Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Games To Play Before You Die: #1 - M.U.L.E.

(About a year ago I started writing a book called '100 Games To Play Before You Die'. Nothing ever came of the project even though I got about halfway through my list of entries. In lieu of attempting to complete the project in its originally-envisioned format, I've decided to instead start posting the original entries here, with the intention of eventually working my way through the rest of the list. So without further ado, I give you the first entry of 'Games To Play Before You Die'.)

M.U.L.E. (1983)
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Designer: Dan Bunten

(“M.U.L.E.: A game in which four players attempt to settle a distant planet
with the so-called help of a mule-like machine they all learn to hate.”)

At a time when Donkey Kong was king, Mario and Luigi were identical twins with differently-hued facial hair, and videogames were still considered something you had to leave your house and spend a quarter to play, M.U.L.E. broke new ground in just about every regard and, in doing so, singlehandedly invented the strategic simulation genre.

One of the first truly multiplayer games, M.U.L.E. was, at heart, a digital board game. Four players compete for economic control of the planet Irata, taking turns buying plots of real estate, harvesting various materials with the use of the game’s eponymous M.ultiple U.se L.abor E.lements, and then auctioning off their stockpiles to the highest bidder. There was minimal armed conflict in the game; competitition was based around resource accrual in a closed supply-and-demand economy.

One of M.U.L.E.’s greatest strengths, and the reason why it continues to hold up well to this day, is the underlying scheming component to the game: players were never allowed to forget the fact that they were in direct opposition to one another. While they were allowed to collude by way of private transactions, much of the fun to be had in the game is during its auction and selling phases, in which each player is given the ability to drive prices up simply for the sake of screwing over their friends. On top of this, M.U.L.E. gleefully throws random events at players after each full turn: whoever is leading the pack may find themselves raided by space pirates or struck by a meteor, while the trailing players might suddenly receive an unexpected windfall. Compare this, if you will, to the two-player archetype of videogame competition available at the time in which players attempt to beat a level in turn and victory is determined by a final point score. Until M.U.L.E., games did not allow you to sabotage your fellow players. And if they had, it probably wouldn’t have been with the same sense of schadenfreude.

Finally, M.U.L.E. earns itself a place in the annals of videogame history because it was, in some sense, the first game to require a home gaming console or personal computer to play properly. The idea of running through a 20- to 30-minute four-player session of M.U.L.E. in an arcade was, in 1983, inconceivable; arcades were for button-mashing and reflexive joystick twitching, and M.U.L.E. - not unlike the plethora of real-time strategy and city simulation games to follow in its wake - requires forethought, planning, and tactics designed to minimize personal damage and maximize personal gain at the expense of your competitors.

(Despite the M.U.L.E.’s obvious homage to Star Wars’ AT-ATs, the true conceptual progenitors of the game were Robert A. Heinlein’s novels “Time Enough For Love” and “The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress”, the former providing the notion of Wild-West-style planetary colonization, the latter the idea for genetically-modified beasts of burden.)

M.U.L.E. was originally released on the Atari 800, and later ported to the Commodore 64, the NES, and the DOS-based IBM PC Jr. Like many other highly-influential first-generation videogames, it lives on to this day in clone format: notable versions include Boeder Software’s SubTrade: Return To Irata (1993), Shrapnel Games’ Space HoRSE (2004), and Blue Systems’ free online multiplayer Planet M.U.L.E. (2009).

(Supported systems: IBM PC Jr. (DOS), C64, Atari 400/800, NES)

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