Long before his incredibly lofty goals in gaming became its own topic of conversation, Peter Molyneux and the team at Bullfrog Productions (including Glenn Corpes, Kevin Donkin and Les Edgar – credits via Wikipedia) were responsible for a game that defined a genre that even its creators were not always able to match or succeed following it.
Populous was released in 1989 first on the Commodore Amiga then followed by the Atari ST before migrating to a myriad of other platforms including the PC, SNES and Genesis/Megadrive. It’s generally accepted as being the game that helped kickstart a genre popularly known as the “god game” where players do not direct control of a character on the screen but rather have the ability to influence NPCs on screen or in the “world” to do the work for them. It can also be looked at as being an early example of a real time strategy (RTS) game too. The game plays on without your input unless you pause and the controls allow you to guide your people to a degree however the ability to build, often considered a characteristic of the genre, is not there. I suppose even as a god it’s easier to destroy than create…
When you start playing the game your first impression might be that there doesn’t seem like a whole lot to do. You have a villager wandering around an isometric landscape from which you can raise and lower land as you see fit. The moment your villager finds a flat piece of land though it all changes and you see that they settle and a hut appears or even something more substantial if you’ve been quick enough to level a larger area around them. Soon enough another villager appears and settles at another location and so on until you’ve started to expand across the map.
During your travels around the land (the minimap is a great shortcut if you tire of clicking on the UI arrows) you’ve probably discovered another group of villagers are settling as well and they don’t take kindly to you and so it comes down “kill or be killed”. As you’ve accumulated villagers though you’ve also accumulated another valuable resource: mana. With this you start to fill in the blanks in your association to those on the map as you’re the deity they worship and in turn gain power to cast more devastating effects on the landscape such as volcanoes and floods with your end goal being to defeat the opposing deity on the map by wearing down their own source of mana (the villagers).
Using the powers bestowed on you has an element of strategy to it as making the right choice can help to maximise the impact to your opponent as it’s not just about the damage cause but what’s needed to recover from it. Floods and swaps can wreak havoc on low flat areas and a volcano no only raises the land but litters it with rocks that obstruct the building of larger settlements. These can all be fixed by the player (usually by sinking them into the water) but that can take a LOT of time.
Even now there’s a lot to like about Populous and I wonder if it may lend itself better to more modern gaming tastes because of the nature of its own design. The maps are small, the gameplay loop is straightforward and the abilities are available to everyone. It all boils down to how you best (and quickly) make the most of your starting situation. You don’t necessarily have to rush your opponent but you also don’t want to be in a situation where they can decimate your own people with a few well placed powers later in the game. Each world could take anywhere from ten to sixty minutes (or more) which makes it a much more digestible task than many of strategy titles released over the years. The interface certainly lends itself well to touch screens.
The game’s design was strongly influenced from playtests leveraging what would eventually become its own versus mode (connected via RS-232 cables on the Amiga/ST) and so what a player can experience going head to head against a fellow human is going to be similar to taking on the CPU across the game’s 500 levels. Back in 2017 Peter Molyneux presented a postmortem on the development of Populous that provides a lot of insight into the game’s creation (including the above) and what drove the team to develop its gameplay mechanics. I personally found it fascinating and Molyneux does have a talent for telling stories which helps a lot.
The game would have a direct sequel in 1991 with Populous II: Trials of the Olympian Gods and another much later in 1999 with Populous: The Beginning before Bullfrog would close its doors in 2001. Molyneux would continue to work in the genre with future titles such as Black & White and Godus so the concepts were never far from his mind. Thankfully many of these games are still available to play – the three Populous games I recently added to my GOG collection so if I feel the need to cast my wrath down on hapless villagers I can do so from the safety of my home and low spec notebook.
Populous is another game that I feel helped to show how gaming could benefit from the shift to 16bit computer platforms. It’s colourful presentation and use of the mouse as a controller certainly wasn’t a first but the game itself was such an original concept and it’s execution so well done that it still holds up well even now.
Greatest Games is a feature where we highlight our favourite games from the past and try to explain what we think makes them great and worth searching out to play again. If you’ve got your own thoughts on the subject, please feel free to share them in the comments below.