All right guys, everyone sing along:
M.U.L.E. and I have a different backstory than all of the games I’ve reviewed thus far. In contrast to all these games that our family possessed since before I could remember, I didn’t discover M.U.L.E. until well into high school in the late 1990’s, when the internet was still fresh and new and mostly made up of Geocities sites filled with animated GIFs and visible site counters and guestbooks and blocks of Times New Roman text as far as the eye could see. I don’t remember exactly how or where I learned about M.U.L.E., but I’ve been playing it on emulators since I learned about it and have yet to play it on an actual Atari machine. The point is, the first time I played this game was not as a child, but as a late teenager, which is all for the best, because otherwise this review may have been tainted by the possible memory of a five-year-old self trying to wrap his poor little head around what is going on in this game and getting frustrated, and that would have been a downright shame.
You see, M.U.L.E. isn’t just a good game. It isn’t just a great game. It is quite possibly the best Atari game of all time, and in my opinion, one of the best games ever made, period. And I can say that without the benefit of deep nostalgia glasses (well, I suppose it was still more than fifteen years ago, so there’s a little bit of nostalgia), unlike, say, Pitfall II or Ballblazer.
Let’s start with the easiest part to go over: the music. When that theme song started playing, I knew that I would love this game, even if it were otherwise entirely terrible, on the merit of that song alone. It’s catchy, it’s got a good beat, it’s not just a repurposed classical piece of music like so many of its contemporaries…it’s wonderful all around. Just play the video at the top of this post one more time and see if it doesn’t bring at least a hint of a smile to your face.
M.U.L.E. has three difficulty levels: Beginner, Standard, and Tournament, and for the purposes of this review I’ll be looking at the Tournament level (the differences among the three will be discussed later on in this review). The premise of the game is that four different aliens have been commissioned by The Galactic Federation (how come it’s always a Federation in space? Sure, you get a few Alliances or Empires here and there, but it’s almost always a Federation. Where are the Space Kingdoms, or Commonwealths, or Fiefdoms, or whatever? Come on, people, let’s get creative!) to colonize the planet Irata (a meaningful ananym if there ever was one). The colony ship leaves you to your own devices for twelve months, after which it will return and crown a First Founder, depending on which colonist performs the best in the interim. Each player picks an alien species, from humanoid to robot to an E.T. ripoff to basically Pac-Man to some other species that are probably references to something (the choice is mostly for aesthetics, though some start with more or less cash than the others), and off you go!
The game consists of three basic phases during each month. First, the Land Grant phase, where the game scrolls quickly through all the available land plots. Simply hit your trigger as soon as the plot you want is highlighted and it’s yours. If someone beats you to it, then it’s theirs! If the game has gone through all available plots and you never hit the trigger, then sucks to be you! No free land this turn, bucko! Sometimes there is also a land auction after the grant phase, where a plot of land will go on the auction block (the controls for which I’ll go over in a minute). This can be useful to get a leg up on the competition, especially in the early game where production is still at a minimum, but be careful; you don’t want to pay too much for a useless plot of land (they figure out to be about $500 in your net worth regardless of how much you paid for it). Plots of land produce more resources if they’re contiguous with other plots that you already own and/or producing similar resource types, and certain types of land are more or less likely to produce corresponding resource types.
Speaking of resources, there are four in the game: Food (which is used to determine how long your turn is during the second phase), Energy (which determines how productive all your other plots are), Smithore (which you can sell to the store so they can make more M.U.L.E.s), and Crystite (which is just a cash crop) Each resource is most plentiful on certain terrain types: food grows best in the river valley, energy is best produced on flat land, and smithore is best mined from mountains. Crystite is a special case: normally, there are three plots (to start with) that have a high concentration of Crystite, with those surrounding it having medium, then low concentrations. You can’t tell which plots of land contain it just by sight, though; you have to take a soil sample of a plot and bring it to the assay office, where they’ll tell you what the Crystite concentration of said plot is, which eats up precious time.
Some of you may be asking at this point, “Well, that’s all well and good, but you still haven’t told me what the heck a M.U.L.E. is! Galdern it to shootin’ flippin’ purgatory, I want to know!” First of all, language! Second of all, the M.U.L.E. comes into play during the second phase of each turn, where each player gets to decide which plots of their land are producing which resources. Lesser games might just have you point-and-click (or whatever the equivalent of that was back in the 80’s) from a menu or map, but M.U.L.E. takes it one step further in what I consider to be one of the defining elements of the game that takes it from being a pretty good economic game into something a lot more fun and sublime.
You begin this phase in the general store, where you have to buy a M.U.L.E. (which stands for Multi-Use Labor Element and, as far as the graphics go, seems to be a smaller repurposed AT-AT from Star Wars), outfit it with the tools it needs to produce whatever resource you want, and then take it to your land and put it to work. This is done by physically going to the M.U.L.E. store, then the outfitters, and finally walking the distance to your land and back. The catch is that you’ve only got a limited time to do this (less if you’re running low on food), moving through difficult terrain takes longer, and M.U.L.E.s have a tendency to run off if not properly installed (if you run out of time before installing it, or hit the button while not on the little “home” icon on your land). You can also switch M.U.L.E.s between different plots of land, repurpose M.U.L.E.s that you already own for a different resource, sell plots of land at auction, or take soil samples to find out where Crystite is. You can even “Hunt the Wampus”, which mostly consists of waiting until a yellow dot appears on a mountain, then quickly rushing over to catch it before it disappears, which nets you a lump of cash (it’s what the Wampus, which is some sort of big dog-like thing that is not a Wumpus, pays you so that you let it go free). Finally, you can go to the pub to end your turn, which earns you a sum of money won “gambling.” This is not actually gambling, since you win money every time, so don’t take any life lessons out of the M.U.L.E. pub!
It’s this sudden genre shift, where a game of economics suddenly turns into an action game (albeit a simple one) that keeps gameplay fresh and interesting. Often a player has a perfect economic strategy set up, only to panic when the timer starts clicking down and accidentally release a M.U.L.E., or they just don’t have the time they need to rearrange all their production to be efficient, or they just win a ton of money from a Wampus so they can buy the energy/food that they couldn’t afford otherwise. It keeps it from being a dry numbers-cruncher into an honest-to-goodness video game that couldn’t, say, be replicated with a board game or something. Plus, the fortunes (for good an bad) that can befall a player during this phase is part of what gives the game its unique charm, such as money from winning the colony M.U.L.E. tap-dancing contest, cat-bugs that eat your roof, or my personal favorite: dividends collected from investing in “artificial dumbness.”
In any case, after all players have completed their turns, production begins, where each plot of land produces some amount of resources, depending on land type, resource type, number of contiguous plots owned, amount of energy possessed by the player, and so on. Usually a random event occurs during production for good and for ill, such as sunspot activity increasing energy production, a pest attack eating all of a plot’s food, or even a pirate ship that comes and steals all Crystite from the colony. After production has concluded, gameplay proceeds to the real meat of the game: the Auction phase.
During this third phase players have a chance to buy and/or sell all four resource types. This is done representatively with all sellers lined up at the top of the screen and all buyers at the bottom. The further a player moves their line up/down the screen, the higher or lower their asking price is, and when two players’ lines meet, a transaction occurs until either one player moves away, the buyer runs out of money, or the seller runs out of stock (a seller also resets to the top when they hit a “critical level” of food/energy, i.e. the amount they need to still have maximum time or production during the next turn, though they can still sell more if they want to until they run dry). Two players can also “collude” by pressing their triggers simultaneously, locking everyone else out of the process until they’re done trading, at which point the regular auction resumes. Players can also buy from/sell to the store, assuming the store has any stock left in it to sell. The starting prices are mostly determined by supply and demand (the less of a resource there is, the higher the starting price will be), though if everything is plentiful then food and energy are usually far cheaper than smithore, and the price of Crystite is determined randomly (from $50 to $150), since its price is influenced by the “off-world market” and not by anything the players do. An auction ends when the timer runs out (which expires quickly if nobody is moving, so you don’t have to sit there for a whole minute for each auction, which is a nice touch). The land auctions are also conducted using this interface, though if it’s the bank selling and not another player, then whichever player bids the highest price gets the land, without having to meet a seller’s line.
Though the action phase is probably the most unique, the auction phase (it just occurred to me how similar both those names are) is where the heart of the game lies. There is a myriad of strategies that can be employed to ensure victory here, such as cornering the market on certain resources to drive up the price (this is especially effective if there’s a fire in the store which causes all of the store’s resources to be lost), or holding back on selling smithore so that the other players have to pay through the nose for their M.U.L.E.s (assuming the store doesn’t run out), or even buying out the store’s stock of a certain resource that you don’t need, just as a hardy middle-finger to everyone else. Seriously, entire articles and/or guides can be written about how to play this phase of the game and barely scratch the surface.
After this, a stats screen pops up, showing everyone’s current standings, after which the next month begins with another land grant. After twelve turns, the colony ship arrives, and whoever did the best is crowned “First Founder” and wins the game! In an interesting twist, however, if the colony failed to meet a certain level of competency (for example, if one player screwed over the others so thoroughly that the net worth of the entire colony is terrible), the Federation declares the colony a loss, everyone is sent to work at a M.U.L.E. factory, and nobody wins. This ensures that even the most cutthroat players have to be at least semi-cooperative in order to give other players a better chance, and it also helps avoid the Monopoly syndrome where one player is so far ahead that it becomes a chore to finish the game, as the suspense is gone.
The Standard mode of the game cuts out Crystite and collusion entirely (making smithore normally the money-making resource of choice), but is otherwise virtually identical to the Tournament mode. The Beginner mode shortens the game to six months, cuts out land auctions, has the store charge a flat rate for M.U.L.E.s which are in infinite supply, and makes the auction phase far simpler (all products have a buy/sell price that can’t be exceeded, the store has a lot more stock, you can’t sell past your critical level, etc.). These modes make it a fairly simple process to introduce new players to the game, as the Beginner mode makes it easy to understand what’s going on without having to resort to putting all its instructions into a manual (what I’ve called manualitis on this site), and even the Standard mode can be fun for veterans who don’t want to deal with the unpredictability of Crystite.
Do I really need to say more about how great this game is? The controls are easy to learn and fun to use. The sound is beautiful and functional. The graphics aren’t great, but they don’t need to be. The replayability factor is through the roof, especially with multiplayer. Sessions can get tense. Friendships may be ruined. Punches may fly. Someone may get a joystick shoved up their nose. But in the end, everyone will be glad they played, even if Bob cornered the stupid food market again and all you could do was run to the pub every single stinkin’ turn. Punk.
The influence that this game has had on subsequent games is enormous, from parts of Spore to units in Starcraft II to being an inspiration behind Pikmin, not to mention being one of early Electronic Arts’ defining games. I discovered this in high school and have been playing it since. If you haven’t played it yet, then take my advice: more than any other game featured on this site, this is the one that you need to find and play, especially with friends. If you know someone who keeps going on and on about how great Settlers of Catan is, then they’re the perfect candidate to introduce to M.U.L.E. What are you waiting for? The theme music again? In that case, here it is!
The next game to be reviewed is a mystery at the moment, but my plan going forward will be revealed in the next post. Stay tuned!