Just how good does a game have to be that you wait 20 years to play it? This strange question was answered for me just this week following my acquisition of a RetroN5 from Hyperkin. Back in 1986 I worked as a shop assistant in probably the best place to buy Atari computers, games and peripherals in the UK, Silica Shop in Sidcup. I was there that I stumbled across a game that was a bit of an oddity for the time. It was a trading and commodities game, played out on a world called 'Irata' that put you and three others at the sharp end of building a successful space colony. The game was called M.U.L.E and I was sucked in, never to escape.
The concept is pretty simple, you claim a piece of the planet and do what you can to extract tradable commodities using a M.U.L.E (Multiple Use Labor Element) which is sort of a robotic donkey that can be outfitted in various ways depending on the resource you are after. Once you have prised the goodies from the soil, you then trade them with the colony, trying to create a balanced supply and demand situation that will be profitable to you but not damage the colony as a whole. Indeed you can loose the game even if you come out swimming in cash but your fellow colonists are starving to death! There are world events too; M.U.L.Es can go berserk and run away, space pirates can raid your stores and of course there are the clouds of acid rain to contend with. Shortages of supplies have consequences. Run low on food and your turn timer diminishes quicker, a lack of energy means that your plots wont produce as much yield and if smithore (a metal ore) is not mined in enough quantity there will be a lack of M.U.L.Es to work the land.
The game is really rather clever in the respect that it tempers the usual 'bludgeon everyone and rack up the most money' ideals that games of this genre usually require, and forces you to try and do things for the good of the colony, as well as yourself. I have found myself selling food that could get me $200 a unit as low as $10 a unit just to make sure the others survive a natural disaster. This is a game best played with real opponents, the 'bots' play well enough but there is not that insane unpredictability that your average deranged human can bring. The strange thing is, this game never really sold that well, just some 30,000 copies, which is quite low but it has obtained a cult following and I can really see why. Its a bit like playing 'Wipeout' on the PS1 for the first time. You crash and blunder your way around getting lost and not understanding what the hell is going on, but then you get the eureka moment and things start making sense. When that happens and the light goes on the game comes alive and the addiction starts.
So how does this relate to my 20 year wait? I had the game on my Atari 800XL back in 1986 but like the fool I was, I sold my 8-bit Atari collection in order to play Dungeon Master and Sundog on my shiny new Atari ST. Realising my mistake far too late I hunted around for a way to play it without the expense of a new 800XL, 1050 and indeed the software. Owning a PC and windows, emulation was possible (this was now 1995) but to me, it just didn't feel right. I had discovered that the game had been ported to the NES in 1990 so I set about finding a copy, and find a copy I did. Much to my disappointment, the game was only released in America and my poor, shallow pockets could only run to a PAL NES but, against all sensibility and without a thought about region locking I bought the game and put it away.
Since then it has only been opened once since I have had it. Once to see if by some miracle my PAL NES would somehow magically play it. Perhaps Nintendo were lying about region lock? Perhaps the guy who made my NES had forgot to put it in or switch it on? Just maybe... but no. The game flatly refused to work. Maybe it was broken? Maybe I had been conned? The game went back in a box, eventually being put into the loft and then over the next 20 years dragged through five house moves, four childbirths and one divorce as my collection moved with me through day to day life. Hidden, but never forgotten.
Last week I was able to purchase a Retron5, a console that allows games from various systems to be played on one machine. It also ignores regions. You can play anything from anywhere on this wonder and for the first time in 20 years I was able to re-visit Irata and re-start my farms and mining facilities and begin the carefully planned journey to the top. Gently treading on the heads and fingers of my fellow colonists on the way. I encourage you to give it a try, there are plenty of guides online and a quick google will have information and rulebooks at your fingertips in seconds, but the best way to play in my humble opinion is to be sat around your Atari with three friends and some unhealthy snacks.
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