Why do story writers never give terra-forming its due respect? In science fiction especially, the whole process is glossed over, so that you can get right to the action. It couldn’t possibly be as interesting as laser battles, right? Wrong! Let’s take a look at a true forgotten classic after the jump.
Original version: M.U.L.E., released in 1983 for the Atari 800
M.U.L.E. is a strategy game that takes place on an uninhabited planet named Irata (Atari spelled backwards). You play as a colonist who comes to establish a trading colony. Three others come with you (controlled by humans and/or AI) and you compete to become the richest trader on the planet by working the land with your M.U.L.E.–Multiple Use Labor Element. The ship that drops you off comes back a year later–each turn taking one month– and declares a winner.
Semi-random events occur each turn that can have either positive or negative consequences on the affected player. These events tend to be mildly equalizing–that is, the player who is doing really well will probably get a bad event while a struggling player will probably get a bonus. These events are never consequential enough to upset the pecking order; they’re just meant to keep everyone in the running so that no one gets discouraged. A slew of innovative gameplay mechanics made M.U.L.E. one of the most innovative games of the early 3rd generation. Unfortunately, it also sold quite poorly, only managing to ship about 30,000 units. It did, however, gain a well-deserved cult following and was seen as the perfect example of Electronic Arts’ mission statement (mirror). M.U.L.E. could make you the player reexamine what a game can be. Remember that in 1983 most games were space shooters–a far cry from today where most games are 1st-person shooters. But in M.U.L.E. there is no combat; only economic competition. It’s a game that makes you think, but not in the same way as a text adventure where you have to figure out the solution to a puzzle or game the system. No, this is a game that forces you to make decisions on the spot that can affect you for the rest of the game. There are no right answers, but there sure are wrong ones….
I only have two substantial complaints about this game. The smaller complaint is that the auction system can be painful to wait through if you don’t have anything to trade, but too quick if you have lots of stuff to buy or sell. The major complaint is that buying a M.U.L.E. when all your plots of land are already staffed can result in a mild sort of Dead Man Walking situation. To the extent of my knowledge, there is no way to discard an extra M.U.L.E., so all you can do is walk around with it–no shopkeepers will let you bring it into their stores. Of course, you can end your turn; you just can’t do much else. This is a major gripe, but I can forgive it considering that this is my only major gripe against an otherwise terrific game.
M.U.L.E. sold very poorly but has always been praised by critics. It regularly makes “top 10” lists for the best or most influential computer games. Miyamoto Shigeru cited M.U.L.E. as an influence for Pikmin. In Starcraft II Terrans can call down robotic minions called M.U.L.E.s.
You can play an online port of the game here. There’s also a remake called Planet M.U.L.E. which retains the gameplay but updates the graphics and sound. You can either play with AIs or with up to three other players online. This is good news if you don’t have the patience to get the original up and running on an emulator, or if you can’t find a copy to buy for yourself. If you own a copy of M.U.L.E. you can download a backup rom here and play it using Atari 800. (mirror) This means there’s no excuse not to play it.