Publisher: Electronic Arts
Platforms: Commodore Amiga, Atari ST, Nintendo's SNES, Nintendo Game Boy, Sega Master System, Sega Mega Drive
Genre: Real-time strategy
Players: One or two players
Populous is a computer game, in the real-time strategy genre, in which you get to play a god. Even though it has an unavoidable religious theme, it bears very little resemblance to real life, and has no political agenda. It's just entertainment. With that in mind, I'll ignore any possible comments it may be making about organised religion, or any supposed effects it may have on society, and concentrate on how entertaining it is.
Thou Art God
This is the original god simulator. You play a god, and get to compete with another god for religious monopoly on several hundred different worlds. Unlike modern games within the real-time strategy genre, the rules are pretty simple:
- The more people there are that worship you, the more manna you get
- The more manna you get, the more divine interventions (mainly natural disasters) you can inflict upon your enemy's followers
- You win a world by being the only god who has any followers left
Although the worlds are all pretty similar, they have four distinct types of landscape: grassy, desert, snowy, and volcanic. The change of scene doesn't just break the monotony: it also affects the gameplay. For example, your followers can walk around without settling down for longer on grassy plains than they can in the middle of a desert. Each world also allows you and your rival to use different methods of divine intervention, so you have to bear in mind what you are both capable of. For example, if your enemy can flood the world, it would be wise to ensure that most of your followers build homes on high up land. This variety amongst the different worlds ensures that you have to keep adapting your strategy; you can't just use the same tactics all the time. It also provides a steady learning curve. The game starts with the power distributed completely in your favour, whereas later worlds provide your enemy with more abilities and provide you with less. Another nice feature is that you skip a varying number of worlds at a time based on how well you do, so that you quickly reach a world that is personally challenging for you.
Much like Lemmings, another classic game that originated on the Commodore Amiga and was designed to be played with a mouse, you do not directly control the actions that happen in the game. You are not even in the game; you are merely observing what's going on and helping out your followers. You do this by influencing their behaviour and, manna permitting, occasionally intervening.
The gameplay screen is composed of a small map of the entire world, a detailed view of a small part of the world, a sliding bar which shows how much manna you have, a shield showing how well your followers and your opponent's followers are doing, and icons for influencing your followers' behaviour and intervening.
Your followers don't just wander aimlessly around. They are always in one of four mindsets, and which one is up to you. By selecting a different one of the four behaviours, you influence every one of your followers to do that action. This doesn't require or use up any manna, but can be just as important to your strategy as unleashing fiery wrath upon your enemies.
The default behaviour is settling down. This causes all of your followers to look for a flat piece of land and build a home on it. It ensures a steadily growing population, as long as you provide enough flat land for your followers to grow crops on.
You can instead tell them to gather before settling down. This causes wandering followers to merge together (this is mainly why I said it bears very little resemblance to real life), meaning you end up with fewer followers, but stronger ones. This can be useful to stop them dying of exhaustion on harsher landscapes.
Alternatively, you can tell them to invade your rival followers' settlements. They'll seek an enemy's home, enter it, fight its residents to the death and, if they win, take over their homes and crops.
The final action you can give your believers is to follow their leader, who in turn will travel towards your papal magnet. You and your rival each have a papal magnet, which (providing you have enough manna) you can place anywhere in the world. Selecting this mindset causes your followers to gather and merge wherever the magnet is. You can use this to create a leader (who you can then knight if you have enough manna), or to move your followers into enemy territory. Once enough of your followers get there, you can change their behaviour again to make them settle amongst their enemies, or fight them for their homes.
Once you have enough manna, and if the current world permits it, you can perform increasingly more powerful acts. In ascending order of manna required, they are: raise and lower the land; move your papal magnet; cause a localised earthquake; create a localised swamp; knight your leader; create a localised volcano; create a global flood; and declare the final battle of Armageddon.
Raising and lowering land is the most important ability you have. You can straighten out land in order to let your followers grow more crops. The more crops they can grow, the more advanced their homes become, until eventually they all live in castles. Which world you are on dictates where you're allowed to move land up and down, but as a general rule, you can only do it near your followers. This is a good way to stop players cheating and skewing the land of their opponent's followers.
As mentioned earlier, you can send your followers to anywhere in the world by moving the papal magnet and then commanding them to walk towards it. This is mostly used to get them to invade enemy settlements.
Earthquakes lower ground and make it uneven, so the opposing god has to flatten it all out again to make crop growing possible once more.
Swamps turn some of the nearby pieces of flat land into boggy marshland, killing any crops that were there and any people who wander onto them. They can be removed by raising then flattening the land again.
Knighting your leader causes them to go to enemy settlements, killing people and burning down their homes. You can have several knights at the same time. Before knighting your leader, make sure they are strong and that you have a path of raised land leading all the way to some enemy settlements.
The term "volcano" is a bit misleading. You don't see any spectacle of fiery wrath. What happens is the land is raised a lot, a few rocks appear, and it takes a long time for your oppenent to flatten out the land in order to make crop growing possible again. This is pretty much the opposite of the effect volcanoes have in real life, as they provide very fertile soil, perfect for growing crops on (until they erupt, at least).
Flooding a world causes the tide to rise everywhere, drowning any people who are too close to sea level. If you intend to do this, or your enemy has the option to do it, it's a good idea to encourage your followers to build their homes on high up land.
Declaring Armageddon makes all the dwellings disappear, and compels everyone to walk to the centre of the world (they will build bridges if necessary). Everyone fights to the death, until only one group of followers is left. This should only be used if you are sure that you have more powerful followers than your opponent.
Graphics and sound
When this game was released in 1989, 16-bit computers and consoles were relatively new and no one had used them to their full potential. While the graphics seem primitive by today's standards, they are at least isometric (Glenn Corpes was partly inspired by Spindizzy), paving the way for many strategy games to follow. Some of the dwellings seem slightly out of place (such as the castles in the middle of deserts), but they do change appearance slightly to match their surroundings. The only time the graphics hinder the gameplay at all is when the snow covered land makes it hard to tell where the land is raised or flat: either way it looks like plain, white land. Other than that, the graphics are pretty good for the time, especially considering how much information is conveyed on the screen at once.
The sound effects are adequate, and serve their purpose of letting you know when your opponent has just moved their papal magnet or wreaked havoc upon your followers. The heartbeat that constantly repeats throughout the game can get slightly annoying, however.
There is no music during the actual game itself, although the title screen plays a single tune. Due to the slow nature of strategy games, however, this is probably a good thing: rather than being forced to listen to short, repetitive melodies, you can play an album that fits the slow, engrossing nature of the game.
Populous was originally designed to be a two player game, although the later console ports are single player only. Amazingly, it is possible to hook up an Amiga to an Atari ST for a cross-platform two player game.
So is this game still worth playing? If you like strategy games, yes. The relatively simple gameplay makes this instantly addictive, while progressing several worlds at a time means you'll face a challenge pretty quickly. Admittedly, the graphics and sound seem outdated by modern standards, and it would be great to see a re-release featuring realistic water, weather, buildings more appropriate to their surroundings and more people. The gameplay itself is what makes a game, however, and this should be left exactly as it is. The Bullfrog team got it exactly right the first time.
As Populous is also the first game in its genre, it serves a historical purpose. Anyone interested in playing or creating strategy games should try to track down a copy. You can learn a lot from it, and it's still fun to play today.