M.U.L.E. was Dani Bunten’s ingenious commodities-driven deathmatch bidding arena. I didn’t play it when it came out in 1983, because it wasn’t on the Apple II. I didn’t even know what it was back then. It wasn’t until many years later that I finally tried it with some friends. In the same room, of course. That’s how all games worked back then. I figured we’d try it, although I thought we were in for the strategy game equivalent of Pong. No one wants to play Pong ever again, just like no one wants to gin his own cotton, read Beowulf on a long flight, or hang up a poster of the Bayeux Tapestry in his living room. Pong is a musty relic with no modern relevance beyond its role in videogame history. That’s what I figured was going on with M.U.L.E.
But it turned out M.U.L.E. was (and still is) an amazing game. Sure, it’s ugly. Good graphics hadn’t been invented back in 1983. But Bunten managed a simple — not simplistic! — player-driven cutthroat economy based on real estate, commodities, and auctions. God, I’m making it sound boring, I know. But it’s really not. It’s really, really not. M.U.L.E. is freakishly before-its-time game design, as if someone had made the movie Casablanca at the moment the daguerreotype had been invented. The only reason you’re not playing M.U.L.E. today, in some form or another, is because the videogame industry — really, it was more of a scene at that point — was about to explode based on Doom’s appeal to adolescent male power fantasies learned from action movies. It would take a while before the rest of the world discovered what we were up to, and by that time, Sid Meier and Will Wright had carved out their own niche where Dani Bunten’s work would have been.
But M.U.L.E. is a nearly unrivaled work of game design genius that will hold up if you gather four friends around a single screen. Sure, some of it is dated. You play it with joysticks, for Pete’s sake. We don’t even have those anymore! But the design is timeless.
After the jump, if it kicks like a M.U.L.E… Continue reading →