Retro Masterpiece: M.U.L.E.

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Every now and then, a game arrives on the scene that has gameplay that is so refined, it is is difficult to improve up (other than graphical upgrades). M.U.L.E. was a pioneer in both the realm of simulations and multiplayer games. While the original releases on the Atari 400/800 and the Commodore 64 don’t look that appealing on the surface, there are countless hours to be found in its deep gameplay.

Racketboy.com member, durkada had no trouble sharing his love for M.U.L.E. in the write-up that follows and I want to thank him again for the time and effort that went into this piece. I hope you enjoy reading about this classic and much as I have.

The Concept & Why M.U.L.E. Still Matters

M.U.L.E is a fast-paced economic simulation for multiple players. As opposed to traditional, stuffy simulators, M.U.L.E. is frantic, but smart — a game as intense as any other multiplayer finger twitching panic-fest, but its all cerebral. M.U.L.E. took advantage of the Atari home computer’s four-joystick setup to let players cooperate and compete in this artificial economy. With multiple players getting in on the action, M.U.L.E. is a challenge of wits, and despite it being longer than a round of Bomberman, keeps you starting over for “just one more” game. (computer opponents automatically filling in for any missing players)

mule-c64-floppy The main gameplay revolves around the acquisition and use of “M.U.L.E.”s (Multiple Use Labor Element) to develop and harvest resources from your personal real estate. Depending on the terrain type, a M.U.L.E. can be configured to harvest Energy, Food, Smithore (from which M.U.L.E.s are constructed), and Crystite (a valuable mineral available only at the “Tournament” level). Players must balance supply and demand of these elements, buying what they need, and selling what they don’t. Players may also exploit or create shortages by refusing to sell to other players or to the “store”, which raises the price of the resource on the following turns. Scheming between players is encouraged by allowing collusion between two players, which initiates a mode allowing a private transaction. In the end, the goal of M.U.L.E. is to rule the colony by making the most money, having the most land, and producing the most goods (they add all this up to find your score). The player with the most points at the end wins, but only if the colony as a whole survives.

One of the most compelling aspects of the games is that the decisions you make throughout M.U.L.E. actually matter in various ways. What you choose to do in the world of M.U.L.E. have ramifications for yourself, the other players, and the colony as a whole. M.U.L.E. hides a fairly deep and complex gameplay mechanic under a surprisingly simple exterior. It plays quickly while packing immense depth in an easily understood environment.

No prior games offered such a wealth of decisions to be made in such an easily navigated framework, which is especially impressive considering its social nature. And while M.U.L.E. has served and a favorite inspiration to many game developers over the years, no one has created a more modern title that has made M.U.L.E. obsolete.

Getting Started in M.U.L.E.

Once you begin a session of M.U.L.E., you choosing one of eight strange lifeforms. Each has unique properties that will subtly influence the game (some are better at mining, some run faster, etc). before, a spaceship dumps you on planet Irata (“Atari” spelled backward) to seek your fortune in the fledgling colony. An announcement is made that the ship will return in 12 months and the game begins.

Each round of M.U.L.E. consists of a few phases, starting with a view of planet Irata containing a camp in the center of the screen, some mountain ranges, a river, and open fields. Like the different races of characters, each type of land also has its own advantages. Mountains produce more smithore, fields more energy, and the rivers result in greater food output. In the advanced game, a randomly chosen plot of land will be auctioned to the high bidder. After that, each colonist will choose a plot of land.

The Land Grant phase begins with a rectangle scrolling through the screen, highlighting each unclaimed plot. You have about a half second to claim the land before the indicator moves to the neighboring plot. What would become a revolutionary technique, the game maintains balance between the richest and poorest players, by favoring the player with the lowest ranking when multiple players choose the same plot. Once all players have chosen a plot, its time to outfit their plots with a M.U.L.E. (The Multi Use Labor Element) in order to maximize production and harvesting.

M.U.L.E.’s Random Events

mules-nes-cartThe next major phase begins with a random event for each player. In short, each player has something happen to them such as run-away M.U.L.E.s, solar flares, and theft by space pirates. Good things also occur such as winning a lottery, having a relative pass and willing some dough to you, etc. Bad things are usually the same, but inverse — having to pay tickets for jay-walking, etc. They add a little flavor to the game, by suggesting this weird life that happens beneath the surface of what you see and do, but really just give a little boost to those doing poorly, and a little hindrance to those doing well. This is nothing more than a little line of scrolling text that passes on the bottom of the screen, with a few notes of joy or sorrow depending on whether you profit or get screwed.

The other random event is colony wide, and is mentioned after the individual player turns (energy storms, earthquakes, etc.). These either hurt or help everyone, but even the adverse affects will be a boon to a shrewd player. After all, something that hurts energy production suggests there will be an energy shortage. (Remember: not everyone went poor during The Great Depression) What is especially interesting about these random events is that they act as a balancing factor. The person doing poorly will never have a negative event, while the person doing best will more likely have marginal or bad things happen.

Getting Down To Business with M.U.L.E.

Once everyone has their plots of land determined, each player must purchase a M.U.L.E. from the dealer in the camp and equip it for its desired purpose (such as mining). Once you’re done equipping your M.U.L.E., you’ll walk out of the town to drag your M.U.L.E. to your plot (making certain both you and the MULE are firmly in the square, so it doesn’t run away) in order to set up your mining operation. The clock starts ticking for your turn at that point. You can return to town with what time you have and perform another action .

You could prospect, by entering the prospectors office and running outside to get a land sample in order to see if crytalite veins are found once you return. You can also hunt the wumpus or simply go to the bar and gamble. Going to the bar is usually the last thing you do, if you have any time, simply because you always win a little cash by doing so.

After all players have had their turn, the MULEs begin to produce units of smithore, food, crystalite, or energy. Again, random events may effect this — an energy storm spiking energy production, but curtailing mining. Small bars will appear in each plot, representing the units that are produced there. The more plots you have in a contiguous area of the same type, the more efficiently they produce.

M.U.L.E.’s Exciting Realtime Auction System

At the end of each round, players enter the auction where plots of land and other commodities are sold. M.U.L.E.’s ingenious auction phase is simple and exciting, but at the beginning of each auction, a player has a couple seconds to decide whether to sell or buy.

Food Auction (C64)To sell, move your joystick up, and your character moves to the top of the screen. To buy, just stay where you are. A line, directly above the buyers, represents what the camp store is willing to pay for goods — during times of shortages, this could be quite lucrative, but is usually a last resort. A line directly below the sellers acts as a border — as soon as a seller moves his character down, he is willing to sell his goods for the specified price. The auction begins proper — buyers move up the screen, and by doing so, the price rises. Sellers move down the screen to offer their wares; where the two meet, a transaction occurs.

Unit by unit is sold until either a seller or buyer breaks away. All four players are doing this simultaneously. Buyers can move all the way to the top of the screen, pushing against the line directly below the sellers, raising and raising the price willing to pay for the goods; but until a buyer steps down, no deal is made. This can be bad news for the desperate.

Upon conclusion of all the auctions, scores are tallied. Each player is judged according to the money he has, the plots he owns, and the goods he has stored. One by one, the players emerge from a black screen, and walk towards their respective position — next to their statistics. Remember, the game is going to award ties to the lowest ranking player, while the person of the highest rank finds more trouble with which to content. Repeat this process until the game ends.

Affecting M.U.L.E’s Economy With Your Decisions

What makes MULE a strange and subtle beast is the interplay between personal wealth and the health of the colony. Playing the game from a position of utter greed can have devastating effects on the entire colony. Hoarding goods and bad decisions can cause supply shortages, which in turn hinder, cripple, and cause a colony to completely crumble. Congratulations — you all lose. Players need to collect elements to sell and to use.

Food gives the player time to perform his actions on planet Irata. Smithore allows M.U.L.E.s to be built and is generally the most profittable of the standard elements. Energy powers the M.U.L.E.s, without which, they will go nuts and run away. Lacking these elements, each player will see his game begin to suffer. And you need money — you need money to invest in the planet, to increase your own efficiency, and to buy elements from other players which you are lacking. Yes, you have to give money to your competition, the most important aspect when tallying a victor. Crystaline also exists – which can be mined for high profits. Doing so is time consuming and somewhat risky, but can give a player the bump they need to win the game; or, by spending too much time and money on the endeavor, cause a player to lose miserably.

Your Options At The Base (NES)This only scratches the surface, but, you can see that the game interweaves strings into a tight gaming fabric. Decisions are not always easy, and you have to approach the game with an analytical mind, ready to implement long term strategies while maintaining the flexibility to change course when new circumstances merit. All of this, in a rush of multiplayer gameplay. Its not a finger twitching game of dexterity, but easily as intense as any shooter. There are not too many purely cerebral multiplayer games — certainly none as charmingly, and deceptively simple. And it accomplishes this in around 45 minutes.

Despite the random events, despite the handicapping of the prosperous, the game rewards skilled play. The person who played the best game wins, but in an evenly matched game, the engine ensures that the leader does not immediately run away with the prize — growing exponentially more powerful each and every turn while the other players are removed from any hope of winning.

A Game That Keeps Everyone Involved & Entertained

In MULE, players don’t get eliminated — the whole colony can collapse, but thats not nearly the same as Ricky having his entire game cut short while his friends continue to play on — leaving Ricky bored. There are measures that MULE takes to ensure that the person with the lead, is not able to squash all competition — the gentle nudging, if you will, to keep the lowest ranking player competitive, and to make life just a tad more difficult for numero uno. And a mentioned above, the decisions you make in MULE have ramifications — you are in control of your own destiny.

These concepts are key to the fairly recent board-gaming renaissance. I know that MULE did not influence board game design — these concepts germinated organically within the field. But, its still a tribute to Bunten’s genius that these ideas predate modern board-gaming concepts by decades. And, even more impressive, considering that Bunten was inspired by boardgames that did nothing to stop the leader from making competition impossible, games that often eliminated players before a victor was crowned, and often found your entire play the whim of luck.

Modest Presentation For A Deep Game

Considering M.U.L.E.’s 1983 vintage, it should come as much surprise that the game’s visuals aren’t mind-blowing. Overall, the graphics are competent, but are clearly there only to serve the actual gameplay. They quickly and efficiently provide a visual framework for manipulating the game. Nonetheless, while each character may consist of only 16 pixels, they tend to be charming sprites.

Who Owns What (C64)Purely for the aesthetic appeal, however, welcome splash is superb. With the large acronym “MULE” consuming the upper part of the screen, the letters begin to fill with rotating dots of color. On the Atari, a rich cycling rainbow appears. While this happens, a MULE slowly plods by, later followed by each of the various races – a sort of MULE parade. During the display, the players hear the MULE theme, which remains a classic composition for the age.

Happening upon a game of MULE in progress is not an exciting thing to watch. Players must keep a lot of information in their heads, and plan their moves and strategies accordingly. A casual observer can see the phase the game is in, but not necessarily have a clear understanding of how the game is progressing.

M.U.L.E.’s History

M.U.L.E. creator Dan Bunten, like many other early game developers, was heavily inspired by board games. In this case, the classic Monopoly game was the primary inspiration for Butan due to its encouragement of social interaction and economic implications.

Initially called Planet Pioneers during development, M.U.L.E. was intended to be similar to Button’s earlier title, Cartels & Cutthroats, with more graphics, better playability, and a focus on multiplayer. The real-time auction element came largely from lead designer Dan Bunten’s Wheeler Dealers.

Released in 1983 for the Atari 800 home computer, it was soon translated to the Commodore 64 and enjoyed moderate success. The publisher was a young company called Electronic Arts, who would become renown for their high quality games during the 1980′s and early 90′s. During this time, EA was releasing titles for a fledgling market. Most households did not have computers, and those that did, often could not afford a disc drive. EA released their games in snazzy binders reminiscent of vinyl record covers, but because their games were disc based, distribution was inherently limited. 30,000 copies of MULE were sold world-wide.

Atari 800 vs. Commodore 64 As the Definitive Platform

There are subtle differences between MULE for the Atari and the Commodore 64. Some good, some bad. Atari MULE remains the definitive edition, but the C64 received a great conversion. For all purposes, the Atari version has three major things going for it. First of all, it looks better. Graphically, the two machines were similar, but usually Atari held the edge in the visuals. With MULE, this means the pirate ship looks a little better, the welcome screen looks a little better — these things, are purely cosmetic. More importantly, the Atari computers have a softer color scheme, which is less glaring — certainly easier to see.

The Atari’s, arguably, sound better. Atari had the Pokey chip for sound and a few other functions, while the Commodore had the SID chip. Both were capable of superb audio in the day, but usually the SID was capable of more — unfortunately, such attention wasn’t given over in the C64 port.

The Atari 800 version is designed to allow four people, each with a joystick to play — after all, it had four joystick ports (a feature removed from later Atari 8-Bit models). The commodore 64 had only two joystick ports. Four people could still play, but two would have to share the keyboard — a tad awkward.

Finally, both a cursing and a blessing, the C64 version is infinitely replayable where the Atari 800 is limited. To save development costs, rather than convert the 128 maps of the Atari MULE, a random map generator was quickly assembled for the C64. This ensures that the planet Irata is unique for each game of the C64. But with that, also comes a curse – Irata maps are sometimes horribly unbalanced — and, unfortunately, due to the discovery process of the game, you may not realize you’re playing on a crappy map until half way through the game. The maps for the Atari, while limited to 128 iterations, were well balanced; but extreme devotees worry that the maps will be memorized by shrewed players. Apparently, a few people thought this was sufficient enough to create a map hack for the Atari — allowing custom maps to be inserted on the disc. Frankly, unless you play M.U.L.E. professionally, this does not seem like a realistic concern.

There is also a version of MULE for the NES. Graphically, its more detailed than the Atari or Commodore version, but somewhat more bland. The sound chip of the NES, in this case, was also detrimental to the theme song. As far as gameplay is concerned, aficionados chime in that the game is marred; but having no real experience, I won’t comment.

M.U.L.E.’s Impact on the Gaming Industry

Sim CityM.U.L.E. was revolutionary in the ease with which it allowed multiplayer interaction through a single game/computer console. Unlike genre-pioneering games such as Pac-Man, Super Mario Bros, and Street Fighter 2, M.U.L.E. was not followed and real clones. Sure, you can find infinitely more complex economic simulations — some that may even support multiple players. But they lack the elegance of M.U.L.E. as they take hours upon hours to play.

Even though it has not had any direct descendants, that isn’t to say that M.U.L.E. did not make an impact on gaming as we know it twenty years later. To this day, many game designers cite the game as one of the most revolutionary ever and an inspiration for many of their games. One of the most respected developers of all time, Will Wright (of SimCity, The Sims, and Spore fame) stated, “Ask most game designers what their favorite computer game of all time is, and you’ll get M.U.L.E. as an answer more often than any other title.”

M.U.L.E’s Legacy

Even though M.U.L.E.’s developer and the machines it was built on are obsolete, people across the world continue play M.U.L.E. They play it solo, they play it in pubs, they play it over the internet on emulators — because they are hooked on a game which has no substitute. .

Dan Bunten, later Dani, would go on to develop many classic games — including the immensely popular Seven Cities of Gold. She’s regarded as a Designer’s Designer, and to many, M.U.L.E. is her greatest invention. And yet, despite the fact that M.U.L.E. still enjoys regular play, wins top honors as a classic game, its hard to discern the influence MULE has had on future games.

In general terms, Bunten understood social gaming and was one of the great pioneers of the cause — and this work can be seen as the foundation on which modern computer multiplayer gaming is built. MULE introduced many interesting ideas in terms of multiplayer balance; it kept the playfield even, so all players continue to have fun throughout – this is still a popular concept, and is now a staple of boardgames.

But outside of many obvious M.U.L.E. clones partially developed and often abandoned, and a couple Amiga and ST clones, from a popular perspective, M.U.L.E. died with the passing of 8-bit machines. There was a chance MULE would appear on the Genesis, but EA commissioned Dan Bunten during his sex change operation. Dani would discover she was not of the mindset to develop the game they wanted. EA wanted a MULE with guns, explosions and wars. And with that, a year of development stopped. So we continue to play MULE, a game over two decades old, because nothing else provides a similar — or better — experience.

M.U.L.E. In A Modern Age

There are a few modernized MULE clones out there, such as Space HoRSE. There are nice if you don’t like to go too retro with your gaming, but hardcore MULE fans will tell you that you should really give one of the original versions of MULE a solid try.

Space Horse ScreenshotThe easiest and most frugal way is to emulate your MULE. Windows users can go to Atari Mule Online, which has a prebuild archive with the Atari 800 emulator, the MULE disc image, and a Kaillera client for network play. The Atari800 emulator has been ported to many systems, and thus allows many modern and some ancient machines to enjoy MULE.

Other means would be to obtain the Atari800 emulator for the Dreamcast – which features a beautiful menu system and is an excellent port. Furthermore, the Dreamcast boasts four joystick ports, something, which, in theory, should allow people to recreate the best MULE experience.

For the Retrofreak, perhaps you want to play on the original hardware. The Atari and Commodore machines sold in the millions. Atari had many different models of its 8-bit line, but the Atari 800 was still the most popular next to the 800XL. Commodore tinkered less with their product line, thus the Commodore 64 is the single best selling personal computer in history.

Ebay has inflated many things, but a complete computer system, with joysticks, disc drive, and — for the 800 at least, additional memory cards – can be bought for less than it costs to ship the machine. Usually, this is well under the price of a modern video game. Both machines allow you to output ot S-video, as well, and, of course, open up a whole realm of 8-bit computer retro gaming glory. The C64 software library inherited the momentum Atari/Apple created years before, and continued to build long after the 16-bit computers entered the scene. Choosing either machine is not a mistake – each has exclusives and version superior to their counterparts – but the C64 certainly has a larger library of games.

Links:

  • The M.U.L.E. Manual. Read it, love it, but remember – it too leaves much for you to discover.
  • Get started playing MULE, with your windows based computer.
  • World of MULE – many websites have come and gone over the years, some of which still persist with content stale as of 2002. But this is one of the best and most active of all.
  • OpenMULE – A more recent clone in the works. There are others, none of which quite capture the same magic, nor understand the complete formula that informed the original. Nonetheless, this one is promising.
  • Space Horse – Another modern, commercial MULE clone was developed in 2004 by Gilligames. Not particularly good, by my opinion, but there.

9 Comments

  1. gnome says:

    What a brilliant game it was, though now I’ve just discovered SpaceHORSE (and I thank you very much) I think I can be happy in a properly multiplayer way!

  2. Curlypaul says:

    Never heard of the game personally so thanks for drawing my attention to it with a pretty extensive article :)

  3. fastbilly1 says:

    I was skeptical at first but after three games with the AI and one with another person it has made me an addict. It is simple but brilliant, truly one of a kind. Now if I could find a working 800

  4. 1gl00 says:

    Impressive article, although its just TOO retro for me. SimCity 2000/SimAnt/SimFarm/Pizza Tycoon/etc is a far as i can go… older than that, graphics are simply inexcusable. Nicely written, anyway. Thanks, Racketboy.

  5. Alex says:

    I’m an avid strategy fan, and I’ve never actually played this game. I should be a shame. This definitely makes me want to pick up a copy on my NES, excellent piece!

  6. idiot says:

    There’s a Flash game that looks to be heavily M.U.L.E. inspired called “LunarColony” from Left Brain Games. It’s one vs. up to three opponents as you attempt to colonize the moon. No where near as deep as M.U.L.E., but good for a quick fix.

    Great article, though it’s hard to imagine I’m one of 30,000 people who own this game.

  7. MULE Fan says:

    Atari MULE Online has moved to: http://www.atarimule.com

    Also, take heed of the new MULE clone at http://www.planetmule.com

  8. yousry says:

    You can find another MULE colone with modern 3d Graphics here: http://www.yousry.de/c-o-o-l-the-game/