Mushroom Men: The Spore Wars
Developer: Red Fly Studio
Publisher: SouthPeak Games
Release Date: 12/02/2008
Some of my friends like to be updated frequently about the games I get to review. One of them recently asked me if anything new had landed into my mailbox. I told him that I indeed received something new; something about a meteorite spreading a dust on Earth that gives life and sentience to things like mushrooms and plants. The look on his face was one of uncertainty, asking if I had invented that storyline on the spot just to mess with him. I guess that some people just don’t like overly quirky games. Me? I love quirky.
Knowing this, it should come as no surprise that I was eagerly anticipating this game. With a premise as original as anything that came out since the start of the decade, Mushroom Men had already piqued my interest when it was first announced months ago. When I learned that the music would be done by Les Claypool of Primus fame, it gave the title an automatic spot on my watch list. However, it’s when I read that the game would incorporate elements of platformers and action games that I truly started following its development. After all, I have been raised on this type of games and the genre has remained a favourite of mine ever since. Needless to say, I saw a lot of potential in the saga of mushrooms at war with each others. After all, if done correctly, this game could lead to a new money-making franchise, as the hero, Pax the Bolete Mushroom, is well-defined and completely likeable. Red Fly Studios and Gamecock both seem to understand this too, as they already released the prequel to the Wii game on the DS under the title Mushroom Men: Rise of the Fungi.
The DS outing was deemed a decent title by my colleague Aaron Sirois. Let’s see how its Wii sibling fares.
A while ago, a meteorite crashed on Earth and brought along a green cloud of dust that spread around. Scientists concluded that since it had no effect on humans, it was completely harmless and innocent. Apparently, they forgot to check at their feet as upon further inspection, they would have noticed that things that were usually inanimate, like mushrooms and plants, have gained sentience, while small mammals, like moles and rabbits, have gone completely insane. The mushrooms quickly organized into tribes and prospered for a while, building habitats and tools with discarded human objects. However, as it seems to happen with every organized society on this planet, war eventually happened, leaving the Bolete tribe as the biggest casualty. Pax, one of the surviving Bolete, is sent on a mission to recover a chunk of the meteor after he accidentally absorbed his village’s part.
The story of Mushroom Men is quickly explained when starting a new game by a B-movie style video, complete with an organ-filled soundtrack and dramatic-sounding narrator. The rest is explained with cut-scenes sprinkled through the game, all of them filled with style.
Honestly, there is just so much to like here. What we have in our hands is an original premise that is masterfully developed into an interesting story. One thing I feared when approaching this game was that it would eventually degenerate into something bland, much like a generic tale of good versus evil, or how an underdog can survive in an aggressive world. Instead, the developers gave real personalities to each species. Some tribes are more peaceful, while others are more akin to war-oriented societies. There even are religiously fanatic mushrooms and ninja mushrooms. It may not look like much, but to have so many different races inhabit the game world means that the game becomes more immersive as you progress. The game world may not be that large, but at least, it looks like it is populated. Too many games give you the impression of living in immense places that are completely deserted. Mushroom Men is on the opposite end of the spectrum. It may be smaller, but every inch is inhabited by wildly different characters.
The only bad thing I can say about the story is that I would have liked to see even more of it. I felt as if the game was only showing the surface of something bigger. Sometimes, you are thrown in a new level without much explanation about why you accomplish the objective outside of making it to the next level. It is strange to say of a game about mushrooms, but I would have liked to see more of the “human” side of the characters, such as their struggles and motivations.
Still, what’s there is very interesting and shows that more can be done within this universe.
Story Rating: Great
There’s no way I could say these are the best graphics on the Wii, but the visuals are still very pretty. Let’s start with the characters. They are detailed and perfectly animated, and the hit detection is absolutely flawless. The camera always follows Pax, but it is possible to move the camera anywhere around him with the control pad. Because of that, it is nearly impossible to get stuck near a wall or behind an obstacle as there is always a way to move your point of view in a practical way. The camera simply goes back to its default position after a while.
The best thing about the graphics is, without a doubt, the backgrounds. They are absolutely beautiful and convey a good idea of what being three inches tall really would be like. The whole game is very dark, but not too much as to make things hard to distinguish. Instead, there’s a purplish hue that permeates through everything. It creates an eerie atmosphere similar to a cheap science-fiction flick, and it actually works in a good way. I can easily call one of the most stylish games I have played since Super Mario Galaxy. As a bonus, concept arts can be unlocked by collecting tokens through the game.
My only problem with the graphics is that they seem to be somewhat low in resolution. The textures, though varied, are blurry in many places, and some of the enemies look like they are made out of wax. However, my research indicates that the only other Wii game on which Red Fly Studio has worked is the still-in-development Ghostbusters: The Game, so it needs to be said that Mushroom Men is a venerable first effort.
Graphics Rating: Good
I love Les Claypool as a musician. The good news is that he helped create the soundtrack for Mushroom Men. The even better news is that his work translates very well into the realm of video games. His signature sound is present all the way through and fits the game perfectly. It has been a while since I have been this enchanted by a soundtrack.
The music actually slows down or accelerates depending on what’s going on. It feels appropriately epic during boss fights and equally subtle when characters are interacting. It builds an atmosphere that’s in the same spirit as the graphics, somewhat surreal and strange, but very fitting to the story of a mushroom warrior on an adventure.
The sound effects are just as good and never feel out of place, but really, it is the soundtrack that is the star here. It gets a “two thumbs up”, and I would even raise a third thumb if I possessed such an appendage.
Sound Rating: Unparalleled
CONTROL AND GAMEPLAY
Mushroom Men is a 3D platformer in the purest sense: it is all about completing the objective before making it to the level’s exit. The game still has a couple of tricks up its sleeve to make things interesting. First of all is the weapon management system. Everyday items such as matches, razorblades and bottle caps can be mixed and matched to create new weapons for Pax, eventually building an entire arsenal, with each weapon having its pros and cons. Some of them are better fitted for close combat while others are projectile based but require ammos. You will eventually find your favourite style of combat, but the variety at hand is nice.
Second of all, there is the fact that the game forces you to see the world through the eyes of a three-inch high entity. The objects that we see as common are cleverly placed to create levels that are actually fun to navigate. If compared to the Army Men games of the N64 era, which used a similar design but in an atrocious way, Mushroom Men is its antithesis. It is possible to interact with nearly everything in the environments, and some of the bigger foes can even be killed in one hit with “environmental kills”. For example, it is much easier to wait for a rabbit to wander under a set of weights and drop it all on it than to take it on face-to-face.
As for the controls, I appreciate the fact that the camera is entirely controllable with the d-pad, as it prevents a lot of issues that I would now consider normal in platformers, such as seeing through walls whenever you get stuck between obstacles. The rest of the controls are more than competent, without too much emphasis on motion controls. In fact, they are only used to attack, which actually makes sense since your character swings sticks at his enemies for most of the game. Also at Pax’ disposition are a cap glide manoeuvre, which makes him float to hard to reach places, and a “Sporekinesis” power, which gives renders him able to move objects that have been “infected” by the green dust with his mind. It almost feels like Jedi powers, and as such, it can be used in a way similar to The Force Unleashed. It is indeed possible to throw the objects at your foes, which is a practical when health gets low and you don’t want to take the fight up close.
As you progress through the game, a new power becomes available as Pax finds a “sticky hand” – you know these gelatinous hands that you can stretch and swing around until they stick to any surface they hit? – which acts just like a hookshot in any Zelda game. Simply put, it allows the player to cross long distances much faster, and it prevents many frustrating moments, as you can simply use it to reach back to the top of a platform if you fell down accidently.
One of the things that I love about this game is that you cannot really die. Some people will say that it makes it too easy, but I just think it is a tremendous time saver. In Mushroom Men, the only thing that happens when you lose all your health points is that Pax falls only to be teleported to the nearest save point. Thankfully, there are save points aplenty in this game, and they are all invisible. The game is simply saved automatically every once in a while. Another neat thing is that there are no meters at all on screen. Instead, Pax loses parts of his head as he takes hits, eventually exposing his brain. It leaves the entire place to the gameplay, and helps create an atmosphere of immersion.
The truth is that I have rarely seen a platform game with controls this tight. It is approaching the lofty standards set in the genre by the Mario series that few games are able to touch, let alone even think about.
Control and Gameplay Rating: Classic
Like most games of its genre, Mushroom Men relies on collecting items to extend its replay value. For example, there are tokens that will unlock concept art, hidden items to build new weapons, and meteor parts to increase your power. None of them are entirely necessary to finish the game, and chances are that you probably won’t even have amassed half of them by the time you are done with the main story. If you are simply racing through the stages, we’re talking about 6 to 8 hours of gameplay for a normal gamer. In my case, it was more around 10 hours, but I have never been known for my talents in gaming.
There is also a multiplayer mode available, which is more or less what Super Mario Galaxy offered. A second player can join your quest as an invisible entity that can help you kill baddies and exploit your Sporekinesis powers. It is fun for a while, but it lacks stimulation for the second player.
Replayability Rating: Mediocre
Mushroom Men has a nice pace all the way through. It is always a bit more on the easy side, but at least, they stick with their choice of difficulty for the duration of the game instead of hitting you with frustrating levels near the end. The boss fights are almost too easy however, with some of them taking less than a minute to defeat. Most of the fights are based on simple patterns that can be learned within the first few seconds. On the plus side, the game never slows down in term of action. There are no empty moments in sight and the pace is never hindered by heavy narratives. The only time when things get a bit dull is if you absolutely intend on collecting every last collectible item in the game.
Balance Rating: Above Average
Any game based on organized societies of mushrooms gets an automatic pass in this category, but it’s even better if these societies are at war with each others. The story itself deserves nothing less than the highest praises, but there is one other innovation worthy of our admiration. The “Scav” system, in which you need to amass items to build new weapons, is superbly implemented and creative. Some elements in the game, such as the multiplayer mode, seem to be borrowed from other games, but the theme and gameplay system more than make up for these little things.
Originality Rating: Classic
It’s a great game while it lasts. You will want to come back to the surreal world presented in this game as often as possible. Unfortunately, it will be over before too long, and once you are done with the main adventure, the addictiveness takes a nose dive.
Addictiveness Rating: Above Average
It is a great game for everybody. The story is fascinating while the gameplay is timeless. Children and adults alike will have a blast with this game. The only problem is to try and gauge how much a game about living mushrooms will interest the masses. My initial reaction is that it will need good word-of-mouth in order to succeed, but the cover and story are enough to catch someone’s eye in a store.
Appeal Factor Rating: Good
Hockey coaches like to use an expression when it comparing a simply good player to a superstar: “He does the little things right”. This is exactly the case with Mushroom Men. It looks to me like no shortcuts were taken during the development of the game. The development team took their time in creating a strange, surreal atmosphere that is palpable in every level of the game. At times, it almost feels as if you are playing an interactive movie, a strange cross between something Ed Wood and Pixar would do. The result is a charming game that is heavy on fun and light on frustrations. The opposite is true in a lot of platform and action games I have played in the last few years. Thankfully, Red Fly Studio got the formula right.
Miscellaneous Rating: Unparalleled
Balance: Above Average
Addictiveness: Above Average
Final Score: VERY GOOD GAME!
Short Attention Span Summary
This is exactly what the Wii needs: a fun and original system exclusive. Everything in the game, from the character design to the soundtrack shows that Mushroom Men was a true labour of love. The game is a sweet ride from start to finish that shows that you don’t need to have “Mario” in the title to make a great platform game on a Nintendo console. It’s shorter than I would have liked it to be, but the pure happiness it can bring you is enough to warrant a purchase. Mushroom Men: The Spore Wars is highly recommended.