Review: Mushroom Men tastes moldy on DS

In case you missed it, check out our review of Mushroom Men: The Spore Wars for Wii before it starts to mold.

I’ve always been a console guy. The DS is my first Nintendo handheld — I know, right? — and in general, I’ve always had more fun with my Wii.

Stop snickering.

Occasionally, standout DS software will reverse the roles, but I usually prefer gaming on a widescreen television over suffering hand cramps and staring at tiny screens.

Compared to its big brother The Spore Wars on Wii, Mushroom Men: Rise of the Fungi encapsulates my reasoning and provides a veritable microcosm of the justifications of console guys such as myself.

This mushroom just isn’t as tasty on-the-go.

Released alongside The Spore Wars on Wii, Rise of the Fungi goes George Lucas on us by presenting itself as a prequel. The strange green meteorite that caused miniature chaos in The Spore Wars has just struck in Rise of the Fungi, and the story picks up soon after the phosphorescent cosmic dust has made the mushrooms sentient.

I loved the campy story on Wii, and it’s still fantastic on the DS, presented through cinematic slideshows that compensate for the system’s relative lack of juice. They convey the basic plot well.

In fact, presentation is actually the game’s strongest point.

Relatively speaking, Rise of the Fungi’s presentation is every bit as impressive as the Wii version’s. The Spore Wars’ huge environments have obviously been scaled down for the DS, but they’ve lost little of their strange aura, and the surreal art style is still first-rate.

As with The Spore Wars, the presentation benefits from outstanding graphics — Rise of the Fungi is a beautiful DS game. The colors are vibrant, the characters are lively and the effects are superb. A great deal of care clearly went into creating a visually detailed portable game that lives up to the standards set by the console version.

Mission accomplished — it’s a downright fetching game.

Just as in nature, however, the prettiest mushrooms are sometimes the most deadly. Rise of the Fungi starts tasting less like Agaricus bisporus and more like Amanita muscaria once you start playing.

The game ditches The Spore Wars’ open-world freedom in favor of a 2D platformer with 3D graphics — think Donkey Kong Country, only without the smooth controls, sharp gameplay and fun level design.

The approach isn’t the problem at all. It was Red Fly’s best shot at efficiently bringing the Mushroom Men experience to the DS. But the execution is clunky in practically every area of gameplay; jumping with the shoulder buttons atop the DS is specifically awkward, and engaging enemies feels like you’re wildly swinging through the air.

The Spore Wars’ outstanding weapon-building system is included in Rise of the Fungi, and in some ways, it’s better on the DS. You can manually assemble weapons and recycle parts by disassembling ones you’ve already built. But because the combat is flawed, the appeal of crafting weapons dissolves faster than an Alka-Seltzer tablet.

Jumping is also hindered by frustrating level design and a limited view. Your progress often relies on blind leaps of faith, but the game levies cheap kills by inflicting terminal damage for falling too far.

Conversely, little Pax could fall from the Sears Tower in The Spore Wars and not even feel it. Continuity, anyone?

The level design is worse. Intended platforms are often unclear, the only visual flaw of the game. Think back to Super Mario Bros. — you could always distinguish platforms from backgrounds, so even difficult leaps at least presented an obvious goal. The contrast is less clear here, as backgrounds and platforms are often indistinguishable.

Be prepared to plummet to your untimely demise. A lot.

You can connect with a friend’s DS for multi-card cooperative play, an always-appreciated feature. Multiplayer is a bit of niche addition for a 2D platformer, but for interested parties, it’s nice to know it’s there.

Red Fly immediately intrigued me with the Mushroom Men concept, but I couldn’t help but sense The Spore Wars would turn out to be a vastly better product — I’m a console guy, remember? I did expect Rise of the Fungi to be better, though, and it’s disappointing to see a game embracing an original IP flounder on Nintendo’s handheld.

As with Lucas’ work, skip the prequel. The Star Spore Wars is better.

The portable serving of Mushroom Men is unfortunately seasoned with poor gameplay mechanics and frustrating level design, a bitter recipe for any platformer. Rise of the Fungi gets two stars out of four.