The holiday season is the game industry’s busiest time, when all of the epic sequels and big name franchises come out to jockey for Christmas cash. Amid the Gears of War, Little Big Planets and Nintendo’s accessible but shallow offerings, you might be lucky enough to find a few unique games that are just striking out on their own. Mushroom Men is just such a game, a new franchise premiered by Red Fly studios. Red Fly released two games this holiday for a simultaneous release on the Wii and DS. I already tried out the Wii game, subtitled The Spore Wars, and found that it was an above average platformer that managed to be better than the sum of its parts.
The DS game, Rise of the Fungi, follows a prequel story of sorts, and also a completely different gameplay mechanic. At its core it is an action platformer, but the design tries to cover too many play styles for its own good.
The basic gameplay is 2.5D platforming, the kind that most of the DS Spiderman games use. You play as an unnamed Mushroom Man and control him in the style of a traditional sidescroller, but the environment and all of the characters are 3D polygon models. The platforming is the first area where Rise of the Fungi doesn’t get things quite right; jumping is mapped to the shoulder triggers, which feels unnatural and gave me mild hand cramps. Whereas the hero of Spore Wars, Pax, could fall from any height, the Mushroom Men in the DS game take severe damage from even light falls. The developers added a cool little trace-based grappling hook, seemingly to assuage some of the platforming difficulties, but screen space is limited and you often won’t be able to see the ledge you’re supposed to grapple to.
Fungi tries to implement some RPG elements too, and out of the mishmash of gameplay styles these seem to work the best. You begin the game by choosing a class: heavy, sage and scout. The Heavy is tough, slow and has an affinity for melee weapons; the Sage is the balanced, magic-using class, and the Scout excels in ranged attacks but has low health. Each class has upgradeable attributes and can use each style of combat, but the strengths and weaknesses remain for the whole game.
The “scav” feature from Spore Wars is included, but instead of automatically assembling weapons for you, the game lets you do the building. You can even repurpose components from older weapons to make new ones, and there are plenty of duplicate parts so there’s room to mix and match. Both the class and scav systems factor into combat, which adds an extra layer of strategy that Spore Wars lacked.
After all that class balancing and weapon strategy, combat is disappointingly sluggish. What should be real-time combat feels more like a turn-based affair, with your character smacking or shooting an enemy, and then taking a few hits as well. Flying enemies are particularly awkward to fight, requiring you to jump and swing your weapon at the same time; there really isn’t an effective way to kill them.
Fungi incorporates a lot of touch based control, for both inventory management and in-game actions like grappling, advancing dialogue and even saving. The game lets you swap the action back and forth between the top and bottom screens, which is a pretty cool and unique little feature, but in practice it’s highly disorienting. Going back and forth between buttons, stylus and a combination of the two brings gameplay flow to a screeching halt on a regular basis.
This lack of unity is Fungi’s biggest problem. There are so many different game styles at play at any given time, and as a result the natural feel of most good platformers never gets a chance to happen. If you could pause while you were inventorying, or switch to a special interactive mode for grappling, it might have a Resident Evil 4 quality to it. In any case, the combat is too clunky to enjoy and probably should have been turn based from the start if that’s what they were going for.
The best part of Fungi is ironically the same standout aspect of Spore Wars: art direction. Fungi has the same creative visual style as the Wii game, presenting the world as it would appear to tiny mushroom creatures who have built their cities from everyday scrap materials. The world is a little too dark, but turn up the brightness on your DS and you’ll find that it’s just as charming on the small screen. The music is the same evocative synthesis of nature and industrial sounds that you’ll find on the Wii, and I was happy to see it translate so well.
I really want to see Mushroom Men succeed, and it’s because of the unique art style and charm of the games. You rarely find new franchises with this kind of heart. Hopefully, Red Fly will combine two or three of the disparate gameplay styles in Rise of the Fungi into one coherent sequel. Mushroom Men is a series with a lot of promise, and I’d hate to see an awkward first step on the DS ruin its chances.