Retro Reflections: M.U.L.E

Written by Sophie Walker and edited by Darren Melbourne. 27th March, 2024.

Pioneering the frontier of Gaming

In the pantheon of classic video games that emerged from the golden age of gaming, few titles evoke the same sense of nostalgia and innovation as M.U.L.E. Developed by Ozark Softscape’s Danielle ‘Dani’ Bunten Berry in 1983, this seminal release marked a turning point in the history of turn-based strategy video games.

M.U.L.E takes the familiar board game staple of outwitting your family and friends and brings those play dynamics into the brand new digital age. M.U.L.E was truly genre defining and would become the blueprint for all such games in the years that followed.

Picture this, it is 1983 and you have powered on your home computer to play M.U.L.E for the first time and you are greeted by a tune that is so iconic that most players can still remember it 40+ years later - massively simplistic in composition but perfectly matching the robotic donkey-like creature, the M.U.L.E - characteristically plodding along the title screen. You eagerly push start - ready for some multiplayer competition.

M.U.L.E is instantly innovative as it offers gamers the ability to play either a single player campaign or to compete with up to three other friends using the Atari’s four joystick ports.

M.U.L.E, short for “Multiple Use Labor Element,” propels players into the role of a pioneer on the distant planet of Irata, where they must colonize and develop land whilst competing against rival settlers. Players must use titular M.U.L.E units - robotic ‘mule’-like helpers that can be outfitted to harvest necessary resources such as food, energy and smithore. The M.U.L.E is also essential in completing everyday tasks including farming, mining, and energy production. At its core, the game is a complex simulation of economics and resource management, where players engage in buying and selling resources at fluctuating market prices.

The game dynamically adjusts prices based on supply and demand, creating a dynamic and competitive market, with the occasional random event to keep players on their toes. In order to win the game, the player needs to accumulate the greatest fortune which is achieved by making the correct strategic decisions about when to buy or sell and also manage their resources carefully.

There is of course the fiendish ability to cause squabbles and friction amongst other players by outwitting them and hoarding as many resources as possible. This will put the machiavellian player at an advantage, causing the others to fight for the few remaining resources.

What solidifies M.U.L.E’s importance in gaming history is the brilliance of its design, combining an innovative blend of strategy, competition, conflict and cooperation all whilst maintaining a well-balanced and immersive experience for players. At the time of M.U.L.E’s release, turn-based strategy gaming was in its infancy, with games concentrating more on combat without the intricacies of resource and economic management. In this regard M.U.L.E was truly genre defining.

Beyond its groundbreaking gameplay mechanics, M.U.L.E holds a special place in gaming culture for being the fifth game published by Electronic Arts. E.A would of course go on to become one of the most influential forces in the global entertainment industry. M.U.L.E’s success helped establish a new standard of quality and innovation in game development and almost certainly laid the groundwork for all of the real time strategy games that would follow in the decades to come.

What the Press Said

In 1983, the experience M.U.L.E presented was amplified by Softline Magazine. Editor Matt Yuen said that it is “what computer games should be like. It’s a game, and it’s a learning experience. It’s also stimulating, fun, frustrating, thought provoking, fun, addictive, and fun”. Not only was the game “fun”, but it was also praised for “offering valuable lessons” on economics and strategy.

Popular Computer Gaming Magazine named M.U.L.E for being an “all-in all, a superior game”. With praise from many magazines and press, M.U.L.E also received the “Best Multi-Player Video Game/Computer Game" in 1984 at the 5th annual Arkie (Arcade) Awards.

Cultural Impact

The game has left a significant cultural impact, with references to it appearing in various forms of digital and printed media, in video games such as StarCraft II, in literature, and even academic discussions about economics and gaming theory.

M.U.L.E’s legacy has been celebrated across well-known titles in the gaming world. Will Wright, original designer of The Sims, actually dedicated the game to the memory of Danielle Bunten’s M.U.L.E. In his other momentous title, Spore, M.U.L.E’s iconic theme song, (enjoyable from the title screen) was included as an ‘Easter Egg’ in the space portion of the game.

Perhaps most importantly, M.U.L.E’s cultural significance extends beyond its technical achievements. The game’s creator, Danielle Bunten Berry, was not only a pioneer in the field of game design but also a transgender woman whose work helped to challenge stereotypes and promote inclusivity in the gaming industry.

About Danielle Bunten Berry

Danielle’s journey as a transgender woman in the male-dominated world of gaming serves as a powerful reminder of the importance of diversity and representation in the industry. Her legacy continues to inspire countless developers and players alike, underscoring the transformative power of gaming as a medium for empowerment and awareness.

In retrospect, M.U.L.E stands as a testament to the enduring legacy of the creative genius of Danielle Bunten Berry. Its innovative gameplay, cultural significance, and enduring appeal have solidified its place in the annals of gaming history, ensuring that it will be remembered and celebrated for generations to come.

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