For many gamers over a certain age, the mere mention of Populous will bring a glaze of whimsical reminiscence to their eyes. Peter Molyneux’s seminal god-sim launched an entire genre, with dozens of imitators spawned over the two decades since its initial release. Re-launched last year for the Nintendo DS (a platform not exactly short of strategy/puzzle games), Populous was twenty years old last month, so how does it fare against modern competition?
For me, Populous brings back hazy memories of my granddad’s Amiga, and my 8 year old self struggling in vain to work out what the hell was going on, before giving up and going back to running around like a headless chicken on Sensible Soccer or bursting bubbles on Pang. So there were no rose-tinted spectacles to be taken off, just the preconception that this game is one of the most important in our pastimes’ history. No pressure then…
The premise of the game is simple. Take control of one of a number of element-based gods as they do battle with their demonic doppelgangers, evil false idols trying to conquer the planet and corrupt and deprave the populace. The fight is undertaken by giving instructions to the humans inhabiting the planet, in order to grow the population and thus create more worshippers for your god of war. The more praise from your followers, the more power you wield, and this leads to beefed-up human warriors and impressive elemental attacks you can throw at your malevolent counterpart. So, the god of earth, for example, can cause an earthquake in your rival faction’s camp that destroys buildings, kills their worshippers and causes disruption to their overall growth. Your nemesis can do the same to you, so it’s a case of kill or be killed. Wipe out your opponent and hey presto, you’re the winner.
If the Nintendo advertising campaigns are to be believed, the DS attracts gamers of all ages, so it stands to reason that while some will be drawn to this title simply out of fond memories, there will be many more who have never played Populous or indeed even heard of it. In many respects EA have done well to straddle the fine line between respectful update and all-out “reimagining” of a cherished title. The problem here lies in the fact that they may have been a little too respectful.
“This is Wizards-era Michael Jordan; you can still see some of the old spark but it’s a shadow of its former self”First impressions are good, as the game has been given a glossy presentational overhaul. This is mainly a superficial layer of sheen though, and the actual interface itself is presented in traditional fashion. Although it may seem like blasphemy to some, Populous has not aged particularly well. In terms of gameplay it has been leapfrogged by many, many games of its ilk in the last 20 years. We are spoilt for choice when it comes to RTS, turn-based strategy, The Sims games and the like, and although they all owe a great debt to Populous, they have had twenty years to run with Molyneux’s original ideas and perfect them. The king’s throne has been usurped countless times in the preceding two decades (even by Molyneux himself on more than one occasion), and it would have taken much more than this reverential remake to claim back the crown.
A complete overhaul from the ground up was needed to really set Populous apart from the young contenders, but that’s nowhere to be found here. This is Wizards-era Michael Jordan; you can still see some of the old spark but it’s a shadow of its former self next to some of the new kids on the block. It just doesn’t feel relevant anymore.
For those merely looking for a faithful hand-held conversion of an old favourite, Populous is hard to fault. But that’s not necessarily a glowing recommendation, as the developers have also carried over some of the flaws that really should’ve been ironed out for modern audiences’ consumption. The main playing screen, for example, is the dictionary definition of mundane, and does nothing to attract the player’s eye. Dull colours, the unsightly isometric grid overlay used to show slopes and terrain variation, and the horribly muddy interface all combine to create an aesthetically unpleasant mess. Functionality is all well and good, but any game can be hard to get into when you spend most of your time looking at such a fugly screen.
That said, the cut scenes when your deity of choice does something godly are quite nicely rendered, and hint at the potential that a Populous title would still have had the premise itself been similarly brought up-to-date. However, once you’ve seen your omnipotent avatar perform one of their special attacks once or twice, you’ve seen it a thousand times, and any pleasure in seeing these CG interludes quickly fades once you’ve exhausted your limited moveset.
“Nostalgia alone does not make for a great gaming experience”Gameplay essentially consists of a small number of endlessly repeated steps. Step one: Level uneven terrain so that your followers can build houses on flat land. Step two: Encourage them to dim the lights and throw on some Marvin Gaye so that your ranks of devotees increase (generally much more slowly than your opponents’ it has to be said). Step three: Throw some elemental attacks at your enemy’s encampment like a monkey flinging turds. Step four: Rebuild when your enemy does the same to you. Repeat steps one-to-four until you die, or the time limit runs out. If you do survive until the clock hits zero, watch as all your little men charge at all the enemy’s little men and they meet in the middle, slapping at each other like Perez Hilton and David Walliams have arrived at a party wearing the same shoes. Then hope you have the last man standing (dictated by having a larger share of the population) so you don’t have to repeat the level again. You’ll then proceed to move onto the next level, which is pretty much the same as the last one but possibly with a different coloured landscape, or maybe a different set of elemental attacks if you’re really lucky.
There is no doubt that Populous is an all-time classic game. It has been inordinately influential over the years, and should be fondly remembered as setting the standard for things to come, a peak of design ingenuity for gaming in the 1980’s. The original is a landmark in the industry’s short timeline so far, and will always be seen as such. But nostalgia alone does not make for a great gaming experience, and without significant reconstruction Populous just isn’t what most gamers want circa 2009. Although most of us could happily watch a classic twenty-year-old movie, the level of interactivity demanded from videogames means that they advance exponentially quicker than any other medium, and, as such, the intervening years make a much bigger impact on older products. So it is with a heavy heart that I say I cannot truly recommend Populous to this generation of gamers, and, diehard fans aside, the DS version just isn’t worth your time. This deserves pride of place in a gaming museum, but sadly not in your DS.