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The classic economic sim returns, but is it still viable in today’s gaming world?
Back in 1983 when the original M.U.L.E. was released, I was four years from being born. The game was an economic sim, which is kind of impressive for an Atari game. Later it was ported to the Commodore and the NES, where I first played it. Friends and I would spend hours trying to top each other’s scores, even to the point of two player tournaments over several days.
When I noticed this one in the App Store, it was hard to avoid picking it up. But does it still have the same appeal?
Short Answer: Not yet. But it could be…
One of the joys of M.U.L.E. is its simplicity. You land on the planet Irata (spell it backwards) intending to settle it. Each of the six turns on the lowest difficulty, you pick a free plot of land, buy a Multiple Use Labor Element, or M.U.L.E., outfit it for food, energy or Smithore production, then go to the bar and win some free money gambling. Simple enough, right? Well, that’s just the first half of the turn. The second part involves your plots producing supplies, tallying them up and then buying or selling the goods. Seems kind of pointless until you know what the resources do: each turn you consume food to have energy for the turn. Less food than needed means less time to play a turn. Energy is required for production on your plots. If you don’t have enough Energy, your plot won’t produce anything for that turn. And Smithore is your money crop, but takes Energy to run and has no use if not sold, but unlike the other two resources, it never spoils…
All players compete with each other at the same time.
The goal of the game is what makes it the most interesting: each player is looking to be the richest player at the end of the game. But the game doesn’t just account for your wealth, it accounts for the entire colony, which includes your opponents. That means that you can overshadow your enemies, but the colony will fare poorly. Granted, one doesn’t have to consider the colony to feel like a winner, but the real winners go for the top score in both.
As you up the difficulty, new elements are introduced. After the production phase, a random event occurs. These can be beneficial or detrimental, and the higher the difficulty the more likely it is that good events only benefit the last placed player and bad events single out the leader, creating a balancing “anyone can win at any time” concept familiar to players of German-style board games like Settlers of Catan. And games like that are exciting to play, even if you’re in that last place slot. Also, the prices of goods tend to fluctuate more as the difficulty goes up. If there are only two units of food in the store, you can bet buying and selling that commodity will be at a much higher price, being a potential game changer depending on how you developed. Also, Smithore provides the means to make M.U.L.E.s, meaning if there isn’t enough in the store, your Labor Elements could get expensive. $2000 expensive.
Tournament difficulty presents the ultimate M.U.L.E. challenge, with plot sales, dynamic price changes, the hardest AI opponents and the luxury item Crystite, which can make you rich beyond your wildest dreams, but only if it’s selling well this round. There is no set value for Crystite, and also no way to manipulate market price like you can with the other resources.
This update to the game, developed by Comma 8 Studios, is an update in senses only. The game is literally an exact copy of the older versions, with graphic and sound updates. This is a double-edged sword for most of us. On a positive note, there is a wonderful sense of nostalgia for older players, with a much smoother, better animated game to let us remember the old days of simpler, deeper gaming, or introduce the game to younger players. On the downside, there’s also nothing new for those people to explore. This is where a new resource, larger maps or possibly an “insider trading” concept would have done very well, but that may have upset fans who desire purity with their memories.
A work of modernization in progress?
So why doesn’t this classic add up? Why did I start by saying it doesn’t appeal enough yet? Simple answer. One of the greatest features of this game is not currently available: Multiplayer. Without Multiplayer, we miss out on some of the greatest aspects of a game like this, like the bragging rights and friendly rivalries between friends. The AI, while scaling to the difficulty level chosen, does tend to be predictable, which doesn’t lead to much replay value.
Fortunately, the good people at Comma 8 plan to utilize Multiplayer, the Coming Soon choice says. When it does, we’ll know how worthy the game is. As of now, it’s fun for a short nostalgia trip, but not much more. We’ll revisit this one when Multiplayer is functional.