November 11, 2005
Atari M.U.L.E. Online!
M.U.L.E., a planetary-colonization/trading simulator that turned economic bartering into an adrenalized action-strategy mixture, was for years considered a lost classic of the 8-bit era. Happily, today's gamers can now re-experience this game verbatim - and now, with full online multiplayer capabilities.
M.U.L.E. has been available on modern systems through an Atari emulation. The downside was that you could only tap into multiplayer mode the way our forebears did: by cramming up to four people around a single machine. But now, thanks to the folks at Kaillera and Atari800WinPlus, up to four colonists can play M.U.L.E. with each other over the net with the new Atari M.U.L.E. Online package.
Fondly remembered for its addictive gameplay, tongue-in-cheek humor, and criminally catchy theme music, M.U.L.E. was a masterpiece crammed into a simple-but-ingenious interface. The premise was simple: up to four aliens were dropped on the planet Irata ("Atari" backwards), and granted one parcel of land per turn. Players could then purchase MULEs (Multiple Use Labor Elements - essentially multipurpose worker robots) and set them to work harvesting food, energy, smithore, or the invaluable crystite. Economic output was determined by player race (some were better for harvesting food, some for raising energy, and so on), land type, and happenstance. But it was after the production phase, during trading, where the real excitement kicked in. Players would attempt to hawk off excess goods, or buy or sell supplies like food or energy. Players who devoted their land towards mining might make a killing selling their valuable minerals - but then could be at the mercy of others who sold the food or energy they needed.
The bartering portion featured one of the most ingenious interfaces ever designed. Sellers stood at the top of the screen, and buyers at the bottom. Each could physically push a line towards the other end, which represented the price at which they'd be willing to buy or sell. When the two lines met, a transaction occurred. Not only did this perfectly illustrate the concepts of supply and demand in visual terms, but it turned the cerebral activity of economic trade into a visceral real-time experience. The spectacle of three players literally racing to push the "buy" line towards a seller sitting loftily at the top of the screen was one of the most entertaining and memorable aspects of gameplay.
A lot of old games are revered simply because of nostalgia, but M.U.L.E. deserves its reputation as a classic, and now new gamers can experience it firsthand, and better than before. Check it out - preferably when you have a lot of free time to kill.