Contrary to its creator’s claims, Spore isn’t “Sim-Everything.” If we’re taking this game as The Gospel According to Will Wright, then the history of life as we know it is no more than a handful of stages that play like Cliff’s Notes of classic genres in gaming history. But if Spore fails as the ubergame, it might be something else even more exceptional – a game that ignites your imaginative fires, that will have you reconsidering your own creative power and that of your fellow gamer. Spore‘s a brave new world: flawed, to be sure, but unique enough to be worth any gamer’s time and cash.
Rewinding the clock by a few billion years, we arrive at Spore‘s Cell Stage, where the path from amorphous amoeba to space-faring civilization begins. For all its click-n-drag minimalism, Cell surprisingly has some of Spore‘s most compelling gameplay. You’re just chomping and swimming through primordial ooze, trying to eat while avoiding being eaten, but from the Pac Man-esque triumph as you beef up and your predators become your prey to the relevatory moment of your first evolution, Cell’s basic but addictive, and each second’s a memorable step up the food chain.
The goal of Cell – to eat, grow, and thrive – remains at the heart of Spore through the bulk of its lifespan. The subsequent phase, the Creature Stage, plays like the first ten experience levels of World of Warcraft with lots of mashing hotkeys and right-clicking as you eat or befriend rival species to gain biological dominance. Tribal Stage follows and plays like a rudimentary RTS. Then comes Civilization Stage which is like, well, a dumbed-down, real-time version of a Civilization title. Through each stage your objectives change in scope and context but remain the same: conquer your rivals through diplomacy or warmongering.
Whatever foreign policy you choose, the time-tested strategy of power-in-numbers is really all that’s necessary. Build more units, breed more tribe members, call out for some backup and overcome your foes with military or economic or religious force until they throw up the white flag. It’s all very simplistic and doesn’t require much thought or skill. If you’re attentive enough and good enough at clicking, evolution’s a piece of cake. Which not only does a fair degree of disservice to Charles Darwin, but also leaves Spore‘s simulation elements and core gameplay disappointingly slim.
Space Stage is supposed to be the meat of the game, and there’s a lot to do in the final frontier: hunt for UFO upgrades, form alliances with other space empires, colonize the cosmos, or just star trek around, planet-hopping from solar system to solar system, only stopping for fuel every couple light-years. To be cliché: it’s epic. But it’s also not any “deeper” than any of the stages before it. The gameplay’s just as simplistic, there just happens to be more to do. And there’s also the constant babysitting needed to keep your colonies stable and your enemies in check, which makes playing Space sometimes a galactic-sized pain in the ass.
Yet in spite of Spore‘s wafer-thin gameplay, the going’s still plenty entertaining. Spore might be shallow, but each stage is never around long enough (only Space lasts more than a couple hours) to wear out its welcome. Simple gameplay isn’t always bad, and it manages to work here by keeping things moving briskly, as you’re never more than a few minutes away from an upgrade to your spaceship/city/vehicle or a new appendage, whereupon the minutes will whisk away while you tweak the physique of your own personal Frankenstein.
Don’t be surprised if it happens to you. Fiddling around in Spore‘s editors easily made up half my playtime, and it put me in awe of my own creative capacity. I don’t think I’ve done such intense Imagineering since I was six. The options at hand are rich (everything from windmills to hyperdrives at your disposal), but never feel overwhelming. For my city halls, I built multi-tiered castles with sky-piercing spires. For my first vehicle I took a boat frame, widened out the hull, slapped a motorcycle wheel on the back and some Gundam laser-cannons on the top, and gave it a paintjob like the Mach 5 from Speed Racer.
If I could dream it, I could build it, and I did, and like it is in The Bible, it was good. Spore‘s a game that’ll make you feel proud of something you make instead of a high score or a bulls-eye headshot. Not that there’s anything wrong with topping leaderboards or blowing up craniums, but Spore gave me a feeling of satisfaction and fulfillment that I’ve rarely felt in a game before. Spore might have disappointed me as a gamer, but it made me feel like an artist. And not one of the lonely and starving variety, either: the game’s ingenious community features that pluck creations from other people’s games and place them in yours (and vice versa) mean my galaxy’s populated with an endless parade of one-in-a-million beasties.
There’s no way Spore could’ve delivered on its promises. But in spite of its kiddie-pool-shallow gameplay and occasionally boneheaded design, Spore‘s emphasis on empowering the act of creating and sharing on such a grand scale makes it totally one of a kind. Disappointed gamers can rail at Will Wright for appealing to “casuals” and for turning their ubergame into a shallow hodgepodge of genres. They’ll be missing the point. Me? I’ll be at the center of the universe, smiling outward at creation, penis monsters and all.
Bottom Line: As a game, Spore‘s a shallow but reasonably entertaining experience, but as an interactive toybox-meets-art kit, there’s nothing quite like it. Occasional bugs and controversial DRM sour the purchase (don’t pirate, kids), but never detract much from the game itself. Oh, and the procedurally-generated soundtrack by Brian Eno is freaking sublime.
Recommendation: Buy it. It might not be the “Sim-Everything” you were promised, but don’t be surprised to find yourself loving Spore for a whole other galaxy of reasons.
Keane Ng is a freelance writer who can Wavedash in real life. He made a dog in Spore and named him Inspector Barko.