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1983 was a great year to be a geek. TCP/IP was finalized on the ARPAnet, Lotus 1-2-3 started it’s almost decade long strangle hold on accounting software, the IBM PC-XT was released, Billie Jean was on every radio, Return of the Jedi was released, and in the mix of it all, one of the most influential pc games of all time was released to Atari 8bit computers. M.U.L.E. (hence forth MULE) is a heated strategy economic multiplayer game that became the darling of parties shortly after its release. Sadly, the years after MULE was released it fell into relative obscurity to the point that most gamers nowadays have never even heard of it. So let’s correct that and get those Multiple Use Labor Element’s out to work.
Created by Ozark Softscape, MULE was spearheaded by the programmer Dan Bunten. Building it as a mix of Heinleins novels and Monopoly with Empire Strikes Back’s ATAT walkers, MULE was to be a space based wild west game similar to Cartels and Cutthroats. However Dan had a great idea of using a real time auction element from one of his previous games and thus MULE as we know it was born.
MULE is a multiplayer strategy game with economic elements about colonizing the planet IRATA (ATARI in reverse). You get to choose from a bevy of races, each with pros and cons, and you are attempting to obtain the most amount of money at the end of twelve (12) rounds and have the colony at a certain level. Each round is made up of four turns (one for each player) and an auction. Your turn will begin in the colony and you have several options. You need to make money, generate energy, grow food, mine smithore, and collect crystite (if you are playing on tournament mode). All of these (except making money) is based on your MULE’s. So to generate energy, you have to grab a MULE from the MULE corral then have it outfitted for power generators, then take it out to the map and set it up.
You can setup your MULEs of any type on any space you own, but power is best generated on fields while food is best in waterbeds. To make this even more interesting you are timed based on your food production. After you have done all the work you can in the field, you can go to the only gambling pub ever where the player always beats the house and earn alittle bit of money. Now that seems simple enough, but that is only part of the game. After everyone has had a chance to develop their land, we enter an auction phase. Each round, each commodity is put up for auction. How auctions works is that players can signify that they will either buy or sell and then by moving their character up or down on the graph they can raise/lower the price. This is done in real time with a time limit, so it is possible to drop a limited amount of goods on someone for a lot of money, or vice versa.
There are also random events that can happen after the auction. You have to be careful how you play though because you need all three of the major resources or else your production will be slowed or stopped. So the game is a careful balance of a dozen variables, but after a game or two you will understand them all.
- Atari 8-bit computers – 1983
- Commodore 64 – 1983
- MSX2 -1983
- PC – 1984
- NES – 1990
“If I look back on it, a long time ago there was a PC game called M.U.L.E. I had made exclusively action games but at some point vaguely felt like ‘ahh, I want to make a game like that.’ There are parts of Pikmin 1 that are connected to that.” – Shigeru Miyamoto
M.U.L.E. has had a profound effect on the gaming industry as a whole but most modern gamers have never heard of it. Sadly most retrogamers have not either. To be honest, I did not play it until in 1998 when I found a copy in my schools techlab in a box of unmarked floppies for the PCjr that was in the corner of the room. I fired it up and lost most of the rest of that period figuring out the game. I went home and found a more modern PC version I could install on my family’s PC. For such a keystone game of the early 80s, with such an interesting story associated with it, it is amazing that it has mostly disappeared. Sadly part of its disappearance is based on what happened to the creator.
Dan Bunten made several followup games but none met much critical acclaim. There is a rumor that when at Micropose Dan was given a choice to make a computer version of Civilization or Axis and Allies and Sid Meier talked Bunten into doing Axis and Allies (which was released as Command HQ in 1990). Bunten was a strong proponent of multiplayer gaming and made a very powerful statement of “No one ever said on their deathbed, ‘Gee, I wish I had spent more time alone with my computer.” However in 1992 Bunten went through sex reassignment surgery and began to live as Danielle Bunten. In 1993, while developing MULE for the Sega Genesis/Megadrive, Bunten killed the project due EAs insistent that weapons should be added to the game.
Bunten moved away from console games and developed Warsport in 1997. Most of her games were not critical successes but have been recognized by the industry as being very ahead of their time and she was given the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Computer Game Developers Association in May of 1998. Shortly after, in July of 1998, Danielle Bunten Berry passed away from lung cancer. In 2000, Will Wright dedicated his game The Sims to Danielle Bunten.
If you’d like to read more from the Racketboy staff about MULE, checkout Retro Masterpiece: MULE
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