When the president of the United States has his fragile ego damaged by an insult from the Molemen, he retaliates the only way he knows how: by dropping a giant nuclear bomb into the centre of the Earth. Some might say this is an overreaction, but when you hold one of the most powerful positions in the world, you know better. You know that having a pie thrown in your face is quite rude, and the only proportionate response is starting a war that threatens to wipe out the planet.
When Australian indie studio Mokomoto started development on Molemen Must Die in 2016, this probably seemed like an appropriately surreal parody of a bizarre electoral campaign. Fast forward a few months, and this game doesn’t seem satirical so much as frighteningly prescient. Somehow, the USA has found itself with a narcissistic, temperamental, vengeful manchild as its head of state, bombs ready to drop, and World War III seemingly on the verge of breaking out.
Since we’re all doomed anyway, we may as well go out having some fun, and that’s what Molemen Must Die has to offer: frenzied, chaotic fun. As an assistant to the President, you have to guide a massive nuclear missile down towards the centre of the Earth, while fending off attacks from (understandably) angry molemen. The deeper you get, the tougher and more numerous the enemies, until eventually you die. Then you start over, and do it all again. In that, sense, Molemen Must Die has a very arcadey ethos. There’s no end, so it’s not a game you can “beat” as such; you just play, get better, and try to top the scoreboards.
To keep things from getting too stale, the levels are procedurally generated, and cover a variety of different visual themes as you get deeper, from the expected muddy subterrane to forests and cities. There are only three main enemy types (molemen, geckos, and drilldozer-driving badgers), but a handful of variations demand different tactics if you want to survive.
Most importantly, there are guns. You start with a fairly standard pistol with infinite ammo, but more powerful, limited-ammo guns regularly get dropped down the shaft for you to pick up. If you want to quickly eradicate a horde of molemen, a shotgun, homing rockets, or minigun are good ways to go. If you really want to have some fun, there’s a laser that causes any enemies it hits to continuously expand, until they can’t fit into the level and they pop. The guns that drop are randomised, but the pool of available weaponry depends on an overarching levelling system. It’s pretty straightforward – kill enemies, get experience, level up, unlock a new gun – but it’s enough to introduce a sense of meta-progression that keeps even poor runs from feeling like a waste of time.
Another wrinkle comes in with powerups, which are applied randomly each time you die. These range from simple things like experience boosts and score multipliers to bouncing bullets, giant (and therefore easier to hit) enemies, or a useless but fun rainbow trail left behind your character. Not all the power-ups are good, mind you; some do things like increase the frequency of enemy spawns or make the level destructible, potentially opening a window to much bigger scores but making the game a lot harder in the process. These boosts also stack, up to three at once, which creates some really crazy scenarios. Line up bouncing shots, giant bullets, and destructible levels, then grab a shotgun and go nuts.
Molemen Must Die is a manic, twitchy, exciting game that’s great at inspiring that “just one more go!” feeling. It’s a game where a single run might last only a matter of minutes (or seconds, even), but you can easily waste hours repeatedly retrying and chasing those high scores. There’s little by way of plot, and it’s a game that doesn’t even think about taking itself seriously – at one point, a loading screen tooltip advised me to rebind every action to the same button for an extra challenge.
Yet, for all its eccentricity and humour, there’s a bleak, sobering subtext to the game. As I said before, you play an aid to a warmongering president, and your goal is protecting a bomb that’s going to destroy the world. Even though you’re doing it in a way that’s ridiculous and “fun,” you can’t get away from the fact that you’re the bad guy here; you’re perpetrating genocide as reprisal for one particularly bold moleman throwing a pie in the president’s face.
It’s an pointed about-face from so many similar games that put you in a hero’s shoes and let you unleash violent justice on swathes of enemies. From the cartoony headstomping of Mario to the bloodletting of Contra, violence has long been a mainstay of action platformers – and in video games in general. With a simple role reversal, Molemen Must Die manages to embrace the fun built into the mechanics of this sort of game, while also challenging the widespread appeal of violent entertainment.
This is most apparent when you die, and the high-score screen tells you how much of the world you destroyed in your pursuit of revenge. It all has a veneer of humour, like the rest of the game, but that doesn’t make it any less punchy: “At this depth, the bomb ravaged most of Oklahoma’s cleaning supply stores!” This is a game that you literally can’t win; all you can do is keep killing people and ravaging the world in pursuit of a bigger score than some other person on the other side of the world. If that’s not a potent metaphor for the futility of arms races, then I don’t know what is.
In doing this, Molemen Must Die manages to be both “mindless” fun and a thought-provoking piece of art. It’s an over-the-top action platformer that’s easy to dive into and hard to put down, full of goofy humour, cute pixel art, and pumping music. But it also has something to say, and it does so with style and nuance, further proving that fun and insight aren’t mutually exclusive.
I just wish it wasn’t so prophetic, because at this stage I wouldn’t be surprised if a certain president destroyed the whole world in revenge for a petty insult.
Matt received a digital copy of Molemen Must Die from the developer for review.