Retro Video Game Reviews: M.U.L.E. (NES)

Retro Video Game Reviews: M.U.L.E. (NES)

In 1990, Mindscape, with Ozark Softscape pitching in, released a port to the Nintendo Entertainment System called M.U.L.E. This was an economic simulation game with a science-fiction setting, and had been released on earlier versions for Atari 400/800 and PC. The colonization adventure became a pseudo-classic in its own right with its innovative functioning and whimsical elements, but would it hold up decades later?

Gameplay

The game of M.U.L.E. is participated in by up to four players, whether played by the computer or even up to a quartet of human beings, across a series of rounds in which each participant is trying to amass the most net worth; in this case, achieved by a combination of money, land, and goods, all gathered through strategy and planning across a series of rounds.

Each round has a few different phases, some of which are simultaneously participated in by all players, others of which are solely controlled by one at a time. The storyline is that a group of overseers are in charge of forming a productive, self-sustaining colony on the planet Irata, a planet name that is “Atari” spelled backwards. The first phase of every turn is for players to choose a plot of land each, in a sort of draft, by which a square advances across the landscape, one plot at a time, which each player able to claim one at the press of a button (or an arbitrary sudden designation, in the case of the A.I.).

Once a player has a blank plot of land, he or she can then go into the corral to outfit a M.U.L.E., which is a mule-looking robot, its acronym name standing for Multiple Use Labor Element. These devices can make a plot of land suitable for producing food, energy, or mining for smithore (or even crystite, a rarer, more valuable mineral found in the Tournament difficulty setting, the most difficult of three). The players, before the game began, got to choose a representative race of alien; these race choices, along with other factors (such as a one-unit bonus for having three of the same type in play, along with production bonuses for adjacent plots of the same type), influence how well the plots of land produce. They may have other traits, such as the humans having a built-in penalty by starting out with $400 less. The benefit of the league of legends level 30 account will be various for the players. Along with the pros, there should be proper information about the drawbacks of purchasing the account. It will enhance the skills and excellence of the players. 

Once all players have chosen a plot and designated their purposes, a series of simul-play screens play out, in which the players get to see how much their plots produce of food, energy, and mining material. Then, in the market, they can sell their excess or buy units they need more of. Ultimately, food is what your player-character needs to move across the field (such as moving a M.U.L.E. to a plot), energy is what the M.U.L.E.s need to function at each plot for turn, and the materials that are mined are solely for selling in the market to amass more money.

This, already, forms a complex economic simulation where not only is the base planetary market influenced by supply and demand of each item, but the variably manners in which the players interact make for potentially complicated series of exchanges and market fluctuations, resulting in a competitive, deeply tactical game.

If those aspects were not enough, though, there are even a few gameplay elements that are somewhat more fluid, flexible, and unpredictable. For example, each player’s turn may begin with a random event; this may be an action like roof repairs needed that cost money, winning the lottery to make money, or events that affect market prices, plot production, or other various potential effects. Also, human characters have an advantage in that, once they have assigned a M.U.L.E. to a plot and still have time on their shrinking-bar timer, they can try to catch a Wampus creature in the mountains (in a form of an intermittently blinking icon to run into in a certain timing) to earn extra money. Finally, for every player, if they can get to the Pub (one of the locations in the base where the player starts, along with the M.U.L.E. corral and corresponding doors for differing assignments for the device) to gain a somewhat random amount of money gambling, usually between $50 and $250.

Playing with computer players can be challenging in and of itself, and these randomization features can enhance replay value, but the true value of this game is in the intense head-to-head market action that multiple humans produce. Good luck to anyone, though, that is seeking friends to play a game of NES M.U.L.E. with.

Graphics

The appearances are blatantly de-emphasized, with this being a game stripped of all glamor in exchange for pure functionality. There are huge swaths of simple, blue background, especially pronounced in the market screen, which take place on this background while players control their alien-race avatar by walking them up or down, depending on whether they are buying or selling and at what price. Even the overworld is very plain, with its grid-based series of plots hardly different, just obvious in their crude difference; for example, the river spaces obviously have a blue line through them, useful because these are best for food-producing farms, while the one-colored mountains are for mining, and flat land used best for energy. Even the menu screens are stark and bleary. This is not really a visual game.

Sound

Oddly enough, M.U.L.E. features voice synthesizing in a couple parts, such as when the player selects their alien race and color (“… green Bonzoid!” and such). Otherwise, this is a fairly quiet game, with only the barest of sound effects used for the random planetary events (a thud for a briefly animated meteorite strike on the overworld, for example), with the highlight perhaps being the mechanical hee-haw of the M.U.L.E. units when they are selected. Only the Player Summary screen, which shows the net worth rankings (and even breaks them down by money, land, and goods on hand), has any background music, and this is simply standard, a two-layer beat that keeps things moving along. Other parts are even completely silent, perhaps appropriate for a distant, alien world. However it is examined, this cannot be considered among the premiere 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System video games in terms of its sound alone.

Originality

Like other ports to the NES, whether formerly arcade or PC or otherwise, M.U.L.E. is a video game that has an interesting history, formerly had some big fans, and holds its own unique placing in gaming history. There may have been a couple other economic simulation games on the NES, such as Wall Street Kid, but there was nothing quite like M.U.L.E. In addition to its planet name paying homage to Atari, other elements provide a hat-tip to a prior generation; for instance, the Wampus hunt references the generic Wumpus creature that appeared in a very early, text-based, BASIC-coded hide-and-seek PC game that was ported to other versions, including a popular-for-its-time website. The lead designer of the original version of M.U.L.E., Dan Bunten, was a gaming pioneer in his own right, cited as an influence on such figures as Will Wright, legendary creator of such franchises as SimCity and Spore.

Despite its whimsical touches, notably original format, near-uniqueness, place in electronic game history, and multi-player capability, M.U.L.E. does have its flaws, perhaps the most significant of which is that it is simply dull. Even for those brainy, one-dimensional, no-frills players for whom this sort of game appeals, M.U.L.E. runs the risk of growing stagnant and basically unexciting, not to mention how utterly unappealing it can be for mainstream gamers, despite its fairly intuitive interface. This intergalactic colonial quest mines three stars out of five from the Irata mountain range.

Janice
Janice Reyes is a hardworking content writer who loves to experiment with the new gadgets and beauty products that are there in the market. This way she is capable of distinguishing what is best for her readers.

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