Developer: Red Fly Studios
Release Date: December 2, 2008
It's no big surprise that I'm deeply looking forward to the upcoming Ghostbusters game, but readers may be surprised to know that Ghostbusters is going to be a bit different on the Nintendo Wii when compared to its next-gen counterparts. Mimicking the old The Real Ghostbusters art style, it isn't being developed by Terminal Reality, but instead by another company: Red Fly Studios. If these folks sound unfamiliar to you, that would be because they're a brand new company. Their very first game was just released in December, Mushroom Men: The Spore Wars. It may be Red Fly Studio's first release, but it is a promising one, if not flawless, introduction to the developer.
Mushroom Men: The Spore Wars tells the story of a slightly different Earth, although we humans wouldn't know the difference. A mysterious passing meteorite has sprinkled the planet with miniscule spores, which had the bizarre side effect of mutating a lot of Earth's small flora and fauna into sentient forms. Players take control of Pax, a tiny mushroom without a home who ends up wandering into another tribe's celebration. After winning a few trials, Pax is given the opportunity to lift their prized meteorite fragment aloft, but as soon as he touches it, it dissolves and is absorbed into him. Now Pax must travel and find a fragment to replace the one he accidentally absorbed, and figure out exactly why he's powered up by these space rocks. With the world mutating because of these weird spores, it might not be as easy as it sounds.
Pax is a breeze to control. The analog stick moves him around, the A button does his jumping, and the B button is context-sensitive and has different effects depending on where you are aiming the Wii pointer. Aim it at an object covered with spores, and you can move it telekinetically. Aim it at certain plant life, and you can move it out of the way. Aim it at a flat surface, and you can grapple over there. Dodging and blocking are done with the two buttons on the Nunchuk. The only real frustration comes from attacking, which is done, as with many Wii games, by swinging the Wiimote. It's forced and awkward, and it doesn't translate well into the title. You shake the Wiimote, Pax does a canned combo, and your arm gets tired as you repeatedly shake it to deal with swarms of enemies. It's only a small problem, but kind of annoying when enemies start coming in greater numbers or get more hit points. Thankfully, the gameplay never becomes fast enough that waggling interferes with your ability to get where you need to go. Your special powers are controlled by your spore energy bar, but that can be refilled simply by smacking enemies or by finding "infected" plants and beating the glowing goo out of them.
The game is a fairly simple action/adventure title with platforming elements. You're given a set of goals for a level and have to complete them in order to advance. The goals vary, ranging from simply advancing through the level to the more complex. Early on, for example, you encounter a level where a group of sentient Kudzu is being menaced by horrifying bunny rabbits. The rabbits are too strong for you to beat up, so you have to search around the environment for some way to take care of the rabbits. (Warning: The Spore Wars is not a title for those squeamish at the thought of dropping running fans onto rabbits.) The levels are pretty generic and straightforward, so no one with any platforming experience will find much uniqueness here. However, the excellent art design of the levels really stands out, with realistically sized materials in fairly logical places, which do a fantastic job of making you feel like you're a small creature in a big world.
One of the cooler size-related features is how Pax can take advantage of human items to create new and strange gear. Scattered around the stages, usually hidden inside those plastic "eggs" that you get from slot machines, are human relics that the game calls "Scav." These items range from razors to thread to batteries. By collecting these items, you can create new usable weapons, divided into four types: bashing, radical, slashing and thrusting. They range from the simple (razor tied to a stick) to the more complex (makeshift chainsaw made from a can opener and a toy car), and while a lot of the weapons are pretty much identical except stronger, there are a few unique ones, and just getting new equipment does a lot to keep the game fresh. There are also certain pieces of equipment that you can find which don't require assembly. For example, at the end of the second stage, you'll get a Sticky Hand, the favorite of cheap-o supermarket vending machines worldwide. Thanks to Pax's small size, he can use this as a makeshift grappling hook, but unfortunately, this leads us to The Spore Wars' big problem: the camera.
There is absolutely nothing good to say about the camera, and it ruins a lot of the game's potential value, more so than any other problem with the title. It's clunky, awkward and almost always points in the wrong direction. It can only be controlled by using the Wii's uncomfortable and imprecise d-pad, or by trying to use the auto-center button, which frequently leaves your mushroom man looking down at the ground. This would be bad enough on its own, but the game does absolutely nothing to help you deal with this awful camera. Trying to use the Sticky Hand is an exercise in utter frustration, since it leaves the camera pressing directly against whatever wall you're grappling to, leaving you to make a blind guess about where to jump. Despite the number of similarities to the 3-D Zelda games, The Spore Wars neglected to borrow the title's lock-on feature, so if you're fighting an enemy, you get the "fun" of battling with the camera and swinging your stick wildly, hoping for a hit; since you have to swing the Wiimote to attack, there's really no way to reasonably adjust the camera and attack at the same time. It's very rare for a game to be ruined by a single feature, but The Spore Wars' camera comes distressingly close.
It's a shame that the camera is so awful because the art direction in The Spore Wars is superb. While it may not be a graphical powerhouse, everything about it works wonderfully. The difference in size is used in intelligent ways, and every part of the game world feels surprisingly natural. The character designs are cute, if a little strange, and lots of great background details add a surprising amount of life to the world. The title even manages to almost completely forego a head's-up display. Instead of giving you a health bar, segments of Pax's head pop off whenever he takes damage, exposing his brain; if he loses them all, he "dies" and regrows at the nearest checkpoint. Any weapon that takes ammo only displays its ammo stats when you're using it.
The sound is also pretty amazing, although it's subtle enough that you might not notice some of the great effects unless you're very observant. The soundtrack is done by Primus musician Les Claypool and is really quite fitting. There are a lot of neat little touches to the soundtrack, with certain environmental objects adding their own "beats" to the background music. Perhaps my only complaint is that the actual sound effects just don't live up to the music. They're dull and muted, and a lot of scenes are hurt by their lackluster sound effects. There's also no voice acting; the game uses a Star Fox-like method of random gibberish sounds in place of actual voice acting. It feels a bit out of place, as the charming character designs could have really benefited from some actual acting.
Mushroom Men isn't a long adventure, and you'll probably run through the entire game in about six to eight hours. The good news is that there is a lot of stuff to do, and you'll probably want to replay at least once to find all of the secrets. There are a lot of collectables, too. Beyond the Scav, a good amount of which is completely optional, there are also meteorites that increase Pax's power bar, and even seemingly useless objects that unlock various things in the gallery, such as artwork. It doesn't have the replayability of some platforming games, but it is certainly fun enough that if you can get past the awful camera, you'll enjoy yourself. It would be an excellent title for kids, although parents will want to be cautious, as the game features some vaguely disturbing elements that might make younger ones uncomfortable (such as Pax's pulsating brain and the aforementioned rabbit-squashing).
Mushroom Men: The Spore Wars is a cute and well-designed, if not particularly unique, title. The visuals are a bit weak, but the superb art direction does a lot to make up for that. The Spore Wars is a great example of a game where solid art direction did what top-of-the-line graphics could not. Unfortunately, it isn't without its flaws. The camera system is pretty awful, and if you don't have the patience to work with it, it could potentially ruin the experience. If you're willing to take that risk, however, you'll find a fun platforming title hidden underneath, which should please both kids and parents alike. Now we just have to hope for a sequel with a better camera ….