Dropping the 2D presentation of Populous, their new project pushed the limits of what was possible in computer gaming. The first time you boot up Magic Carpet, you’ll immediately soak in its thick atmosphere. Howling winds soar around you, with a mysterious desert world below. Encounters with magic and fantastic creatures punctuate your travels, evoking the charm and style of Arabian Nights.
You control a wizard atop the titular flying rug, where you must bolster your power to face off against monsters, armies and even other wizards. Claiming settlements and mana spheres allows for greater spells, as well as summoning and upgrading your very own castle, which doubles as a respawn point and mana storage. You learn a myriad of spells, ranging from fireballs, lightning, teleportation, land deformation, to even summoning volcanoes. It’s this versatility and power over the environment that makes Magic Carpet such a dynamic experience. The ground will swell or deform chunk by chunk when you let loose a powerful ability. Townspeople will run around and battle monsters to defend themselves.
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Occasional scripted events can turn things on their head, leading to some surprising and challenging moments. Teleporting you to an unknown destination, or summoning a group of monsters, to stop you in your tracks. Magic Carpet was less of a hands-on project for Molyneux, who did not work on the programming or design side of things this time around. The game’s revolutionary technology was what made it stand out from the pack. A programmer’s game, like Populous before it. Glenn Corpes, one of the technical pillars of Bullfrog since Populous, built the powerful engine at the game’s foundation, which is a marvel of its time.
Corpes was so influential to early god games, you can see his initials he snuck into the user interface of Populous. The game was way ahead of its competition in graphics tech, which may have hindered its adoption rate. It featured 3D vision options, VR headset support, an optional SVGA resolution, real-time water reflections, completely deformable 3D terrain, and even anti-aliasing! Unheard of in a 1994 game.
Mis-marketing Magic Carpet as ONLY a first-person shooter seemed to sell it short, competing against the ever-popular DOOM II that same year. And so the cult classic undersold, despite its ports to the Playstation and Sega Saturn consoles. Perhaps it was the game’s obtuse objectives, whimsical and dizzying combat and spectacle, the loose control scheme, or its complexity that turned people away. It nevertheless remains one of the most original and atmospheric games of the 1990s, and would influence future titles for years. Magic Carpet 2 wasn’t as revolutionary, in fact it retains all the features of the original, but just adds more.
More spells, more levels, and more interesting scenario design. Bullfrog added some nice environmental variety, though. Stark nighttime levels, and underground worlds, which have impassable walls you can’t soar over.
This was a clever technical trick, where they mirrored the terrain map to create a cavernous floor and ceiling. The game shows off more nuanced level design, with frequent scripted events to keep the players on their toes. They also added excellent voiceover by Hugo Myatt, famous for playing the dungeon master Treguard in the 1980s TV show, Knightmare. This storybook-like narration helps guide players through each level, and makes the game’s story more engaging. Like Populous’s sequel before it, Magic Carpet 2 adds a layer of progression to the game, with the player gaining experience from using magic, which unlocks three tiers of each spell. So what starts out as a single fireball ends up as rapid-fire attacks.
Lightning bolts become lightning storms, and you can even upgrade your castle with magic turrets to better defend your mana trove. Magic Carpet 2 didn’t release on consoles like its predecessor did. Despite its cult status with a dedicated but niche fanbase, continued lack of mainstream interest eventually led to the promising franchise’s demise. During the development of Magic Carpet and other Bullfrog games, Peter Molyneux was in talks about an acquisition. After courting other big publishers who had expressed interest, Bullfrog and Electronic Arts inked a merger in 1995, which propelled Molyneux and co-founder Les Edgar to vice-presidents at EA, while simultaneously managing their own studio from above. Bullfrog Productions was still small around that time, but with this acquisition, EA put the studio to work and demanded a steady assembly line of hits, like a mechanized factory.
At one point, seven whole games were being developed at the same time. Bullfrog even slapped together an entire racing game in just seven short weeks to appease their new owners, in-between tirelessly worked on their next triple-A release behind the scenes. While change was amok in Guildford, fellow brits in Cambridge released Creatures in 1996. The game made a big splash in the world of life simulators, featuring a complex artificial intelligence system in the form of Norns, cute little aliens who are naive, trusting and fun-loving to a fault. Playing the game and trying to make your Norns smarter, more mature and more sentient over generations was the crux of the game and its sequels. Even teaching them language and deeper thought patterns through association and repetition.
Though more of a life sim than a god game, it still featured a host of ways to influence and evolve the little critters into a more successful species. Acting more as a “spark of enlightenment” rather than a Zeus-like god with heavenly powers at your fingertips. After making several games in the Creatures series, computer scientist Steve Grand would go on to make real-life robots with machine-learning AI that would start with human baby-like intelligence and attempt to learn new concepts organically like a real person would.
This was during a trend where life and pet simulation games were all the rage during the mid-1990s. More games would explore the idea of evolution. And more complex and interactive takes on the SimLife and SimEarth formula would follow suit.
These tended to be traditional simulations, as they didn’t include supernatural influence or abilities. Thus losing the “god game” classification. As Peter Molyneux’s next pet project loomed, Glenn Corpes re-tooled the powerful Magic Carpet engine for more strategy-oriented gameplay. They shifted to a bird’s-eye view and moved from the open outdoors to the claustrophobic underground. The game retained the developer’s quirky look and sense of humor, as well as their iconic feature: terrain manipulation. Part-business manager, part-god game, 1997 brought us one of the most celebrated PC games of all time: Dungeon Keeper.
This time around, Bullfrog puts you in the role of a dark overlord, not a god per se, but its inspirations are obvious. The lack of direct control over your dungeon’s inhabitants, and your detached hand which can pick up and move minions, slap them or cast powerful spells make it stand apart from the slew of RTS games at the time. The game replaces the elevation of terrain in Populous or Magic Carpet with marking the earth for excavation. Your loyal imps will dig out the plan set before them. They also claim land in your name, and reinforce the walls of your dungeon to keep out unwanted guests.
After a fight, they will do your dirty work for you, snagging loose coin, dragging corpses to your graveyard, or captives to your prison. The beauty of Dungeon Keeper is that you must keep your own house in order before fighting your enemies. The game starts out simple, with the basic goal of making a habitable dungeon with food, shelter and money to satiate your minions. You must claim a portal, which in turn summons creatures, depending on their individual needs.
A library attracts knowledge-hungry warlocks, a large hatchery entices bile demons, and gold-filled coffers lure dragons to your lair. The whimsical discovery of finding new monsters to house is one of Keeper’s most enjoyable aspects. Starve heroes in a prison to reanimate them as skeletons, or bury the slain in a graveyard, and watch powerful vampires arise from the dead. Not all your minions get along with each other, so breaking up fights and keeping them orderly, fed, housed and paid is all part of the joy of being a lord of evil. On top of designing your dungeon, you must face off against goodly heroes that venture to the depths, hungry for glory and riches — and you will eventually face an even greater foe later on: other keepers.
You can wield powerful spells to influence those inside or sometimes outside your dungeon. Cause a cave-in to stop some pesky heroes in their tracks. Reveal a faraway location before digging to it, summon more imps, speed creatures up, zap them with bolts of lightning, and more. Most mind-blowing of all spells is the ability to control any one of your creatures directly through first-person possession, with all their attacks and abilities. Perhaps dig out some gold or claim territory as an imp, fight heroes as a vampire, or fly over lava as a dragon.
Few developers would be so crazy to put this much work into a single feature, but Bullfrog did just that. The pursuit of those fascinating “wow” moments was part of Bullfrog’s DNA at this point, and the desire to innovate overruled proven, common design choices in the games industry. Putting your erudite creatures to work at the library, leads to researching new types of rooms and spells.
Building a subterranean maze, which is not only efficient, but tactical, keeps your treasure and softer minions safe. Fortifying your dungeon against rivals by way of doors, traps, guard posts and well-trained minions is a must. But all these require time, patience and gold, so planning and creature management are key to survival https://www.reddit.com/r/retrogaming/comments/b6n9dp/30_years_of_god_game_history_populous_dungeon/.