Populous: The Beginning is Still the Best (Only) RTS God-Game Ever Made
Just before the turn of the century, an enigmatic little game studio in Guildford, England, was quietly emerging with a growing reputation as one of the best AAA-title studios for the PC with a series of successful franchises. Bullfrog Productions was actually founded in the late ’80s, but had little to no luck as they struggled in obscurity for a few years until the mid-1990s. They almost closed numerous times, but founder Peter Molyneux persisted because he had a big vision in his head for a new class of game – the God Game genre.
Slightly different from the sim genre, already launched and well-established by Maxis, god games let you rule on a planetary scope. You direct anything from a primitive tribe of savages who worship you, all the way up to directing the course of evolution to produce life itself. However, we can’t really cite a broad group of examples, because this genre is so narrow that the top two most definitive games in it – Populous : The Beginning, and the much-later Black & White – are both designed by Molyneux.
Bullfrog’s story ends with being assimilated into the EA Borg collective (Afterwards, “It felt more like a chicken factory,” lamented developer Mark Healey), and apparently, nobody is ever going to design a god game again. I hasten to add, this is one of the most misunderstood genres in all of gaming. Not all RTS (real-time strategy) nor simulator games count as god games. In an actual god game, you play as a literal god, a deity with worshipers, temples, and a congregation of believers to shepherd through conquering a planet or more.
Later notable attempts at this genre, such as From Dust, are similarly cursed. It was successful, it sold copies, it was beloved as a spiritual sequel to the Populous series, and then Ubisoft just quit making it. What does it take for a game genre to get some respect around here?
But what made Populous : the Beginning so special, you ask? Feast your eyes…
Populous : The Beginning Was Its Own Unique Thing
Too many people judge god games by the first Populous (1989). Running on systems like the Amiga, it was a nice enough primitive game with a complex, isometric, locked-in layout showing this awkward interface. It was extremely ambitious, but just too limited by graphics of the time.
It’s still considered a classic anyway, and it counts as abandonware, so go get it for DOSBox and have at it. The sequel Populous II (1991) kept the isometric layout but had a far improved interface and felt like an obvious step of progress towards its ideal realization.
Both games had an expansion pack or two kicking around, but the next step in the series would blow them both away. Populous : The Beginning (GoG for Windows only) launched in 1998, just in time for the Windows 98 PC, and it gave us THIS:
What the heck is going on here, and how did this not become the standard interface for every game going forward? You have a unique world mapped onto a sphere! You can gracefully swap from flat plain view to global view and back. You have action main-screen and controls on a side panel, the best balance of available options and un-obscured view.
As you can see from the action, just because you’re a god does not make you invulnerable. You can die, but you will respawn in your reincarnation circle as long as a single follower of your draws breath. You can cast a menagerie of spells raining holy apocalyptic wrath upon the masses, but you’re limited by a mana supply, a casting radius, and of course the safety of your physical manifestation. In the special challenge mode we see here, you have no followers and your challenge is to conquer a planet without dying, assisted only by some spells and mana granted from statues.
We’re just getting started, though. You do have followers, a tribe you control, whom can be trained to various classes of combat and utility like any RTS. There really isn’t that much to write home about in this department; if you’ve played Starcraft, you’ve played the RTS side of Populous : The Beginning only Populous has way less variety. You get braves, warriors, fire warriors, preachers, and spies. You also get boats and balloons for vehicles, which add interesting elements of naval and air strategy – necessary, as you’re playing on an entire globe with continents and islands.
So when you come down to it, the game play lacks the depth of, say, World of Warcraft, which hurts a lot because Bullfrog in an alternate history timeline would have made a better Blizzard than Blizzard, had it gone on without being Borged.
Populous : The Beginning Excelled at Atmosphere
The ambient music has a tinge of the TV series Survivor, evoking a wild, untamed world and the primitive savages you will lead. All of the units and the Shaman has this whole vocabulary, which is all caveman gibberish but consistent. As a result, you learn this bizarre little language as you play along, until you find yourself saying “unaga!” when you summon a swarm of bees, “taka!” to cast fireball, and of course the ever-popular “hotenga!” to cast a deadly swamp which makes everybody who stumble into it keel over and die with a comical “bleagh!”
The screams of dying enemy followers being whipped around or incinerated by your magic are an entertainment in itself. However, as you play on, the game does get repetitive, especially as your Shaman responds to every command with a short series of “kai!” and “ka!” Did we mention that the enemy tribes all have their own vocabulary different from yours, and the enemy Shaman utters the same words for spells as your Shaman, but with a different voice and accent? It’s a chattery game.
Together with the wide variety of magic spells and interesting combos you can pull off, the game is fun and engaging in multiplayer. Nice village you have there. Would be a shame if somebody cast a VOLCANO right in the middle of it!
Why Were There Never More Games Like This?
Bullfrog Productions was also known for other popular franchises, including the Dungeon Keeper series and the cyberpunk-flavored Syndicate. But Bullfrog’s critically acclaimed output would trickle to an abrupt stop just after the turn of the century, with a lot of announced and in-development titles aborted.
Since then… the god game genre just seems to be in a dead end. As Bullfrog leader Peter Molyneux commented early on, the god game genre is widely misunderstood. His next attempt to realize this vision, Lionhead Studios’ Black & White, was both critically acclaimed and shot down subsequently by users who sat there going “but what do I do?” Unlike Populous, Black & White wasn’t a hybrid RTS and god game, but just solely devoted to the deity and worshiper aspect.
In fact, it was devoted a little too far to the literal “god” aspect, so you have to train a creature which learns through AI. Hey! Wait a minute. Training a creature through AI in the late 1990s and early 2000s. That sounds familiar. It’s a repressed memory but it’s all coming back to me…
Yes! No! THIS irritating bucket of puke! That was the “Norn” from Creatures, and just looking at that picture fills me with blood-curdling revulsion as I recall its nails-on-a-chalkboard screech, its obstinately stupid behavior, its gruesome facial expressions, and the utterly frustrating experience of fighting to play the game. I recall it to this day as the fastest rage-quit I ever played.
Look, I know we all love the idea of raising a digital pet AI that learns, but we need to wait another 5000 years or so before the technology is caught up with fun game play. Otherwise we just get digital Furbys. Did I tell you about the time my kids got a Furby and it became possessed and wouldn’t die? Stayed in a closet chattering to itself for years before somebody pulled it out and smashed it with a hammer and it. Still. Kept. Screaming. Fun times.
Anyway, Black & White had a botched release and other issues, prompting Molyneux to grant an interview where he voiced his lamentations. Among the many problems with the game, as noted in LGR’s video, are the dreaded unskippable tutorials, as if they were determined to kill the concept of “replay value.”
As for god games… They just seemed to fizzle out around this time, with the occasional attempt at a revival or a fanmade reboot, but never seem to get far. I mentioned From Dust earlier, which was actually more like Black & White than Populous, so fail again. This is why god games don’t seem to stick around. Everybody thinks you mean Black & White. They just aren’t popular enough to gain traction sufficient to make a demand on the market.
That’s really too bad. We could have erased Black & White and started back with Populous and branched out from there. Who knows what we could have had by now?