Atari 8-Bit

Review by Anthony Cervo

Electronic Arts/Ozark


Graphics: 6

Sound: 6

Gameplay: 9

Overall: 8

What makes a game great? Ask 10 gamers and you'll get at least 100 answers. Some games astound with breathtaking graphics. Others break new ground, sometimes starting an entirely new genre. Some are just plain fun, eliciting hours upon hours of joyous replay value. M.U.L.E. was just such a game.

Never heard of M.U.L.E., you say? Well, sit right down and get ready for some old school learnin'...

When M.U.L.E. was released in 1983, it was the first multiplayer resource-based strategy game for home computers. It was destined to become a classic, winning much critical acclaim including Electronic Games Magazine's "Best Multi-Player Game of the Year" award, and has been hailed by the likes of Sid "Civilization" Meier and Will "Sim City" Wright as the best computer game ever designed. Recently, it was awarded the GOTCHA (Gaming Obsession Throughout Computer History Award) for Best Strategy Game of 1983. What made M.U.L.E. unique was its use of a variety of economic principles, including: supply and demand, economies of scale, learning curve theory of production, law of diminishing returns, and the prisoner's dilemma. In short, M.U.L.E. was the grandfather of resource-based strategy games. Oh, and it was tons o' fun too!

The object of M.U.L.E. is to colonize the Planet Irata with the help of a M.U.L.E. (Multiple Use Labor Element.) Up to 4 human players compete against each other (or computer opponents if less than 4), to become First Founder of the colony. There are three versions of M.U.L.E.: Beginner's, Standard and Tournament. Each version has slightly different rules. Players must manage several resources: food, energy, smithore, and in the tournament version, crystite. The player with the most points at the end wins, but only if the colony as a whole survives. Greedy players can buy up all of the resources to drive prices sky high, but the colony might not survive if food or energy resources become too scarce. It's the cooperation (or lack of it) between players that makes this game so fun. It's much like Monopoly in how the players interact. In fact, the tournament version includes collusion, which is a powerful technique that allows players to make private deals.

The game consists of a series of rounds (six in the beginner game, all the way to 12 in the tournament game.) Each round begins with a land grant, where each player grabs a plot of land. Then, one by one, each player must purchase a M.U.L.E. from the town, outfit the M.U.L.E. for the type of production the player wants on the land (food, energy, smithore, or crystite), and set up the plot for production. This portion of the round is timed, and if a player sets up his or her plot fast enough, there might be time left over for Wampus hunting (a bit of an Easter Egg.) Observant (and fast) players might notice a tiny single-pixel dot, flashing occasionally from one of the nearby mountains. If a player can get to the dot before time runs out, they will catch the Wampus and receive a bounty of cash. The catch is, they must get back to the town before time runs out, or lose the loot.

Once the land grant portion of the round is finished, it's time for production to begin. The computer will generate resources on each developed plot. Food grows better near water, so those plots on the river are the best food producers. Energy is best in the plains, and smithore is found in the mountains. If a player has two or more adjoining plots producing the same resource, the output of each of those plots is increased.

Now comes the fun part: heading to market. This is where the true beauty of the game lies. The interface for wheeling and dealing is simple, but effective (something today's game designers could learn from.) Each resource is bought and sold in turn. Food and energy are needed to keep the colony going and allow for continued production, and smithore is needed to create more M.U.L.E.'s. Players can sell surplus resources to other players, or to the town store. Other players can haggle to get a better price, or buy from the store for a fixed price. Sometimes the store will run out, allowing those with the surplus to jack the prices sky high. There are also random "disasters" such as meteor storms, pest attacks, and even pirates, that will affect not only individual players, but also the town store.

The graphics of M.U.L.E. were never the focus, but they're not that bad by 1983 standards, particularly when considering resource-based strategy games. The "zoom" effect as you take your M.U.L.E. to and from the town and the larger colony map is kind of cool, in and old school sort of way, and the Wampus, if caught, is a full-screen dog-like creature in all its bit-mapped glory. As for sound, the in-game sounds are ok (again, this is 8-bit), with the "disaster" sounds being the best. What scores M.U.L.E. serious points, though, is the title music. The tune is infectious (so much so, that a MIDI version of the tune serves as the ringer on my cell phone.) Once the sound of the drum beat starts, you'll want to sit through the entire title sequence just to hear the whole tune.

M.U.L.E. was developed by Ozark Softscape (Dan Bunten, Bill Bunten, Jim Rushing, and Alan Watson), and published by Electronic Arts. Dan Bunten (aka Dani Bunten and eventually Danielle Bunten Berry after a sex change operation) was the principal designer, and would later create such games as Seven Cities of Gold, Modem Wars (the first game played over a modem), and Command HQ. Bunten Berry is widely regarded as being ahead of his/her time, and was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Computer Game Developers Association just 2 months before her death from cancer in 1998.

M.U.L.E. has achieved cult status since its release. Aside from the many officially released versions, there are numerous commercial and shareware clones available for a variety of platforms, including Windows, Unix, Atari ST/GEM, and Amiga. The most notable of these are Traders (Amiga, Atari ST, PC) and Subtrade (Amiga, PC.) There are currently several unofficial "sequels" in the works, including Terra 2200 (http://www.terra2200.com/), Pioneer (http://mygames.org/pioneer_html.html), M.U.L.E. 1.5 (http://www.worldofmule.net/mule15.htm) and Space HoRSE (http://www.gilligames.com/Space_Horse/TheGame.asp).

Developer: Ozark Softscape (Dan Bunten, Bill Bunten, Jim Rushing, Alan Watson)
Original Platform: Atari 8-bit (400/800/XL/XE)
Ported Platforms: C-64, NES, MSX-1, PC-8801 MKII
Collecting Fact: M.U.LE. was one of the first and most revered games published by Electronic Arts. Therefore it is one of the most desirable of the EA flat boxes (which are already favorites of collectors).

More info:
Here's a terrific article about Dani Berry (and M.U.L.E.) from Salon.com earlier this year (March 17, 2003)... http://www.salon.com/tech/feature/2003/03/18/bunten/

worldofmule.net, including comprehensive game guides, game strategies, and much more: http://www.worldofmule.net/mulestrt.htm


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Last updated: Sunday, February 08, 2004 12:43 PM