Mushrooms have played an important role in videogames for decades, ever since Shigeru Miyamoto thought it’d be amusing if his plumber protagonist powered up by eating a gnarled, red-spotted unappealing fungus. Mario has been snacking on them since, and in a variety of colors and flavors. Mushrooms seem to make great platforms too, with Samus hopping about on them in at least one Metroid game. They’ve been enemies in numerous games, and long-minded gamers will recall Commander Keen zapping them with his neural stun ray. But has there ever been a game, just one, that let you play as a Mushroom? I’d have to say probably yes, but just to make sure, Red Fly studios developed Mushroom Men.
The two-game project simultaneously released on the DS and the Wii. The Wii got Mushroom Men: The Spore Wars, an adventure-platformer that follows the exploits of Pax, an orphaned mushroom trying to find his place in the world of America’s collective backyards. I joined Pax on his adventure, and found much more than I’d bargained for.
What you’ll find from the outset is a standard platformer; have no illusions about groundbreaking innovations, inspired by the box’s promise that Mushroom Men is “the best game for the Wii since Mario Galaxy.” That’s a highly subjective claim, and while I was generally underwhelmed by Galaxy’s gimmicky Wii controls and loopy, disjointed level design, I’d have to say it’s an overall better platformer than Spore Wars. Spore Wars is a competent platformer; not a great one, not an amazing one, but a platformer that harkens back to the early Crash Bandicoot and Spyro days.
Pax is a capable little mushroom, despite only standing a few inches high and being surrounded on all sides by daunting suburbia. The landscape is highly vertical, encompassing hazardous scrapyards, a backyard mushroom stronghold and an elaborate junk-filled shed. Each room stretches out and up before Pax, and in the tradition of good platformers, get the puzzle-solving juices flowing. Pax can jump as usual, but for long distances he can glide on his mushroom cap. If he takes damage, chunks of his cap will break away, eventually exposing his brain when he’s serious danger. This was a nice replacement for the usual health bar, similar to the neon tube running down Isaac’s spine in Dead Space, and it made me even more sympathetic to the fragile little fungus.
Red Fly added a very light multiplayer aspect to the health system, similar to Mario Galaxy’s “Star Bits helper” mode. A friend can pick up a second Wii remote and hammer the A button, producing extra health for Pax. This can be a huge help during boss battles.
Pax is no Gordon Freeman but he can manipulate and throw items that are covered in spores using his “Sporekinesis” power. Other objects in the world have context sensitive actions, which all use up Pax’s spore meter. A magic meter is a well worn convention to be sure, but Spore Wars uses it subtly and effectively.
All of the levels are built from everyday objects and set in dilapidated urban locations. You’ll see train tracks made from clothespins, and a security system consisting of old TVs, a propane tank and Christmas tree lights. It’s apparent early on that the Mushroom Men are ingenious little buggers, and it’s implied that they’ve constructed an entire civilization from human trash in a few years. This creative use of scenery defines the game, and makes up for the Wii’s graphical hobbles. In a way, it reminded me of Toy Story 2 on the N64, another game played from a bug’s eye view.
This theme of a cobbled together world factors over into Pax’s weapons, which he constructs from materials in the world. Amusingly, new “scav” materials as they are called are located in little plastic gumball machine bubbles, making them both instantly recognizable and nostalgic. A matchstick, thimble and some bubble gum quickly become a club, while one of the game’s more elaborate weapons, a flamethrower, includes a nasal aspirator and a bobblehead. You can tell that the developers spent some bored childhood afternoons tinkering around in their garages. Weapons do involve some light strategy, with four classes, different ammo types and unique special moves for each class.
Using these improvised weapons in combat proves a little less enjoyable. Pax can swing melee weapons and fire ranged shots, but it all involves Wii remote waggle. Swinging the remote to land a club blow feels natural and even flailing about to initiate some spear thrusts works, but it’s awkward when shooting projectiles. Spore Wars could also really use a lock-on feature, a must in adventure games ever since Ocarina of Time. The combat isn’t too bad, but considering how tough the enemies get later in the game, you can expect some tired arms from all that waggling.
While you’re waving away at evil mushrooms (it’s a civil war, after all), you’ll have some nice music to listen to. Spore Wars isn’t overt about its music, but opts for a strange fusion of nature sounds, tribal beats and industrial effects. There aren’t any memorable melodies or strong themes, but the music is environmentally fantastic. Each piece fits the current location Pax is exploring, while fitting into the overarching setting of urban homes being slowly overtaken by nature.
The only disappointment in the sound design was the voice work. Each mushroom species has its own garbled language, but there wasn’t enough of it and Pax does very little talking too. After a decade of the Zelda-style text with a short voice clip, I want something more substantial.
In the end, the quote on the box is wrong about Mushroom Men. No, it isn’t the best since Mario Galaxy, but I don’t think it was really trying to be. It isn’t as shamelessly marketed, bombastic or loud, both in terms of sound and color. Mushroom Men showed up quietly, a satisfying little platformer with a rich sense of setting and visual style. If you think about it, the quote is only half-wrong. Mushroom Men: The Spore Wars might not reach the levels of a Super Mario, but a franchise has been born. Let’s hope Red Fly keeps it going.