While we're quick to highlight quality third-party efforts on the Wii, with recent months delivering a decent number to compete with Nintendo's offerings, the bigger picture is a bleak one. One of the biggest problems is a general lack of effort in terms of visual design, with the majority of third-party Wii games struggling to even better what was put out on the technically inferior GameCube. Mushroom Men: The Spore Wars looks to right a few of those wrongs, combining solid platforming gameplay with a wonderful art style and superb audio work. Mushroom Men might not be a Nintendo-quality platformer, but it's an example of what can be achieved with the underpowered console.
The story is about as wacky as you'd imagine from a game called Mushroom Men. You play as Pax, a guy who is part of a sentient race of mushrooms, formed when alien matter hit earth - humans thought the asteroid did nothing, but they were wrong, with the mushrooms living a human-like life beneath them. There was peace and prosperity for years, but it wasn't to last. The main village was attacked and there was nothing the elders could do, but protect one last sporeling - Pax. After the so called Spore War, Pax is the peaceful villagers' last hope, no matter how unlikely that might seem. What follows is a fairly linear 3D platfoming adventure, complete with the expected mix of jumping, puzzle solving and combat.
At its core Mushroom men is like almost every other 3D platformer released since Mario 64. Pax is able to jump from platform to platform, glide to reach distant platforms, attack enemies with a waggle of the Wii remote and collect all manner of scrap that is scattered about in each level inside little plastic balls (the kind you get with Kinder Surprise eggs). This scrap, called Scav, can be used to create new items for use in the game, with the better weapons able to be built once you've made it through the first few sections of the game. After a brief tutorial that teaches you these basics Pax leaves the safety of his village and the adventure begins.
Much of Mushroom Men is made up of traditional 3D platforming, but Pax is also able to use an ability called Sporekinesis. As the name suggests, this lets him move objects without actually touching them. Early on this used for moving planks of wood and mine carts, but you'll need to use it to get past many of the game's obstacles. Rather than really having to think about where you use it, though, the game more or less tells you exactly what to do. Your on-screen pointer turns into a brain when you can interact with something, so as long as you look around you shouldn't come unstuck. Sporekinesis can also be used in other ways, such as to lob objects at enemies, giving you more options during the game's many combat situations.
While much of Mushroom Men is a joy to play and a throwback to the kind of games we played on the Nintendo 64, numerous issues prevent it from being a must-own title for the Wii. First among them is the camera. Left to its own devices it's simply not very good. It frequently gives you a view of the action that's far too close to Pax to be of any use and unless you constantly manipulate it with the d-pad the many tricky platforming sections will be almost impossible. Also less than satisfactory is the combat system. The waggle-triggered melee attacks aren't instant, so you'll frequently find yourself being battered by some fairly standard enemies unless you make use of Pax's block move.
By far the most appealing aspect of Mushroom Men is its presentation. Visually developer Red Fly Studio has succeeded at creating a real world for Pax and the others to live in, with the oversized real-world items dwarfing them quite brilliantly. Everyday objects are used to build each level and fairly non-threatening animals are deadly foes when placed into the tiny mushroom world. Despite the Wii's lack of horsepower Red Fly has managed to deliver this vision exceedingly well, with the Tim Burton-esque art style only being let down by a fairly shaky frame rate. This art style limits the negative effect of the fairly low-polygon environments and characters, and the odd rough texture.
Of equal excellence is the audio work. The soundtrack is one of the best we've heard in any Wii game, with Les Claypool (Primus) bringing his trademark electric bass to the surreal world Red Fly has created. Sadly none of the characters in the game are voiced, meaning you'll be reading all they have to say, but the environmental sounds are excellent, and even mix in with the background music. The game's full of little touches too, like the way Pax's brain is gradually exposed as he loses health, and the blatant use of familiar brand names without actually using them (Jello Kitty is plastered all over a child's lunch box, for example).
Mushroom Men: The Spore Wars isn't a classic platformer, but it's not far off from being one. Some of the best presentation the Wii has seen makes this hard not to enjoy, but frequent camera issues and repetitive combat try their best to get in the way of the fun. You're still left with one of the best 3D platformers on the Wii, just don't expect a game on par with Nintendo's finest.