Retro recollections: Populous (SNES)

I’ve recently been playing the SNES version of Populous, both for nostalgic and relaxation reasons. I should probably worry about a game that lets me unleash swamps and earthquakes as seeming “relaxing”.
There it was, staring me from the shelf of a Book-Off in Ikebukuro. Populous for (technically) the Super Famicom. A game I hadn’t played since I first owned a copy all the way back in late 1992. It was super cheap at 108 Yen (roughly $1.38 or so), and my brain went “Yeah, why not? I mean, it can’t be that text-heavy, right?
Amongst the weird and wonderful retro bits and bobs I picked up during my recent retrogaming trip to Tokyo was a very cheap copy of Bullfrog’s classic Populous. I haven’t checked if it’s available as a virtual console title, although Good Old Games does sell it for PC for $7.89. As such, the asking price was right in any case. Despite having plenty of other games to play (and leaving aside a few actual new titles that I’m also busy reviewing) I’ve spent a lot of my free time this week playing Bullfrog’s classic God sim. The classic God sim, really.
It’s an unusual title, because I can’t deny that the computer-based versions of the day would have been better, simply because it’s designed around a mouse-style interface. That being said, part of the reason I picked up a copy back in ’92 from the CEX store in Rathbone Place, London (one of the classic game stores, now sadly defunct for retro purposes) was because it was one of those games that I’d read so much about while not having access to anything that could play it.
You do that kind of thing when your access to games is limited as much by the systems you have as the budget you can bring to bear. Also, it was relatively cheap, and I couldn’t quite spend all my time playing Street Fighter II. Not quite all of it, anyway.

Also, we were a few years away from this cinematic masterpiece.
Back in ’92 I played it heavily for a couple of weeks and then traded it in (hey, I didn’t have much in the way of disposable income, being one of those highly-sought-after school leavers with no practical skills at all) for, if I recall correctly, a copy of Super Smash TV. That’s arguably an upgrade (and a game I still own) overall, so why the nostalgia?
Partly it’s because while games have played around with the whole God-Game thing to much greater effect in the intervening years, there’s something beautifully simple about Populous. Raise some land, lower some other land and build out your dudes before the other player does. Sometimes your dudes are in green mountains, sometimes they’re in the desert, and sometimes they’re inexplicably mice. I’m not sure I want to know why. They just are.

As the game starts, you have one follower. Wait. One. Follower. How exactly do you go forth and multiply with only one follower, exactly?
As the game starts, you have one follower.
Wait, what?  One. Follower. How exactly do you go forth and multiply with only one follower, exactly?

Being beautifully simple also means it’s almost entirely relaxing in a tranquil way that very few games manage these days. I can act as the god of vengeance if I wish by inflicting swamps and knights on my foes, but equally I can just act like the ultimate English gardener by making my own territory as flat as possible and waiting politely for it to all sort itself out. Although I’m nearly always a vengeful jerk, and sometimes an accidentally awkward one towards my own followers. I figure that if you lived on a world where quite-literally-God suddenly makes mountains appear, you adjust quickly to the fact that your castle might need to vanish to make way for a sudden new mountain.

What if God was a massive klutz?
It’s also quaintly amusing how you get the populace of Populous to, well, propagate. Smaller dwellings knock out humans much faster than larger castles, but they’re weaker than castle folk who take longer to gestate. No, I don’t understand why either really, but the key way you quickly increase your population is by ticking them off by raising a corner against their dwellings in order to make them smaller dwellings, at which point they kick out the excess population who then go off to settle new territory.
Flatten, raise, repeat. Flatten, raise, repeat. It’s almost hypnotic, and while the “god game” genre is a rather depreciated one these days, there have been a few, and it’s interesting to see how many basic principles Populous set in place that they all either expanded on or simply adopted.
Oh, and for the record, the quantity of non-English text I had to make my way through? Precisely none. So while your odds of scoring a copy quite that cheaply are probably slim, it’s got to be worth it at that kind of price even if (like me) you know no Japanese script.
So is it a game that everyone should play? For once, I can’t really say yes in an absolute sense, although I’m still broadly in favour of everyone enjoying retro gaming. Yes, nostalgia plays a part in that, and in the case of Populous, that nostalgia is a big part of why I’ve been playing God all week. Well, that, and an obsession with making things flat, which, when you come down to it, is the core gameplay mechanic on offer.
Retro recollections are just random musings on retro subjects, usually whatever I’m playing at the moment.

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