Peter Molyneux helmed the game studio, but was also hands-on in design, direction and even programming. There wasn’t room for ivory-tower “directors” back then, everyone got their hands dirty in raw software development, every step of the way. Populous’s simple but addictive concept offered 500 maps in the base game alone. A player-vs-player mode was available, and an expansion allowed for even more challenges to complete. There was simply no other game like this at the time. After a few dozen plays, you pretty much get the concept, and the simple charm of the game loses a bit of its luster.
Though groundbreaking for 1989, the AI was simplistic. Predictable. But fussing about with these little buggers in a world you could sculpt and influence from above was, in a word: captivating. Populous was a smash hit and it’s estimated to have sold 4 million copies to date across a dozen platforms. And it’s this innovation that catapulted Bullfrog into the limelight as one of the most unique and creative game developers of all time.
After the success of Populous, other developers tried their hand at the god game. Conflating god simulators and games about evolution may seem antithetical, but they are in fact, close relatives. After all, how better would you help your tribe or species than influencing changes in their DNA? An early example of a game where you evolved species over time was the seminal Maxis title, SimEarth in 1990.
It allowed for manipulating a planetary sandbox, adjusting the climate, geology and influencing life. Raising your creatures to sentience before the sun dies out, was the unspoken goal of the game. This began a trend of more experimental sim games which often dipped into god game territory — with the ability to use cosmic powers like comets and natural disasters to test your creatures’ survivability, and their reactions to new stimuli.
Though the Maxis simulation titles bordered on being “toys” rather than actual games, self-imposed goals still made them challenging experiences. From simulating entire worlds, creating and evolving lifeforms, and seeing how species interact with each other, these were life simulators on a massive and almost scientific scale. Bullfrog’s next evolution of the Populous formula, Powermonger, is more down-to-earth, becoming one of the very first real-time strategy games, even before the creator of Dune II coined the term itself. Its true 3D polygonal world is both rotatable and zoomable, groundbreaking for the time. There are so many details and environmental interactions implemented into the game. There are four full seasons, summer sees the growth of food and trees, drought and deforestation influence rain cycles, and the winter snows threaten your food stocks.
The game eschews the iconic ability to morph terrain at will, but you can now give direct orders to followers, a small but pervasive change over Populous. Though it still dabbles with the ideas of its god game predecessor, influence and autonomous civilization is less integral to the game’s mechanics. You can win through peaceful diplomacy with other villages, to get them to join your side.
Or you can take your kingdom with the pointy end of a sword. Much of this was cutting-edge at the time, but the game’s ambitious technology suffered under its less intuitive controls and user interface. Despite its shortcomings though, Powermonger’s environmental depth would influence many future god games. Though not forgotten, the game remains more of a stepping stone in the history books of the god sim, due to its looser adherence to the genre.
In 1991, the Japanese developer, Quintet, released a surprise addition to the genre, the Super Nintendo title, ActRaiser. Part action-platformer a la Castlevania, part god game. In ActRaiser, you switch back and forth between “god mode” and “avatar mode” — god mode sees you flying over your world as a cherub, shooting at monsters who rampage and massacre your followers, and guiding your flock to seal off the gates which spawn these cursed beasts. You can also use miracles like lightning, rain and sunshine to aid followers in times of need, put out fires, accelerate crop growth, lead your followers to new lands, or listen to and answer prayers via quests. Between each god sequence, you incarnate as a walking hero, sword in hand.
Platformer sequences are simplistic jump and attack fare, with the occasional magic powerup. Enemies and bosses have predictable AI, and there are some cheap player deaths, but it’s fun to alternate between these minigames, nonetheless. Separately, the god and platformer modes don’t quite measure up to dedicated games of their ilk.
But together, they somehow exceed the sum of their parts, and mesh into a unique experience you can’t find anywhere else. Its 1993 sequel had improved visuals and added more advanced movement and level design into its action sequences, but sheds any semblance of god game elements. It’s a shame, taking a unique spin on the genre and turning it into a forgettable action title, likely as an attempt to make the game more marketable. After its massive success with Populous, Bullfrog attempted to strike gold again with more experimental games, meanwhile working on its anticipated sequel.
In 1991, Populous II: Trials of the Olympian Gods launched to a positive reception, despite making less of an impact than its predecessor did. Sporting a Greek Mythology theme this time around, it retains its core gameplay loop, but simply adds more of everything. The sequel introduces an RPG-like progression system, granting experience after each mission which you’ll use to unlock a much broader arsenal of godly abilities. New and exciting powers include pillars of fire, lightning storms, whirlwinds and tidal waves, among others; as well as the ability to summon from a myriad of heroes, such as Adonis, Heracles, Perseus or Odysseus — each with their own strategies, pros and cons. The result was a much deeper and dynamic experience. A longer and more rewarding progression kept you engaged during its gigantic collection of 900 levels.
And there was a “matchmaking” system of sorts which decided which demigod you battled next, based on the outcome of your previous match — a little extra depth to the campaign, rather than a linear sequence of challenges. Selling about a third of its predecessor, it was still a big success, though it wasn’t quite the sleeper megahit Populous was. In early magazine articles and screenshots, Peter Molyneux boasted wild claims and drummed up massive hype leading up to its release, talking about numerous modes, orchestral music, and huge, sprawling cities with interconnected walls and roads, expanding on the original’s individualized buildings. Artist and programmer, Glenn Corpes mentioned that around this time, media coverage and interviews were starting to affect Bullfrog’s development process. During Populous II’s cycle, an interviewer asked Molyneux about specific features, and in order to impress and generate buzz about the upcoming title, he confirmed that those would be in the final game.
Only later would he talk to his designers and programmers about actually planning or implementing these ideas. On one hand, it’s a beautiful example of open game development, which embraces feedback and ideas with open arms, on the other: the prospect of publicly promising gameplay mechanics before they’re actually researched or planned, is a dangerous one — and it’s a habit Molyneux would become notorious for in later years. Populous II wasn’t the revolutionary experience promised in pre-release coverage, but with many more fun and deadly powers to use in this battleground of the gods, it’s a much more replayable and enjoyable game. In 1994, Bullfrog developed a brand new engine for a fresh spin on the god game genre.