M.U.L.E., Atari 8-Bit

M.U.L.E. (meaning: Multiple-Use Labour Elements) is a classic business-based strategy game that mixes turn-based and real-time gameplay, and supply-and-demand economics, with multiplayer competition for up to four players. It was designed by the late Danielle Bunten Berry of Ozark Softscape and first published for Atari 8-bit computers by Electronic Arts in North America in 1983. Later, Ariolasoft published the game in Europe, and Bullet Proof Software published the game in Japan. M.U.L.E. was also converted to a number of other systems and has become something of a cult hit since its original release.

M.U.L.E. is set on the fictional planet of Irata (Atari backwards), and the aim is to enter into competition with three other colonists (called “Planeteers“) to ensure the survival of the colony, as well as acquire the most wealth. Up to four human players can participate, with the computer providing AI-based opponents to fill-in for missing players.

Central to the game is the use of M.U.L.E.s – four-legged constructs that 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 “Tournament” level). Players must balance supply and demand, buying what they need and selling any surplus. Players can create and exploit shortages by refusing to sell to other players or to the “store”, and can enter into private transactions with others, which encourages “scheming” between players.

Players must also deal with periodic random events, such as runaway M.U.L.E.s, sunspot activity, pest attacks, fires, bonus money from contests or purchases, theft by space pirates, bad weather, and meteorite strikes. Favourable random events never happen to the player in first place, and unfavourable events never happen to the player in last place. Similarly, when two players bid to buy the same resource at the same price, the player in the lowest-ranked position always wins. Players can also gamble, and “hunt the mountain Wampus” for cash rewards.

Before starting the game each player must choose one of seven different species to play as (Spheroid, Bonzoid, Humanoid, Flapper, Leggite, Gollumer, and Packer). Humanoids are the ‘Expert’ species so start with $400 less money. Flappers are the ‘Beginner’ species so start with an extra $600. There is an eighth species, called “Mechtron” but this is a computer-only species. Once you’ve chosen your species you then choose its colour and then a short animated sequence shows the transport ship dropping you on Irata.

Each Planeteer chooses a plot of land at the beginning of the game, then take turns to make their move. During turns each colonist has a limited amount of time to decide what to do. You need to walk into the M.U.L.E. shop; purchase one, and then take it to the appropriate resource centre to ‘outfit’ it for the job; then you walk it back to your plot to set it going. You can also visit the Pub to gamble some money. When your time runs out you must then wait for all the other players to take a turn. After that there’s a random event; then a status screen, and then the buying/selling round begins. Buying and selling includes resources such as energy, food, and commodities, and each is done as an auction where the seller sets a price and the buyers make an offer by moving a line up and down.

Once the auction round has finished the cycle then begins again, with the current leader going first and the rest following, depending on their ranking. Each player chooses another plot of land and outfits a M.U.L.E. to set up its resource. This continues on until the transport ship returns and the Planeteer with the most money at the end is the winner.

While M.U.L.E. may look extremely primitive by today’s standards its gameplay has stood the test of time remarkably well, and the game is still worth playing today. The jolly music and cute characters give the game personality, and the multiplayer aspect of it is similar in some respects to Monopoly.

It may not appeal to everyone, but anyone who’s played M.U.L.E. before will know how compelling and entertaining it can be. If you like resource-management games and have never played it before: M.U.L.E. is definitely a game worth learning how to play. To some it is a ‘rite of passage’ as far as gaming is concerned. It’s definitely a classic.

M.U.L.E. was later converted to the Commodore 64, PC, MSX, and NES/Famicom. A remake, called MULE Returns, is currently in the making and is listed as “coming soon” on Steam.

More: M.U.L.E. on Wikipedia
Steam: MULE Returns on Steam

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