1989. What a year. Batman returned to the cinema after a 33 year hiatus, considerably less camp but no less peculiar, I was 14, hormonal, covered in spots and in love. With Populous on the Atari ST as well as a girl in my class at school. I never managed to ask her out on a date but 27 years later, we’re returning to Populous to see if it’s still as much fun as I remember.
Populous was the first and probably the greatest of Peter Molyneux’s God Games. There was a sequel, a RTS called Powermonger, another sequel called Populous the Beginning and then things went decided strange with Black & White, a game where Peter thought it more important your creature could dance along to whatever music CD you had in your PC than to actually put some gameplay in there. I’ve written my thoughts about Molyneux at length but at this time in his career, he was genuinely unstoppable. I suppose it makes what came after all the more depressing.
If you’ve never come across Populous before, it’s the original God Game- you have god like powers to interact with the landscape, which are affected by the number of worshippers you have. Your aim to to beat the other god, who has his own group of followers. There are four different landscapes to play across, letting you raise and lower the land, drop swamps into the path of your opponents followers, hit them with volcanoes or floods, all of which are dependent on your mana level. Better still, and a personal favourite of mine back in the day, you can even merge a lot of your followers together into one uber powerful Knight who goes on a psychopathic rampage, killing all the enemy he can until he runs out of energy and dies.
Now we’re going to be jumping around a bit in the life of the Atari ST- although this is the first game we’re playing, it’s not the earliest we’re going to play but I thought it was a good place to start as it’s both easy to pick up and pretty good looking. Both of which I think are important for getting Sam fully immersed in the 16 bit revolution. It’s funny, as I’m writing this off, he’s wandered off to play some LEGO Marvel Avengers, a pretty good looking game. I do worry slightly as we get closer and closer to more modern machines, his interest will wane as the exotically different sorts of games we have been playing are replaced by similar genres to what we play now, the big difference being they look terrible in comparison. Still we have a long way to go until we get there, so on with the fun!
I should say at this point that due to a floppy drive failure, my Atari ST unfortunately doesn’t work at the moment, so we’ve had to resort to STEEM, the rather brilliant Atari ST emulator, for our ST Action. I’ve used STEEM for a number of years, once even doing a speedrun of Dungeon Master on my office laptop over a couple of lunch times. I’d rather use the original hardware but I’m not made of money, so in this instance, we’ve gone with emulation. I hope you can forgive us.
Sam: Oooh, a castle. I like castles. Can we blow it up?
Me: Your followers can attack it and set fire to it if memory serves me correctly. Shall we play through the tutorial or just play the game?
Sam: Can you remember how to play it daddy?
Me: Probably. It’s been… a while but I can probably work my way through it without too much trouble. It’s a game that uses the mouse, so we don’t have to bother with the joystick for this one.
Sam: Okay, can I start and you help me then?
Me: Right you are son.
We select Conquest and the first thing that surprises me is how small the actual game area is. It’s a trick we saw on a lot of the C64 and Spectrum games- having oversized status panels or the game windowed with logos or something around it actually reduces the amount of grunt required to move the game at a reasonable rate. I didn’t remember it being so pronounced in Populous but then I suppose it’s been a while. Unlike later versions of the game, and contemporary games, Populous’s 3D isn’t polygon based, it’s isometric sprites, which aren’t great for the ST to handle. It’s a better 3D machine really.
Sam: Look, a person. Can I smite him?
Me: Smite? Where on earth did you hear that word? No, you can’t he’s one of ours. What you can do is flatten the land around him by clicking the mouse button, so he can build a bigger house than the mud hut.
After a few clicks, Sam has the basic mechanic of raising and lowering the land down to a tee.
Me: Sam, why are you demolishing all the houses your followers have built?
Sam: It’s funny, look, they stand there and wave their arms about.
Me: But you only get Mana when they build more and bigger buildings to make you more followers- you win by having more followers than the computer does.
A period of furiously flattening the land and evicting the people from their houses to build bigger ones ensues. This is fun. The bar begins to move along at the top, opening up more potential Godly interventions.
Sam: How do we do other stuff then? Can I make a knight?
Me: Yes you can now. Knights are easier to make than volcanoes for some reason. First of all, click on the Ankh icon and get all your followers to merge together. This makes the chap very strong.
We let this happen for a few minutes, knocking out the odd block of land next to each of our castles to evict some people (we put the block back afterwards mind you).
Me: Right, now hit the Knight button on the top bar!
We get that lovely fuzzy metallic noise and we have our own little Knight! Sam is utterly overcome.
Sam: Is that it? What does he do?
Me: He’s a lean mean killing machine, scroll it around and follow him about and watch.
Sam: Okay [pause] Oh! He’s attacked that castle! He’s burnt it down! That is sooo sooo cool!
Sam spend the next five minutes glued to the homicidal tendencies of his Knight. Then his Knight dies.
Me: Okay, time to hit the Armageddon button right at the end Sam.
Sam: What does that do?
Me: All the people leave their homes and start a big old fight until there is a winner.
We win, which given how long it’s taken to play the level, is not really a surprise. Sam has limited understanding of the concept of playing something through quickly. He likes to potter around.
Me: So that’s the first level done, there are 499 left, shall we do ALL of them? We’ve got 3 other different terrains to look at.
Sam: Can you play it while I watch? It’s fun but gets a bit boring as it is all the same after a while.
Me: Okay, but I want input from you!
It’s magic how quickly the routine of flattening the land, evicting the people from their houses so that they build more of them, and so on comes straight back to me after all these years. It’s lovely. The great thing about the isometric graphics is you don’t have any of the “getting messed up in the view” issues that properly 3D games suffer from. Soon I’m ready to start whacking the baddies with some swamps.
Me: Pretty nifty eh Sam? Sam?
Sam is sitting quietly next to me watching Dan TDM videos on the iPad.
Sam enjoyed Populous. I’m pleased with that. We’ve now left the era that saw him being the same age as me when I played the games but conversely we’ve moved on to games that look and feel a lot more familiar to him, so it’s the proverbial six of one and half a dozen of the other I suppose.
When it came out Populous was so popular it made it to just about every format going, even the rather exotic named FM Towns (I only saw that machine featured in games magazines) and it holds up well. If Sam didn’t muck around quite so much in these more open world games, I think he’d have played it for more than a level but having said that, it’s the longest stint he’s put in so far.
As for me, I’m installing STEEM on my work computer to carry on a bit of play at lunch time. It’s still ace.