Nov 28 2008

Great Games #1: M.U.L.E.

I got my first computer pretty late in life, compared to most people in the business. I gazed longingly at the Commodore systems in the Sears catalog as a kid, but hundreds of dollars for what was basically a toy at the time wasn’t even conceivable. Once I got out on my own and didn’t have anyone around to tell me to be sensible with my money, I hustled down to Sears and spent around $700-800 on a Commodore 128DCR. I didn’t have a printer, so I really couldn’t do anything productive with it. (Nor did I have anything productive to do.) There was no Internet to speak of then outside colleges and military bases, and no home computer software to access it anyway. There was an online service specifically for Commodores called Q-Link, but I couldn’t afford the long distance charges from my small town.

What I could afford was blank disks, and I had Commodore-owning friends with lots of games; so for the few years before I got online, my 128DCR was a glorified C64 game machine. But what wonderful games they were. My current computer has 5600 times the CPU speed and 15,625 times the memory, but I haven’t found many modern games more enjoyable than the ones made for that slow, primitive system. We waited minutes for games to load, we fought with poor interfaces and buggy software, we listened to screechy sound effects, and we got stuck on games because there were no walk-throughs and Internet forums to get help from. But they were fun. Modern games blow them away in audio, graphics, and complexity; but often they forget to be fun.

M.U.L.E. was one of the funnest. It’s the only game I remember that let all four players play simultaneously during some parts, two with joysticks and two with portions of the keyboard. The back-story was that four colonists were dropped on the planet Irata, and would be using Multiple Use Labor Elements (MULEs, basically robots) to mine plots of land for food, energy, smithore (used for making more MULEs) and crystite (a mineral worth lots of money). There were 12 turns representing 12 months. On each turn you could buy plots of land, buy MULEs and send them to develop plots, assay plots for crystite, buy and sell goods at the central store, and hunt the mountain wampus, a beast that would pay to be released if you caught it.

At the end of twelve months the colony ship returned, and the colonist with the most stuff was the winner. A nice twist, though, was that the game praised the winner based on the total wealth of the colony. So winning by stomping the other colonists wasn’t as rewarding as winning while everyone else prospered too. The game was created by the late Dani Bunten, who wanted to create a non-violent game that encouraged cooperation but was still fun and competitive. Judging by how many times we played it in the middle of the night after work, despite the 2-3 minute load time and the fact that a 4-human game could take a few hours, it succeeded in those goals.

I still fire it up occasionally in a C64 emulator and play against three computer players, and it’s still fun. They aren’t all that smart, though—AI hadn’t really come very far in those days at one million instructions per second—so they’re easy to beat. There have been attempts to remake the game for online multiplayer, but they always seem to die out. I’ve been kicking the idea of a truly turn-based web version around in my head for about a year now, and I think I’ve worked out the basic structure of it, but we’ll see if I ever get the time and ambition to actually do it. I was starting to think I’d do it in Java, but Jason says Java still stinks, so that’s disappointing. Thinking about doing it all via HTTP makes my head hurt, but maybe it’s doable. It’d sure be fun to be able to play against three real people again—and if I don’t have to huddle around a keyboard with three other drunk guys to do it, so much the better!

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