds a delicious edge-of-your-seat suspense to the game. It also gives you plenty of convenient excuses if you lose.
Yes, the graphics are ugly. Atari 800 ugly. Commodore 64 ugly. Coyote ugly. But they're twenty years old, so what do you expect? They're at least functional, although it's pretty aggravating waiting for the blocky text in the news ticker to scroll. The sound, which only uses the PC speaker, is actually endearing; in this era of Redbook music and 3D positional hardware-accelerated audio, the bleeps and bloops are simple and effective. And the M.U.L.E. theme is downright infectious.
The interface is amazing considering that the game is played with a single joystick and keyboard shared between four players (the Atari 800 version required a joystick for each player). There are several times during the game you'd like to get information that's unavailable, such as what you have in your warehouse or the current price of a certain resource. But the game is still eminently playable by today's standards. In going back and playing old games, I find that the biggest obstacle isn't the primitive graphics; it's the bulky interfaces. But this isn't a problem with M.U.L.E., which plays as sleek as a Blizzard title.
Until you start to piece together the subtleties of the game, the AI provides a solid enough challenge. It will speculate in resources, buying low and waiting to sell high. It will muscle you out of choice territories. It will flood the market and keep prices from getting too high. It's particularly good at rearranging its production to make the most of the current economic situation. But eventually, it's pretty easy to hoard one resource (usually food) and control the game without the AI giving you much of a challenge.
But M.U.L.E. is clearly designed to be a multiplayer game. You might have a problem convincing your friends to play a hotseat strategy game with a single joystick (can't you get diseases that way?), especially when they hear the digital sound (doot doot doo doot) and see the graphics ("You're kidding, right?" one of my friends asked). Offer to buy the beer. Tie them to the chair if you have to. Threaten them at gunpoint. Yes, you heard me right -- I said, "threaten them at gunpoint". Playing M.U.L.E. against the computer is only a glimpse into what makes it great; playing it against other humans is one of those quintessential shoulder-to-shoulder gaming experiences right up there with the board game Risk, Soul Caliber, or nickel poker -- it transcends the medium.
And this is where M.U.L.E. is one of the all time great games, ultimately better than blockbuster runaway hits like Diablo or Civilization or Doom. As a multiplayer game, M.U.L.E. is more of a social experience than a game. The danger of computer gaming comes when it gives us too easy an avenue to retreat into ourselves. It's a rare and precious game, and the legacy of Dani Bunten, that is more about the people you're with rather than the game you're playing.
-- -- Tom Chick
It's rough and old, barely a step above ASCII text. Plowing through an emulator can be a handful if you're not used to it.
The graphics are strictly functional, although there are a few charming touches: the way spaceships land, the dejected Wumpus when you catch him, and the coltish M.U.L.E. gait.
You'll grow to love the game's theme once you get used to the fact that it's all in the PC speaker.
Some of the mechanics are still a little unclear and the interface swallows some information, but on the whole there's an amazing simplicity and elegance at work here.
Since the heart of the game is multiplayer, it's one of those timeless games for a group of friends to enjoy.
Should I Go Back and Play It?
Of course you should, especially if you can find some friends willing to go retro with you. Otherwise, it's an engaging curio.
|OVERALL SCORE (not an average)||9.0|