Monday 30 December 2013

Populous - Atari ST - 1989

Populous may not have been the first 'God-sim' nor the first game developed by Bullfrog Productions, but it did put both the genre and the company on the map.  Bullfrog's maiden game was a mediocre shoot 'em up called Fusion which I think was largely ignored by the games buying public.  The British company really burst onto the scene with Populous and have since produced a host of well received titles.  The Bullfrog label eventually disappeared a few years after the company was absorbed by Electronic Arts.

I tested Populous on the Atari ST, Commodore Amiga and PC.  They all look and play more or less identically but both the PC and Amiga versions have issues with the audio.  The DOS conversion loses out first as it has inferior sound compared to the 16-bit computers.  The Amiga version has exactly the same sound effects as the ST.  In addition it has an incessant, headache inducing heartbeat playing throughout.  This can only be turned off by muting the sound effects which play an important role in the game. The Atari ST lacks the heartbeat so, perhaps surprisingly, comes out on top.

In Populous you take on the role of a god.  Your aim is to destroy all the followers of an opposing god while they try to do the same.  Once a world has been conquered you move on to another, more difficult level.  There are 500 worlds in all but one or more are skipped depending on your score for the previous level. 

The main screen shows a close up view of the landscape.  Above this is a map which can be clicked on with mouse pointer to move the view around.  Each world is be made up of one of four landscapes – Grass, Rock, Desert and Ice.  I don't know what difference the Rock world makes but your followers die quickly in the Desert and reproduce slowly in the Ice world.

The randomly appearing swamp monster leaves a deadly trail across the land.

The most important aspect in defeating your opponent is by increasing the number of your followers.  To this end you need to raise or lower the land in order to create flat spaces where your followers can settle.  When a follower finds a square of flat land they build a dwelling.  After a while the dwelling produces another follower who wanders off looking for another flat area to populate.  A follower will eventually die if they can’t find somewhere to build.  Creating a larger flat area allows the people to build bigger buildings.  Bigger buildings take longer to produce followers but these followers are more powerful and last longer.

Influencing your followers is performed by using the icons on the interface.  You can order them to build, merge (to create more powerful followers), fight if there are any enemies nearby, or travel to your Papal Magnet.  The Papal Magnet is an ankh and is your religious symbol. Your most important follower is the leader who carries a mini ankh.  If you use the ‘go to Papal Magnet’ command, all your followers merge with the leader to create a powerful character.  The Papal Magnet can be moved around while you have a leader so you could even place it in the middle of enemy territory.  If the leader is killed, the Papal Magnet stays in that spot until another leader is created by touching it.

The ‘?’ icon allows you to place a shield on any building or follower (friend or foe) you want to keep track of.  Their stats appear in the shield to the top right of the screen.  Either side of this are two graphs showing the relative power of the opposing forces.

As your population increases so does your mana.  Mana allows you to perform acts of god and is depicted by a bar towards the top right of the screen.  Each divine act uses mana which is also depleted after a loss in combat.  Divine abilities begin with simple acts such as raising and lowering land and moving the ankh around.  As you become more powerful you can create earthquakes which disrupt your opponent’s buildings and swamps which can drown your enemies.  Depending on the level, swamps can be shallow (they disappear after swallowing a person) or bottomless.  You can turn your leader into a knight who marches off into enemy territory killing opponents and burning buildings as he goes.  The volcano icon causes the land to rise and creates rocks.  The rocks disrupt building and can only be cleared by lowering the surrounding land to sea level.  Creating two or more volcanoes on top of each other is particularly devastating.  The flood act raises the sea level causing people on low lying land to be pitched into the sea.  Sea can be either fatal where the followers drown immediately or harmful giving you a chance to save some.  The final act of god is Armageddon.  Armageddon moves both Papal Magnets to the centre of the map.  All the followers travel towards them where they fight to the death.  Each divine act is accompanied by a distinctive sound – for example, if you hear slurping sound you know your opponent has created a swamp on your land.

Flood can devastate large areas of land.
Before each world you are given a description of the next world to conquer including the landscape type and the number of followers you have to start with.  It also includes the divine acts you have available and if you can build land up, down or not at all.

Populous is probably the game I spent most time on when I had the Atari ST and would definitely be in my top 3 games for that machine.  I upgraded my ST to 1mb in order to play Populous II: Trial of the Olympian Gods in 1991 but found the sequel disappointing in comparison.  Besides being great with a single player, two STs, two Amigas or even an ST and an Amiga can be linked up to make an excellent two player game.

It’s telling that this game was still in my disk drive when I had to take my Atari out of storage earlier in the year (and it still worked!).

Populous: The Promised Lands

Due to the success of Populous, a data disk was released containing five new types of landscape.  Wild West and Révolution Française are graphically similar to the Desert and Grass landscapes of the original game with more appropriate looking buildings and people.  Bit Plains has a landscape made up of line printer paper and replaces the buildings with computers.  Block Land looks like it is made of Lego.  Silly Land is, well, silly.  The game behaves differently with the new landscapes but I can only recall that the pacifist Block Land decreases mana when you win battles, and that certain types of building decrease your mana in Silly Land.

Two landscapes from The Promised Lands.  From days when you could have cigarettes in a game and no one would bat an eyelid.


  1. I remember playing Populous on the SNES. It definitely had the silly land, so I guess the port included The Promised Lands expansion. I never beat the game, I don't think I ever figured out that certain lands/buildings had an affect on how the game played out.

    1. Thanks for the heads up Zenic. I just checked it out on Mobygames and it looks like it includes some lands not available on the other versions so I've added it to my shortlist for 1991. I imagine it'll be a little strange trying to play without a mouse though.