Review: Electronic Arts' "M.U.L.E." (1983)

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Matt Barton's picture

Dani Bunten's multiplayer trading game, M.U.L.E., is the best family-friendly multiplayer computer game ever designed. It combines the tension and excitement of arcade-style games with carefully balanced strategy and a wealth of zany humor. Although several later developers have tried to "update" it for later systems, none of them manage to capture the unique ambiance of the original. If you've never played M.U.L.E., then you've not only missed out on a masterpiece, but have likely failed to recognize just how powerfully a personal computer can bridge the generational gap and bring a family together. In 1983, Bunten showed us one path game developers could take--but it sadly became the road less-traveled. It's time to show this game some love!

Dani Bunten and Electronic Arts
There are some games that I'm almost afraid to write about. These are the games that I played so often and loved so much as a youth that I'm not sure I can really be objective. These games include SSI's Gold Box Games, Firebird's Elite, and Amiga classics like Defender of the Crown, Ports of Call, The Settlers, and Cannon Fodder. Eventually, I intend to get around to revisiting all of these games, but the one I've selected this time is Dani Bunten's M.U.L.E., a multiplayer trading game that I first played on the Commodore 64, though the game originated on the Atari 8-bit platform. In 1983, Electronic Arts was very much the new kid on the block, and its founder Trip Hawkins' vision was to promote game designers as "rock stars"--a bold departure from Atari's policy of shoving them under the rug. Some of the best games of all time were in EA's early lineups, including Archon, Pinball Construction Set, Mail Order Monsters, and The Bard's Tale.

M.U.L.E. (Atari 800 version): Can you still hear the theme song in your head?M.U.L.E.'s creator, Dani Bunten, is an interesting figure in her own right. For one thing, she became a woman rather late in life, having sexual re-assignment surgery in the 90s. In 1983, she was known as Dan Bunten, who founded a software company with the unlikely name of Ozark Softscape in the early 80s. Dani's desire was to see home computers bringing families together with great multiplayer games, and, at least in M.U.L.E., she delivered. Later, when the game was being ported to SEGA, Dani refused to allow the port to incorporate guns and bombs. At any rate, she left us much too early, dying in 1998 from cancer.

So, what exactly is M.U.L.E.?
M.U.L.E. is perhaps best described as a multiplayer trading and colonization game, though that description is probably helpful only to folks who already know what this game is like. The basic concept is straightforward enough, however. Four settlers arrive on the planet IRATA (Atari spelled backwards!) and establish a colony using robots called M.U.L.E.s (Multiple Use Labor Element) to till the soil, set up energy stations, and dig mines. How the players conduct themselves will determine whether the colony is successful--a greedy player may use his monopoly on food to force the others to pay exorbitant prices (or even starve), but this behavior will ultimately cause the colony to fail. Likewise, a too-generous player may find herself ranked fourth, with few assets and no capital. To truly win, a player must play as a benevolent capitalist, earning profits without bringing the colony to ruin.

The settlers have exactly one year to prove the viability of the colony, and this means not only cooperating with each other but also dealing with a number of random events. Some of these events are positive (boosting crops or energy production), but others are potentially devastating--the store might burn down, or pirates might loot the colony's mineral supply. M.U.L.E.s occasionally malfunction.

In short, M.U.L.E. is a lesson in classical economics, though a great deal more fun than dealing with a economics textbook. The manual even mentions such abstract concepts as the "Learning Curve of Production," "Economics of Scale," and "The Prisoner's Dilemma," and players will likely learn these theories implicitly by playing the game even if they don't know their names.

Gameplay
How do you make a game about economics fun to play--not only for a college student majoring in econ, but also for a clever 5 year old? The answer is to integrate a strong arcade element, and make every turn a race against the clock. There are many aspects of the game that require fast reflexes and precision, and fear of running out of time keeps the tension high. For instance, players get an opportunity to gain a new plot of land each turn, but the selection process is a competition. Players must wait until a selection square is over the plot they want, then press their joystick button (hopefully before another player or a computer opponent snags it). Players have a limited time to equip their M.U.L.E.s for production and get them setup on their land plots--and then it's a race back to the store to gamble at the pub (where you always win.) Players with extra time can chase after a little blip, which signals the presence of the "wumpus" (a reference to a much earlier game called Hunt the Wumpus, written by Gregory Yob in 1972.)

Each turn consists of the following phases: status report, land selection, land improvement, production, and auction. The auctions are where the economics play out. Each settler needs food and energy, but the store needs smithore to produce M.U.L.E.s. Players can refuse to sell to the store and only to other players, who they can force to pay a much higher price. Likewise, some settlers may choose to buy up all the smithore or crystite (in tournament modes) when prices are low, so they can sell them back when scarcity sets in. The possibilities to be a truly devious and hateful capitalist are abundant!

At the start of each round, players see their characters march onto the screen, with the one in the lead getting the much-revered top spot on the chart. This little acknowledgment of one's superiority is enough to really rankle other players, who might result to decide they prefer personal achievement to the colony's success.

M.U.L.E. (C-64 version): Who's on top? Not me at this point! M.U.L.E. (C-64 version): Who's on top? Not me at this point! Another fun aspect of the game (that also increases replay value) is the ability to choose among eight different types of settler, each with its own unique advantage. For instance, the recommended beginner species is the "Flapper," which gets more time and starting money, whereas other species excel at farming or mining. Humans are the expert's choice--they start off on the bottom, but their intelligence gives them an edge later in the game. At any rate, players will need to modify their strategies depending on what creature they choose, and other players will have to adapt accordingly. The computer always chooses the "android" type, of course!

Graphics and Sound
M.U.L.E.'s graphics are quite abstract, looking more like a colorful map and series of bar graphs than a typical arcade game. Nevertheless, there is plenty of movement and fun animations to keep the eye busy. The C-64 version looks almost identical to the Atari 800 version, and the NES version isn't really much better. The good news, of course, is that a game like M.U.L.E. doesn't need impressive graphics to keep players engaged.

The sound is a different matter. M.U.L.E.'s theme song, composed by Roy Glover, is one of the true "classics" of the 8-bit era, with a distinctive and catchy melody that almost anyone who has played this game can still hum a decade later. Indeed, plenty of talented musicians have remixed the tune. If you've never heard it, check these out.

Concluding Thoughts
As I suggested in my article on Family Gaming, making a game that's fun for kids and their parents is a difficult task. We see this today in the schism between "hardcore" and "casual" markets, with perhaps Nintendo being the "voice crying in the wilderness" with its promise to cater to families with its Wii system. I'd advise anyone hoping to bridge these gaps to take a long, hard look at M.U.L.E. Dani Bunten got it right in 1983, and, in all my years of gaming, have yet to see it equaled. It's a game that manages to give player a fair share of attention. Furthermore, it doesn't pander or rely on flashy graphics or gimmicks to keep players engaged. M.U.L.E. is the only game that I can ever remember my entire family playing and enjoying together (we were the classic nuclear family with mom, dad, sis, and me). Although we enjoyed other multiplayer games, these were games I played only with my sis (Bubble Bobble, Boulder Dash) or my dad (Ports of Call, Empire). Everyone knows the old slogan, "A family that plays together, stays together." M.U.L.E. is the only computer game I know that makes that really makes this possible.

Perhaps the reason for this is that M.U.L.E. is a game that you can almost imagine as a board game, though of course it could only work as a video game. It seems to have that same universal draw of classic games like Risk or Monopoly, but takes advantage of the dynamics of a computer to offer players a unique gaming experience. It's an easy game to learn, but, like any good game, hard to master. Although it's not without its problems (the auction scenes can at times get a bit tedious), it's nevertheless the finest example I know of a computer game really adapting and innovating on the the family board game concept.

Anyone interested in playing M.U.L.E. today has a wealth of options for doing so. Classic Gaming offers the Atari 800 ROMS, and countless sites offer the NES and C-64 ROMs for free download. A scan of the C-64 manual is available from Replacement Docs. I would advise against the various clones of the game, none of which seem to capture the experience of the original.

Links
Get Behind the M.U.L.E., a Salon article about Dani Bunten.
Smithore.com, with info about the game and tournaments.
Contemporary Review in Creative Computing, Dec. 1983.

Comments

Mark Vergeer
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I played this game on my c64...

I used to play this game on my c64, actually had forgotten all about it until your article. Viva Piñata might be x360's closest thing to M.U.L.E. ;)

-= Mark Vergeer - Armchair Arcade editor =-

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Bill Loguidice
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Just to point out, the Atari

Just to point out, the Atari 8-bit version supports up to four players with four joysticks on the Atari 800 (the only model with four joystick ports standard), which is the best way to play full-bore multiplayer obviously. The NES version also supports four players with four gamepads on that system's 4 Score multitap. I have the latter version and while I made several attempts to play with my wife, I must say I never quite understood how to play properly. Since it's one of those "legendary" games, I WILL be making another attempt at "getting" it. MULE is ALWAYS in Top 100 of all-time lists and is always mentioned fondly by someone. Dan(i) Bunten experimented quite a bit with multiplayer in his games, though the biggest commercial success was no doubt MULE.

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Bill Loguidice, Managing Director
Armchair Arcade, Inc.
(A PC Magazine Top 100 Website)
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Matt Barton
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Atari and C-64 joysticks

On the 64 version, four players could use the joysticks by simply swapping them during gameplay. The only time when the two other players had to use the keyboard was during the auction scenes. Since the only movement you needed at these times was up and down, it really wasn't a problem.

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Mark Vergeer
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Perhaps we could try to play it via emulation....

Perhaps an attempt to play it multiplayer via emulation is an idea? Quite a few of the emulators support online multiplayer gaming nowadays.

-= Mark Vergeer - Armchair Arcade editor =-

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Bill Loguidice
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That sounds like a nifty

That sounds like a nifty idea, Mark, if it's possible. That and voice chat and perhaps I could actually figure out how to play!

The interesting thing is that GameTap is constantly releasing games (mostly MAME stuff it seems) that supports either two player alternating play online or two player simultaneous (like with Final Fight) online. That to me is perhaps the best way to "enhance" these classic games that don't really need enhancing - just make it so it's just like your friend from 6,000 miles away is playing next to you.

======================================
Bill Loguidice, Managing Director
Armchair Arcade, Inc.
(A PC Magazine Top 100 Website)
======================================

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Rob Daviau
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Joined: 05/19/2006
Very interesting and

Very interesting and informative, thanks Matt!

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Oldschool games, some people just don't "get it"...

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Matt Barton
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No prob, oldschoolgamer!

If we had a free t-shirt, you'd definitely get one, oldschoolgamer! ;-)

BTW, I'm wondering--are you a comic book subscriber? I've been keeping up with Marvel's Civil War goings on and just took out a subscription to Amazing Spiderman. I've been out of the loop so long, though, that I've lost track of most of the universe. Now I hear that Howard the Duck of all people is back in the universe?

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Melanie Bunten Stark (not verified)
MULE

Hi Matt,
Wanted to let you know that we're looking for a new MULE release sometime late this summer. Thanks for your posts.

Matt Barton
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MULE
Melanie Bunten Stark wrote:

Hi Matt,
Wanted to let you know that we're looking for a new MULE release sometime late this summer. Thanks for your posts.

Sounds exciting! I'm sure we'll want to review it when it does come out.

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Bill Loguidice
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M.U.L.E., C-64, pre-opened

M.U.L.E., C-64, pre-opened for your convenience, for only $311.95: http://cgi.ebay.com/ws/eBayISAPI.dll?ViewItem&item=220575632403&ssPageNa...

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Bill Loguidice, Managing Director
Armchair Arcade, Inc.

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