For more than twenty years a certain portly plumber has enjoyed fame and glory, but his meteoric rise couldn’t have been possible without the aid of videogame’s unsung heroes, the mushrooms. Thanks to Red Fly Studio’s first effort for the system that Mario built, Mushroom Men: The Spore Wars, the stolen spotlight is finally being trained on these brave fungi. Built on the irradiated bones of a classic 50’s monster movie, the game takes place in a world where mushrooms have achieved sentience thanks to a healthy dusting of green meteorite mojo. For them, this leads to war, but for us it leads to a visually inventive, sonically ingenious third person platformer that, though hampered by sloppy controls, repetitive combat and generic gameplay, has style and charm to spare.
You play as the nomadic Pax, last remaining member of the Bolete tribe, who finds himself thrust into the titular Spore Wars, an ongoing battle between the aggressive, poisonous Amanita and the peaceful, delectable Morels. Thanks to his mysterious connection with the power-bestowing meteorite chunks scattered across the land, Pax soon finds himself the target of the Amanita’s wrath, and pitches in his lot with the friendlier fungus. During the course of his short nine-chapter quest, players will experience a world original in its sights and sounds, if not disappointingly generic in its gameplay.
Mushroom Men is ripe with style, but beneath the surface lurks a fairly standard platformer. Flip a switch. Clear an obstacle. Reach a platform. They toss in a few minigames and puzzles for good measure, but there’s sadly nothing new here in terms of gameplay, though the surreal perspective might mask this flaw for a brief time. Viewed through the eyes of a three-inch-high Mushroom Man, a junk-strewn room becomes a sprawling, towering terrain begging for exploration. Common, real-world environments like a garage, trailer, kitchen and funeral home all feel fresh due to the reversed sense of scale. You’ll cross a bridge made from a television remote, soar in a hot air balloon built from an inflatable pool toy and a sardine can, and explore a village constructed from buttons, bottle caps and license plates. Many of the levels require you to scale massive structures or investigate hidden areas, requiring Pax to reach into his bag of tricks: holding his cap to glide, using his quarter machine “Sticky Hand” to reach new heights or his “Sporekinesis” to move objects and spring traps.
Pax can also create an assortment of weapons from household items. Collectibles come in three flavors: meteorite chunks which increase your health and spore powers, “scav” which can be used to construct weapons, and concept art. There are dozens of weapons to build among the four types—bashing, slashing, piercing, and radical—and each one sports a funny name and clever construction. For example, Jumping Jack Bash is comprised of a miniature golf pencil, a metal jumping jack and a rubber band while The Iron Thumb is cobbled together from a Nintendo DS stylus, a thimble and a piece of chewed gum. Unfortunately, the variety doesn’t count for much as your newest weapon is almost always your most powerful, leaving little incentive to switch between items in your colorful collection.
While weapon selection lacks strategy, it’s still better than combat, which has been completely deprived of coordination, comfort and dignity. Combat has been relegated solely to the waggle world. Swing the remote once in any direction to strike, repeatedly to perform a combo, your wild gesticulations will be rewarded with a canned animation regardless. As a result, combat gets old fast as it’s really just an uncoordinated, and after several hours of playing, uncomfortable race to trigger your attack animation before the enemy triggers theirs, making the whole motion control aspect feel pretty pointless. It is nice, however, to see the game’s creepy, campy sense of humor incorporated into the fighting. There’s no health meter display, but when Pax takes damage his mushroom cap will peel away to reveal the glowing brain beneath. When your pulsating, purple cerebrum is laid completely bare, you’ve got one more hit before becoming fertilizer. Dying isn’t much of a setback, however, as you respawn relatively close to where you died.
This isn’t always a good thing, as there are times you’d gladly trade progress for direction. Though the game is fairly linear, the sheer scale and scope of the environments, combined with the problematic lack of a map, sometimes leaves you at a loss for where to go and what to do. When you first enter a new area, you’ll usually be treated to a brief bird’s eye view of the environment, but blink and there’s no way to go back and play it again. Add to this some truly terrible camera controls, which are awkwardly mapped to the d-pad, and the platforming part of this platformer can become a real chore.
Mushroom Men’s best feature by far is its eccentric and evocative presentation. Though actual gameplay doesn’t look as good as the concept art shown during loading screens, there’s still an organic, vibrant feeling to the graphics, which straddle that Tim Burton-esque line between creepy and cutesy. The music is even more compelling; a synthesized blend of beats courtesy of Primus’ front man and bassist Les Claypool. I don’t even like Primus, but his quirky brand of “funk metal” could not be better suited to this dark, dank and delightful world. In addition to the main theme music, Claypool contributed several original tracks to represent the game’s different races, which have been blended by music and sound design group Gl33k into the strangest, most dynamic soundscape ever experienced in a videogame. From the hum of an exposed wire to the drip of a leaky pipe, the earthy sound effects weave together to create a hypnotizing rhythm, eventually building into a swelling soundtrack that moves, jumps and soars just as you do. This is because all the music and sound effects have been built around a groundbreaking metronome system, meaning all the visual and auditory ambient effects occur in sync with the music, making for a subtlety immersive experience you certainly won’t find in any other Wii title currently gracing store shelves.
While I can’t agree with the box quote’s claim that this is “the best game for the Wii since Mario Galaxy,” there is certainly enough visual style and musical moxy to give Mushroom Men a shot at becoming a successful franchise. Unfortunately, the generic platforming gameplay and frustrating combat and camera controls don’t do justice to this vividly imagined world, problems that no amount of charm will be able to gloss over should they carry over into the sequel. But even in its current flawed form, you can see the potential oozing from every nook and cranny. If you don’t mind a game that emphasizes stylishness over substance, you could certainly do worse than Mushroom Men: The Spore Wars.
- Quirky design aesthetic
- Absolutely amazing music and sound effects
- Weapons cleverly crafted from an assortment of everyday junk
- Motion controlled combat is repetitive
- Awkward camera controls
- Woeful lack of map makes progress needlessly frustrating