Monday, January 5, 2009

Mushroom Men: The Spore Wars

Today I will review the breath of fresh air for the Wii that is Mushroom Men: The Spore Wars.

Developer: Red Fly Studio

Publisher: Gamecock Media Group

Genre: Action Adventure/Platform

Rating: E 10+ for Mild Fantasy Violence and Animated Blood

No. of Players: 1, 2-player cooperative and minigames

Release Date: December 2, 2008

Since the young Red Fly Studio’s announcement of Mushroom Men back in early 2007, there has been much anticipation for this developer’s first game. Then, with Mushroom Men’s Wii-exclusive release on December 2, 2008, I must say that this anticipation is certainly not unfounded.

And it Hailed from the Sky…

The story, while a bit absurdist and resembling a classic ‘50s sci-fi movie, is unique, imaginative, and engrossing. A comet carrying an infectious green dust collides with Earth. Unbeknownst to humans, the strange dust transforms all flora and fauna within proximity into sentient species. Mushrooms thrived and formed tribes, living a peaceful existence. With peace, however, follows inevitable war. Enter protagonist Pax, a lone bolete mushroom and adept fighter, the sole remaining member of his clan after a deadly attack decimates his village. He is on a journey to find his place amongst his mushroom brethren.

The First Encounter

Pax’s first encounter is with a Morel tribe, the technologically and intellectually motivated ally of the Boletes. It is here that a hospitable Morel introduces you to the basic elements of the game, such as the control scheme and Gear menu. Primary controls for Pax, besides walking and looking, consist of jumping, attacking, rolling to dodge deadly attacks, and floating and blocking with his umbrella-shaped cranium. In addition to these, Pax possesses the power of Sporekinesis to manipulate and launch objects, such as baseballs, at unsuspecting enemies. Lastly, not too far into the game you will receive the Sticky Hand, allowing you to adhere to certain surfaces to zip-line you across the level to access hard-to-reach areas. These battle tactics, when used in conjunction, prove to be effective in advancing through the levels. And sailing precariously through the environments via Pax’s massive head somehow never grows old.

In this opening level, you will first witness the beautifully-rendered environments. OK, so it’s not the Xbox 360 here, but this Wii game truly shines when it comes to graphics. It is evident that much attention was paid to meticulous detail, from the mushrooms’ dwellings to the richness of the surrounding plant life. For instance, as Pax sustains damage, slices of his head remove to reveal his brain underneath. This also never quite grows old. Additionally, the dark and sinister environments are appealing and compelling, flawlessly capturing the mood for the game’s entirety; it really feels as though you’re a miniscule fungus amidst a gigantic world teeming with menacing forces. Some of the level sizes are substantial, requiring much prodding and poking around for items; prepare yourself for some hefty exploration.

Alongside the graphics, the ingenious and engaging music created by Primus’s Les Claypool and Gl33k utilizes an innovative metronome-based system that superbly adds to the overall quirkiness and absurdity of the experience.

Platform Peril

As Mushroom Men is a platformer, you will be immersed in the usual medley of platform elements as you would expect. Such an element is collectibles, an integral feature of the game, ranging from health-replenishing Spore Goo and valuable weapon ammo, to miscellaneous items such as rocks and rabbits' feet to open bonus concept art in the Gallery and meteorite chunks to boost Pax's stats. You can view the intriguing concept art, listen to funky Mushroom Men tunes, or partake in five minigames with a friend in the Gallery. The minigames and cooperative mode are the only 2-player features, but they are nothing to get too excited over.
The game controls pretty well, but sometimes you’ll find yourself stumbling over the controls and missing vital jumps. Soon thereafter your Wii remote will be lying in pieces and you’ll have to purchase a new plasma television set. Well, it’s not that frustrating, but you’ll surely find yourself gnashing your teeth at some point, such as when you finally and painstakingly maneuver your way to the top of a ceiling beam only to fumble a ledge and go plummeting down to the floor amongst a feeding frenzy of rabid rabbits. Ughhh.

There are a couple notable differences between Mushroom Men and other platform games such as Mario Galaxy. The first is that Mushroom Men has eliminated the familiar lives system. If you die, you regenerate from a safe place in the level that the game decides for you. While this seems to be only a minor offense, it can be an annoyance to make the tiring trip back to your desired location. The second difference is that the health bar has been replaced with a physical indication of inflicted damage: Pax's head. As previously mentioned, quarters of Pax’s head are removed with each attack like slices of pie, revealing his brain. On the fourth attack, Pax’s brain is fully exposed. On the fifth attack, he will die and regenerate elsewhere.


Baddies Galore

The enemies you will encounter throughout the game range from pesky pests such as spiders and hornets to rampant rodents such as mice, moles, and rabbits. Generally, these baddies are mere nuisances and can be pretty tough in swarms. Then there are the more threatening enemy mushrooms: the Amanitas and Lepiota, complete with weapons and spore powers. These creatures will certainly test your skills in battle, as they often attack in large numbers; the aforementioned dodging and blocking techniques will be valuable resources at your disposal. The boss fights are fun and interesting albeit relatively effortless once you determine the catch to completing them.

Heavy Artillery

Pax has at his disposal an arsenal of weapons. He has to first build them, however, by partaking in an expedition for “Scav,” or scavenged items, which are essentially the individual weapon components. While this weapon-constructing element of the game appears to be exhilarating, its supposed greatness is just a fa├žade. For some arbitrary reason, the weapon components are not merely lying around like normal everyday objects should be, which would make for a more gratifying, weapon-hunting experience; instead, they are hidden in those plastic gumball machine eggs and scattered throughout the levels, making it quite obvious that it’s Scav. Depending on your mood, this task can grow quite monotonous as some eggs are hidden in some seriously obscure locations that may take much climbing, maneuvering, and TV-bashing to reach. Once you recover all of the components, you simply press “A” in the Gear menu to fashion your new weapon. It would’ve been a more rewarding experience to actually build the weapon manually from scratch. But maybe that would require too much thought. Additionally, levels incorporate finding weapon components and building a weapon in the Goals list, making it mandatory. If I want to build new weapons, I should be able to do so of my own free will. Not because some guy says I should.

Okay, so maybe I’m nitpicking a tad. It is fun to yield an array of weapons (and when I say an array, I mean an array: 25 different weapons) with disparate methods of functioning, such as bashing, slashing, thrusting, and firing, and exciting to finally possess the pieces to build them all. Finding spare junk and fashioning weapons from them is an inventive idea in itself (even if executed a bit inadequately) so it does boast some merit. The custom-weapon system serves to create a fine balance within the game’s fighting scheme, as melee combat grows a bit stale after a while as the game employs the familiar “one-two-three” swing of the Wii remote. The assorted types of weapons and their diverse functions, along with the dodging, blocking, and Sporekinesis techniques, help keep the combat fresh and exciting.

Final Verdict

Novel, fun, and even a bit eccentric, Mushroom Men proves to be a unique and gratifying experience for the Wii. It boasts some of the prettiest graphics since the Wii’s release, and it even invokes a bit of nostalgia from the halcyon days of N64 platforming long gone. Not to mention the extraordinarily bizarre, captivating, and gorgeous artistic style that the game exhibits. The concept is original and riveting, a rare find on the Wii market these days. The gameplay, while sometimes too straightforward and analogous to other platformers, is justified by the distinctive combat style and the clever assortment of weapons. If you’re looking for some major fun on the Wii, without feeling like you’ve been ripped off (cough Red Steel cough), be sure to give Mushroom Men: The Spore Wars a play through.

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Concept: 8.5

Very unique story compared to others on the Wii. Finally, a fresh and original Nintendo game!

Graphics: 8.5

The game looks pretty. Character models and environments are detailed. Exceptional artistic flair. Among the best the Wii has to offer.

Sound: 9.0

Imaginative, original music by Les Claypool of Primus fame. Metronome-based music is interesting and fun to play to.

Gameplay: 7.0

Not drastically different from other platformers when it comes to gameplay. Combat style is fun due to the inventive custom-weapons system and assortment of moves Pax can perform, though it could be a bit more difficult especially for a seasoned gamer. Some frustrating platforming moments.

Fun Factor: 8.0

Much fun to be had with this game. Immersive worlds, zany characters, and fascinating story.

Lasting Appeal: 9.0

Very unique game compared to everything else out there for the Wii. Truly stands out.

Overall: 8.5

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