Solaris Japan

Friday, 17 February 2017

Mega Drive Review - Gods (Game 127)

When they think of games by The Bitmap Brothers, very few Retro Gamers name 'Gods'. Is there a reason why the attractive action platformer is largely forgotten today?

Developed by The Bitmap Brothers
Published by Renegade / Accolade
Released in 1992


I often find myself trying to justify the fact that as a father, husband and fully grown adult I still like playing video games. I tell people that it's a huge billion pound industry that's enjoyed by as many adults as children. I remind them that there are thought provoking mature games that are rated for adult consumption and not just because they have nudity and violence in them. I preach that games are art, games are emotional, games can make question your values or morales; they don't always listen. However while these revelations seem new to some, the games industry has always had games that were better played by adults than children. Not just games like 'Leisure Suit Larry' or 'Mortal Kombat' which were clearly inappropriate for children to play, there were also games that required patience planning and restraint. 

Although 'Gods' might look like little more than a very attractive "jump and run" platformer, such simple assessment would be unfair. "It's not just a shoot 'em up - there are lots of intriguing puzzles to solve and objects to discover" Noted CU Amiga magazine. " Even if you complete the game, there will always be something you've missed".
'Gods' is a game were precision and timed jumping are required to succeed. It's a adventure that you must cautiously move through, mentally mapping switches and memorising when and how frequently enemies will attack. 'Gods' is a game of planning, not just a game of knee-jerk reflexes. As a result it's a game I hated as a child simply because my gung-ho approach so frequently led to failure. I was not the only one who experienced this though. "Truth be told, older, more experienced players than me probably had a better time with 'Gods', as I could never finish it " Mike Diver noted on the Vice website. "The game couldn't be rushed – doing so would cost you health, always – and yet it had the look of a speed-run friendly arcade platformer. In practice, caution was always advised."


 
Viewed from a side on 2D perspective, 'Gods' tells a story that's set in Ancient Greece. According to the game's introduction, "four guardians" have taken control of the citadel of the gods. Naturally angered by this the gods promise a favour to anyone able to defeat the invaders and return the citadel to their control. A muscular but masked hero rises to the challenge. He agrees to risk almost certain death provided that he is granted omnipotence and a seat among the gods should he succeed. During the 90s the majority of similar action games told simple stories of kidnapped princesses or megalomaniacs bent on world domination. So a game depicting a faceless Greek warrior's desire to climb Mount Olympus would have felt both original and mature. The premise demands more thought from the player; something that extends to the gameplay too. 

The levels are labyrinthine and perhaps even obtuse. The player can only carry four items at once so you have no choice but the back track to pick up items you were forced to leave behind. 'Gods' is a game where you have to be economical with your inventory; carrying only what you need to solve a puzzle in an upcoming section. But casually discarding essential items only causes headaches down the line. On several occasions I was forced to scour a level trying to find a key I once held but carelessly dropped.
Over 30 distinct types of artifacts, including six different types of keys, are hidden in 'Gods'. Ultimately to succeed in the game you'll have to carry the right keys for the right doors, at the right time taking the correct path through the mazes and minimising dangerous backtracking. "You might finds door that won't open and three levers to be pulled, but in what order?" questioned game critic Jools Watsham. "Three levers means [nine] combinations and the wrong combination will more than likely bring a horde of sweaty nasty things determined to rip your head off and eat it". The game presents an appropriately Herculean challenge. To aide you a message scrolls at the bottom of the screen offering hints to solving puzzles or explaining the effects of artefacts. However, determining the meaning of these sometimes cryptic messages is often a puzzle in itself. 

Treasure collected through the adventure can be spent at the shops dispersed through the game, but again deciding what to spend your limited funds on can be a head scratcher . On sale are many types of weapons, artefacts of protection, magic potions, and even weapons modifiers that control the behaviour of our hero's projectiles. While you can carry three weapons at once, you're never rich enough to buy everything in the shop. Strategic choices have to be made and a player's spending decisions will ultimately affect their ability to overcome the dangers that lay ahead. 

Judicious spending should mean that by the game's close the hero will actually be so well armed that even the bosses pose little threat. But despite this, 'Gods' is often called "one of the hardest games you could play on the Amiga or any other system". However, this infamous reputation may be down to people playing dubious copies of the original home computer version. The Amiga version features multi-layered copy protection. The main part was deliberately easy to crack, presenting what appeared to be a playable unlocked game. However, unknown to most, a second layer remained which made the game so challenging that the first boss was nearly impossible to beat. 

While many thought this anti piracy system actually raised the game's difficulty, what it actually did was disable the much-flaunted player assist feature that was built into 'Gods'. Developers The Bitmap Bother's called this "Player Monitor mode" and in short it keeps track of your skill level, making the game easier for the uninitiated and more difficult for the skilful. "Many of the adversaries feature a unique intelligence system that allows them to 'think' their way to defeating you" claims the Bitmap Brothers and evidently it was something that survived the port to the MegaDrive. The back of the box for the Sega conversion states that "the entire quest adjusts to your skill level, monitoring your every move with extra help for the novice, rewards for clever manoeuvres and tougher challenges for the omnipotent." According to the developers it was hoped that "Player Monitor mode [would] ensure that every game is different, since most of us don't perform with the precision of a computer". It was a feature applauded by critics; "the difficulty pitches just right" wrote Advanced Computer Entertainment magazine. "The first couple of worlds are relatively easy (though no pushovers), but provide a finely-judged tuition in the job ahead. Only after you've been playing for a while will you discover that 'Gods' packs considerable depth beneath its hack-'em-up facade, encouraging you to return again and again." "On the surface it's much the same as any other platform shoot-em up but probe beneath the exterior and you'll find something altogether cleverer" noticed Super Play magazine. 

While such player monitoring is common place today, game historians recognise that at the time it was revolutionary. "What made 'Gods' so successful [was] a sense of intelligence not just behind the game, but within it" reiterates Duncan Harris in the authoritative "Bitmap Brothers: Universe" book.

Developers The Bitmap Brothers were arguably the video game industry's first celebrities. They behaved like rock stars and courted the media; posing for photos in front of helicopters and wearing sun glasses inside. Their manufactured fame contributed to the success of their games and each release was always met with a huge amount of hype and anticipation. "At the end of the day a lot of people like a game just because it's from the Bitmap Brothers" ST Format once cynically wrote. "It's doesn't need to be good."

'Gods' was released after 'Speedball 2', which was probably the Bitmap's most critically and commercially successful game. It was a hard act to follow. Some reviewers at the time however felt it eclipsed it's forebears. "'Gods' is [...] probably the best thing the Bitmaps have done, which is quite a compliment considering their past products" admired Amiga Action magazine. Mike Montgomery was one of the founders of The Bitmap Brothers. He believed that his development studio adhered to one guiding rule when creating a game. "The philosophy of the Bitmap Brothers was always great music, great programming, great graphics are great sound. Not one thing makes a great game; it's always together." Validating their claim to being rock stars, The Bitmap Brother would typically invite contemporary chart musicians to write the music for their games and the original Amiga version of 'Gods' had their most memorable licensed track. Featuring sung lyrics and a catchy chorus "Into the Wonderful" was written and performed by John Foxx under his Nation XII alias. The song was even included on his Elctrofear album some years later. Sadly though the console versions do not share the same opening theme music as the Amiga version of the game. They do, however, have background music throughout the game which is notably missing from the home computer versions. The eight featured tunes were based on John Fox's original soundtrack but has been specifically remixed by Jason Page for the Mega Drive's soundchips. Indeed, the inclusion of the sung title music is probably the only reason why the original Amiga version could be considered superior to the Mega Drive port. Overseen by the developers, Accolade's 16bit Sega conversion of 'Gods' would be called a special edition remaster were it released today. According to Mega Drive Advanced Gaming magazine the publishers Renegade were adamant that the game showcase the strengths of the machine. "Not content with just porting the original code across from the Amiga, Renegade insisted that the game be improved and tweaked to take full advantage of the Mega Drives capabilities". This was more than a cosmetically overhaul, gameplay saw revision based on criticism aimed at the Amiga original. "No longer will your hero wimp out with the axes because the machine can only handle 12 on screen at a time" MDAG magazine noticed.
"On the Mega Drive he can fling as many about as he likes no problem. Frantic is a good word to describe this Game with the speed it runs at on the Mega Drive". the console version addresses Amiga Computing's criticism that the original was "slow, ponderous and a bit boring". As a result it possible to clear the game in around an hour (compared to the Amiga version, which took nearly two).
The most striking improvement the Mega Drive version of 'Gods' has over the home computer version is in the aesthetics of course. "The visual presentation is up to the usual Bitmap Brothers standard" observed Computing magazine. "Highly polished". Twenty five years later the game still impresses. "1991's action-platformer 'Gods' looked like it came beamed directly from the heavens, its chunky aesthetics as awesome then as they'd be on a new (albeit retro-rendered) game released today" claimed Mike Diver, former editor of
Vice Gaming. "The classiness of 'Gods' is there to see just as soon as it loads. "Renegade presents a Bitmap Brothers Game" pops up, bold white against jet black, before a muscle-bound brute torn straight from the pages of the most awesome comic your mother would never let you read stood, statuesque, as the game's back story scrolled up the screen."

The majority of Bitmap Brothers games share a similar metallic style, but the graphics for 'Gods' were created by a Mark Coleman who (despite working on the prequel) turned down The Bitmap Brothers most celebrated game. "I really did not want to do 'Speedball 2' Coleman recalls." Having done 'Xenon 2' in the interim, I was in no mood to revisit my past mistakes. Plus, they were talking about 'Gods', and that got me really excited. I could visualise exactly how I wanted that game to look, and what we could do with it." For a developer who depended on image to get sales, freelance designer Coleman had very little direction from The Bitmap Brothers. "I was initially given a brief about what 'Gods' was about but after that was given completely free reign as to how the game could look. The main influence for the graphical style was Greek mythology, but then as the design progressed more mechanical aspects came in, pretty much whatever came into my imagination made it into the game! I occasionally tend to drift from the concept but that didn't seem to matter too much." As a result historical accuracy has rather gown by the way side in the finished game. With an absence of iconic white pillars and numerous heavy wooden dungeon doors 'Gods' looks less Greek and more medieval. Some critics even believe "the graphics look about as classical as a Renaissance Faire."
The look of the main character is also widely inconsistent throughout the game. For example, The iconic helmet worn is different in the opening cinematic, on the title screen and in the game itself. Perhaps the distance between Coleman and the programming department caused for this inconsistency. "During development I was working back in Wales and the Bitmaps were in London. This was way before the Internet so loads of floppy disks were posted back and forth during the making of 'Gods'." Mike Montgomery however thinks individual thinking was the reason that 'Gods' looked so striking and unusual. "Greek Mythology was a big part of 'Gods' when we first started and the artwork that Mark created was great. He had so much scope to express himself and that really does show."

Again, Mega Drive Advanced Gaming magazine was keen to highlight the visual differences between the Mega Drive and home computer versions. "They have managed to include some 64 colours on the screen, as opposed to the original 32 that gives a great amount of detail in the walls and all of the objects. There's also a rather sexy parallax scroll behind the main character giving the screen some depth". But it's not the only visual improvement. There's a new animated intro and the game screen now displays all held items. this works without compromising the visible area as the Sega Mega Drive version runs at a slightly higher resolution. Other touches are slight but add variety to the already impressive looking game. Most importantly a colour injection helps make the game a bit less grey ; a common criticism of Bitmap Brothers games. Reviewer Dan Locke was particularly brutal when he reviewed the home computer version for the Lemon Amiga website. "It's rendered in about five shades of verdigris, gray, and lavender. It looks like a grayscale image with the contrast deliberately reduced in Photoshop - were it not for the copious use of highlights and shadows, nothing would be discernible at all. " On the Mega Drive the hero's armour is slightly blue coloured compared to the Amiga version and enemies now have their own palettes which helps differentiate the four worlds. 

While 'Gods' is likely never going to be as fondly remembered as 'Speedball 2' or even 'The Chaos Engine' to this day it remains a game that is dear to studio head Mike Montgomery. When asked which series he would most like to return to with an unlimited budget, he didn't take long to pick the Greek Opus. "I'd like to make 'Gods 2'" he admits and had clear ideas how a sequel would look on today's console. " If we ever made a sequel to 'Gods' it would've been like 'God of war' which strangely enough was made by a programmer I tried employee years ago!"

So while I claim to be a fan of The Bitmap Brothers games, the reality is I didn't really like 'Gods' all that much growing up. On the Amiga I knew the first level intimately, solely because I kept replaying it after dying quickly in the second stage. Of course it wasn't helped that I'd played the game on the Amiga when an upwards press on the joystick caused the hero to face the wall rather than jump vertically. Without doubt, if you wish to play the game now you should track down 'Gods' on the Mega Drive. It may not have the oh so catchy sung into music but it looks better, plays faster and is a much more enjoyable experience. Of course should you hunt out The Bitmap Brithers' often overlooked middle child you must approach it in a suitable manner. Set some time aside to gradually move through the stages. Grab a pen and paper and make notes of item locations. Haste leads to frustration, but taking time to marvel at the undeniably beautiful graphics actually makes the experience far more enjoyable. The impatience of youth ruined this game for me and if I had just taken the time to really enjoy the puzzles and atmosphere I would have appreciated just how good 'Gods' is.




Where did I get this game from?
One birthday i felt the need to revisit old Amiga games, but without an A500 to play them on I instead asked for Ports on the Mega Drive . My Dad bought this game for me. I would say he bought it as he remembered I played it in my youth, but I doubt it. In my youth I didn't play the game long enough for it to leave a lasting memory on a parent. It was also not nearly long enough to properly appreciate it.

No comments:

Post a Comment