Review: B-flick spirit oozes from Spore Wars

Infendo

A glowing meteorite has slammed into the forest, painting the ground with eerie green phosphorescence.

It glazed the rocks with a radiant gleam. It covered each blade of grass with a dusting of limelight.

And it woke up the mushrooms.

The story fueling Red Fly Studios’ Mushroom Men: The Spore Wars is deliciously bizarre, reveling in the campiness of 1950s B-reel horror.

It pays homage to the era in almost every aspect of presentation, from the font on the box to the strange narrative. The fungus among us are alive, fashioning weapons from toothpicks and thimbles, chewed bubble gum and paperclips, and causing a war of not-so-epic proportions beneath our very feet.

Mushroom Men makes no attempt to hide the influences from which it germinated, and a more obvious inspiration could ultimately decide whether to buy or pass on the Wii’s latest platformer exclusive.

In addition to summoning the spirit of films like “The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms” and “Deadly Mantis,” Mushroom Men also triggers nostalgia for a different period — more specifically, the golden age of three-dimensional platformers on the Nintendo 64 in the late ’90s.

More specific yet, Rareware like Banjo-Kazooie and Donkey Kong 64.

Players familiar with those games and their ilk will immediately feel either comfortable or discouraged with Mushroom Men. For better or worse, the way you felt about Rare’s classic platformers a decade ago will determine your feelings toward Red Fly’s porcini-infused take.

Controlling a young bolete named Pax, you traverse massive open environments in search of chunks of the responsible meteorite and battling mushrooms of opposing species. The controls are standard for the genre — move Pax with the analog stick, press A to jump.

Mushroom Men was certainly crafted using some original ideas, but in just as many aspects, “standard” is the operative descriptor.

While jumping, Pax can float by grasping his cap and using it like a parachute. He can manipulate spore-covered objects with Force-like telekinetic powers. He can collect special items hidden through the level, and he attacks enemies with a quick flick of the Wii Remote.

It works well, but it’s also been done before — floating feels like extending your jumps in Super Mario Sunshine, moving objects feels similar to the Force Unleashed, collecting items feels exactly like it did in countless Rare games prior and engaging enemies in battle feels very similar to the waggly combat of Zelda: Twilight Princess.

Obviously, Mushroom Men can often feel extremely formulaic. Fans of platforming will probably love how the game satisfies the genre’s attributes in checklist fashion, but casual and picky platform players may be turned off by how conventional the experience becomes.

One of the most interesting aspects of Mushroom Men is weapon creation. By finding items scattered throughout the levels, players can assemble hilariously pint-sized weaponry. Occam’s Razor, for example, is crafted with a stick, a string and an old razor blade.

The weapons are separated into groups based on their strengths. There are slashing, bashing, thrusting and radical weapons, each of which can deal tremendous damage to certain vulnerable enemies.

A lack of control is the only drawback. Once you’ve collected the required parts for a weapon, the game builds it automatically and notifies you of its availability. Some depth and freedom would’ve been great, such as the ability to invent your own unique creations. Otherwise, this is one of the game’s most charming attributes.

Mushroom Men benefits greatly from a terrific sense of perspective, my favorite aspect of the game. The world surrounding these living and breathing mushrooms is massive to them — something small to humans is huge to Pax. This allows for outstanding level design with clever twists on perspective and plenty of subtle humor.

Pax can use a 25-cent sticky hand like a grappling hook, attaching it to quarters stuck to the wall by bubble gum. He walks over bottle caps mimicking popular brands with names like Spite and Dr. Salts.

Mushroom Men is much more entertaining because of perspective. You often forget the gigantic levels are actually just garages and backyards, like offbeat leftovers from “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.”

Mushroom Men is also a tad bizarre and often downright icky.

When Pax loses health, he slowly loses his mushroom cap, exposing viscous green brain tissue. Once it’s gone, it’s lights out for Pax, so he has to regain health by finding globs of spore. These are most readily available spewing from plants and oozing from the decaying bodies of animals affected by the meteorite, eyes green and wounds seeping.

The game’s oft-unsettling grossness is natural given the story and characters, and it benefits from fantastic art direction and style.

Mushroom Men’s bizarre environments, characters and art meet their match with its music. Written by Primus bassist and “psychedelic polka” artist Les Claypool, the soundtrack is composed of strange, tribal-sounding music that complements the game’s distinct mood.

From a technical standpoint, Mushroom Men is a mixed bag visually. Fantastic use of color and vibrant environments are often marred by weak textures and low polygon counts. The discrepancy mostly depends on your location — things generally look good until you go underground, where tunnels are often bland and colors are dull.

Retro Studios showed art direction can transcend weak hardware. Mushroom Men follows suit, though not to the degree of Metroid.

To attribute a generic numeric score to Mushroom Men feels a bit arbitrary. Red Fly Studios clearly put forth tremendous effort to merge art design, sound and concept into a wonderfully unique experience, but the gameplay is, to be quite frank, less inspired.

You probably won’t find anything here you haven’t done before. I found Mushroom Men both flawed and captivating — your experience will depend on your tastes and feelings toward 3D platformers.

And maybe whether or not you liked Conker’s Bad Fur Day.

For being a good-but-predictable platformer with a fantastic use of perspective, a dark and clever sense of humor and a unique concept, Mushroom Men: The Spore Wars gets three stars out of four.