[8 February 2009]
PopMatters Associate Multimedia Editor
As video games have grown into their own, popular genres and styles have not only come to pass but have passed out of popularity as well. The linear fiction or adventure game, once the most popular style of computer game, is now in the minority. 2-D games are a rarity now. On many levels this comes from the inherent desire to always have our games do something new, to follow the critical mantra of “Astonish Us!” by creating new and more exciting game designs. And yet developers still turn back to these older models and churn out new games using them. They are reliable, recognizable, and their inherent familiarity allows the developer to focus on elements of games that are typically neglected, like content or story.
In the case of Mushroom Men: The Spore Wars, a unique aesthetic and excellent musical score has been installed into a conventional 3-D platformer. Unfortunately, for all the innovation in the title, it is not applied in a way that suitably overcomes the inherent problems of the genre.
Developed by Red Fly Studios, Mushroom Men was designed by a group of mostly artists who set out with the goal to create something visually unique. A green meteor has crashed into the Earth and mutated a group of plants and mushrooms into sentient beings. The game takes place in the world these little “people” have fashioned for themselves. Bits of junk and human tools are creatively applied to build towers, platforms, and other devices for the mushroom people. These will often have cheeky references attached, such as a ‘Jello Kitty’ box featuring a bloated ‘Hello Kitty’ or a Japanese restaurant named after Miyamoto. The attention to tiny details is pretty impressive throughout the game, making each level interesting purely from seeing what the artists have set up. Level goals are also organized creatively by having a blacked out canvas be your mission rundown. As you finish objectives in a map, the images appear and you slowly complete the picture.
The game design that this unique world is built on does have a few interesting twists. Weapons are gained in pieces rather than in chunks, adding a new layer to the typical scavenger hunts of platformers. Waggling the Wii-mote attacks, ‘A’ jumps, and the pointing abilities are put to great effect as a way to move items. When you die, you immediately grow back at another part of the level, and each map is generally filled with regenerating health plants. You also collect meteor chunks to increase your health, random items to unlock art, and generally bop around like you would in Super Mario Galaxy or Psychonauts.
What the design doesn’t do that distinguishes these other games is find a way to bring this creative world to life. I’m not going to argue that there is a set way to create this kind of engagement, because comparing new games to old ones can easily devolve into smacking innovation. Nor are any of the levels designed particularly badly with the exception of the last one. The best one in the game, exploring a garage while tackling five mutant rabbits, is an excellent combination of puzzle solving and exploration. Almost all of the maps have multiple goals that can be solved in any order and will allow the player to engage on their own terms. It’s just that…these worlds always feel empty. There are NPC mushroom men scattered throughout the game, and yet their dialogue rarely goes beyond “Fetch this. Solve that.” All of the maps are filled with fascinating contraptions and bits of junk, yet they rarely amount to anything more than levers or doorways. Outside of the visuals, there’s nothing else communicating a sense of place or theme in this game. One of the best reasons to use an older game design is because it is the best way to communicate the message you have for the game. The issue with Mushroom Men is that it doesn’t have much to communicate.
Outside of the visuals, the other major innovation of the game is hiring Les Claypool to make the soundtrack. Bringing his eclectic style to full effect, the game has an excellent soundtrack of beats and slow rhythms. Claypool was pleased enough with the final product that he’s organizing lyrics and planning to release a full album. What little character many of these strange creatures have is brought out through the unique use of music and layering. In one boss battle, each hit means another layer of music gets added until a full blasting track is playing near the end. The result noticeably improves the drama of a battle. The trouble, as with the wacky art, is that this isn’t quite enough to really hook you into the game. It’s the things they say and do that grab us; the appearance and music can only do so much on their own.
Ultimately, Mushroom Men is one of those games that’s interesting for its experiments and noticing the problems that come from its omissions. The low difficulty and strange aesthetic could make it a good buy for a young gamer or someone who just enjoys the platforming genre. In general though, the game’s opening summarizes it up nicely. There’s a lot of really cool art while a narrator explains that your village was destroyed by evil mushrooms and you’ve been wandering around ever since. The huge amounts of emotion and empathy that we could be experiencing are instead shown only through the art and music. That’s pretty much how the rest of the game works. There are a couple of things to like about Mushroom Men, but not enough to justify buying it before it’s in the bargain bins.