"That, unfortunately, is where Rise of the Fungi’s problems begin. Most significantly, the level designs just don’t work. One could argue that they feature the same amount of platforms and climbable objects as any other game in the genre, but what stands out here is their inability to make things clear. There’s a map displayed on the top screen – or the bottom screen, it loves to flip-flop – but that doesn’t help when a gap is hard to view, when a platform is unusually hard to reach, or when the required task feels impossible to complete due to a technical flaw that only luck can overcome."
It was hard not to get excited for the release of Mushroom Men. Considering what mushrooms have already accomplished in video games (Mario, anyone?), its announcement was highly intriguing. But unlike the mushroom people running from Bowser, these mushroom men are fierce warriors dedicated to the preservation of an endangered society.
Focusing on three different characters – Heavy, Sage or Scout – Mushroom Men’s story was born when an unusual meteor entered the Earth’s atmosphere. Leaving a trail of green dust, the meteor proved to be a catalyst for plant life. Pint-sized villages are popping up everywhere, each containing evolved forms of mushrooms. They can walk and communicate with each other – magically, without mouths – a sight that would no doubt turn heads if humans actually noticed.
Of course, with the ability to communicate comes the consequence of disagreement. Humans can’t live peacefully together. Heck, animals can’t live peacefully together! So it’s no surprise that, just as mushrooms began to evolve, they are thwarted back to something primitive – driven by hatred or the instinct to survive those who hate.
So begins the tale of Mushroom Men: Rise of the Fungi, the DS version of the Mushroom Men double feature. The other game, Mushroom Men: The Spore Wars, is exclusive to Nintendo Wii. Both offer substantially different gameplay with a similar story, characters and environments to merge the two together. Though the DS is capable of powering 3D games, Red Fly (creator of the Mushroom Men series) and Zen Studios (developer of the DS version) chose to make this a side-scrolling affair.
That decision leads to a game whose quality is heavily mixed. As far as the basics are concerned, the developers got it right. Heavy is your everyday melee fighter, Scout is speedy and enjoys ranged weapons, and Sage is somewhat in between.
Despite utilizing a slightly unconventional control layout – you’ll use the shoulder buttons to jump and only need one face button to attack – Rise of the Fungi is still very much a pick-up-and-play experience. Touch screen play is also featured, but its mechanics do not go beyond the average DS release. With a stylus in hand, you’ll touch the screen to access menu screens and draw various shapes to trigger your mushrooms’ Spore Powers.
Most of these powers can be used by any of the three mushroom men. Spore Cloud, which is activated by drawing a wide squiggle (essentially half of a figure-eight), produces a green cloud that can be used to look around the environment. Spore Grenade, a deadly projectile attack, is executed with a simple checkmark (one slash down, one slash up). Spore Speed (increases Heavy’s speed), Spore Explosion (an explosion surrounds Sage’s body) and Spore Aim (increases Scout’s precision with projectiles) are among the Spore Powers that are exclusive to a specific character.
The developers were wise to make the aforementioned powers easy to execute, since you will be somewhat vulnerable during this period. Imagine trying to walk (left thumb on the D-pad), jump (either index finger on the shoulder buttons) and draw a complex pattern at the same time. The results would have been disastrous, to say the least.
That wasn’t the only smart decision the developers made: Zen Studios should also be commended for bringing Red Fly’s vision to the small screen without butchering the original concepts. These graphics are by no means comparable to the Wii version, but the quality character designs shine through. The level artwork is also noteworthy, even if the level structure leaves a lot to be desired.
That, unfortunately, is where Rise of the Fungi’s problems begin. Most significantly, the level designs just don’t work. One could argue that they feature the same amount of platforms and climbable objects as any other game in the genre, but what stands out here is their inability to make things clear. There’s a map displayed on the top screen – or the bottom screen, it loves to flip-flop – but that doesn’t help when a gap is hard to view, when a platform is unusually hard to reach, or when the required task feels impossible to complete due to a technical flaw that only luck can overcome.
Case in point: the level colors are too dark (even with the DS on its brightest setting), the camera view is rarely optimal and the grappling hook – a necessary tool used for climbing the vertically challenged levels – really sucks. Trial and error can’t describe what it’s like to use it; no matter what, there never seemed to be a surefire way to make it work. Theoretically, when the grappling hook icon turns green, it may be touched to launch the hook, which should then – again, theoretically – grab onto something. Sixty to seventy percent of the time that was not the case. Consequently, you’ll find yourself walking in circles and tapping the grappling hook, hoping that it will latch on. Even worse, there will be times when you’ll leave an area after concluding that the grappling hook cannot be used. Your depression will only worsen when you learn that you were wrong.
Rise of the Fungi is a game that boxes the player into each stage. It’s not an open-ended adventure that lets you ignore tasks that are annoying; instead, you must complete most of them as they are handed out. In addition to the frustration this causes with the grappling hook, you’ll also be annoyed by your mushrooms’ inability to survive a big fall. They die on impact, as if this were a real-world action game. They’re mushrooms for crying out loud! They should be able to fall a foot or two (the equivalent of a building, given their small size) and walk away no problem. If you’ve failed to save your game just before the fall – disappointingly, save locations are not overly prevalent – you’ll have to redo anything that hadn’t been permanently recorded.
If Rise of the Fungi could have applied its elements to a more polished action/adventure, it might have been a successful formula. The characters are likable, the Spore Powers are amusing (though not original), and the controls are on par with other DS action/adventures in its class. Unfortunately, the end result is crammed with many problems, technically and structurally, making this game a bit too muddled to enjoy.
Freelance review by Louis Bedigian (January 14, 2009)
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