Retro Revisited: Gods

‘Into the Wonderful’ – these are the immortal words that can be heard during the introduction to one the best-known, not to mention fondly remembered Commodore Amiga games of all time.

Gods, the arcade-platform game set in a fictionalised world of ancient Greek mythology, is often regarded as a classic, but is this reputation deserved?

I’m sure that some of you reading this will have spluttered, ‘Of course it is!’, with a certain amount of incredulity, and the recent release of Gods Remastered must be some kind of reaffirmation of the game’s revered status.

However, childhood memories of such games can often be skewed somewhat by the rose-tinted hue of nostalgia, and revisiting these older games so many years later often serves as a sobering reality check – would this be the case with Gods?

Developed by The Bitmap Brothers, Gods was first released in 1991 for the Commodore Amiga and Atari ST, with conversions for other platforms arriving later.

The game follows the adventures of an unnamed protagonist (later changed to Hercules) as he seeks power, fame and glory in the ruins of the Ancient City.

Long since fallen into disrepair, the once-majestic citadel once belonged to the deities of the Greek pantheon. Long abandoned, the place is now controlled by dark powers, and monstrous creatures now patrol it’s many corridors and passageways, dealing with any adventurer foolhardy enough to venture inside.

Understandably aggrieved over the current situation, the gods issue a challenge that, should any mortal be able to rid the city of evil, that person would receive a divine gift of considerable value. Our hero, a warrior without equal among his human peers, stands before the gods and demands that, if he should be victorious in this quest, that his reward should be the ultimate prize: to join their number as a god and receive the gift of immortality itself.

Despite much reluctance to accept a mere mortal among their ranks, the gods agree to these demands, and the warrior departs at once for the city of Legends.

Having loaded up the game, the player is presented with an introductory sequence that sets out the game’s backstory, setting the scene for the rest of the game.

As would become customary with so many of their games, the Bitmaps signed a published artist to assist with the production of music for title.

With Rhythm King Records owning a 50% stake in Renegade (the developer’s own publishing arm), the studio had access to artists signed to the label, including John Foxx, former member of synthpop act Ultravox, now performing under the guise of Nation 12.

Working with veteran video game music producer and artist, Richard Joseph, the game would feature a version of Into the Wonderful, a track created originally for the group’s Electrofear album.

While Electrofear would remain incomplete for many years, Into the Wonderful would go on to become one of the most memorable pieces of music on the Amiga, if not one of the best-loved video-game themes of all time.

Unwittingly, the inclusion of the track may well have proved been one of the defining moments of Foxx’s career. Electrofear received something of a posthumous release in 2005 following the discovery of studio recording material long since thought to have been lost, and the comments accompanying the Amazon album listing and official YouTube music video referring to it’s inclusion in the game are proof (not that it was needed) about how influential the video-games industry had become.

While I’m not sure that Foxx would be particularly thrilled at being labelled ‘the guy that wrote the music to Gods’, the internet age means that game fans get to discover some of the history behind the creation of our favourite games, as well as chance to be culturally enlightened.

Following this brief sojourn into music history, let us turn our attention back to the game itself.

On the surface, Gods might appear to be a standard platform game (it has plenty of them), but first impressions can often be deceptive.

While the core gameplay certainly involves plenty of running, leaping and shooting monsters with an array of weaponry, this serves to mask an intricate system of puzzles and secrets, all waiting to be discovered by the player on their quest for immortality.

The Ancient City consists of four individual worlds, each sub-divided into a series of sprawling levels.

The objective in each of these areas is to reach the exit, although this quickly proves to be more difficult than one might think. The monstrous denizens of the city prove to be a constant threat throughout your adventure, and the crumbling walls and floors of the labyrinth hide many deadly traps and infernal contraptions and diabolical traps designed to slow your progress.

While the focus of early levels involves the player becoming familiar with the controls and mechanics, things become more complicated as the hero penetrates deeper and deeper into the city’s inner sanctum. Levels frequently feature puzzles that require items to be collected and used in the correct location to unlock the way forward, necessitating the correct use of switches to open paths and doorways to areas of a level that had been inaccessible.

To facilitate the solving of such puzzles, the game features a basic inventory system consisting of five slots, each of which allows the player to hold a single item.

Curiously, the inventory functions in such a way that picking up an item not only places the item in your inventory, it automatically shifts focus to the next slot. Should the game detect an item already in the slot, it will drop the contents on the floor, resulting in a system that, despite the five spaces, only allows four items to be carried simultaneously. Whether an oversight, or by design, this quirk proves to be quite irksome, particularly when you need to carry multiple keys and puzzle-related items.

What few players realise, however, is that there are many more hidden secrets throughout each of the game’s levels, far more than those required to complete the quest. The game features an intricate and convoluted series of triggers and trip-switches, many of which are hooked into various internal timers and events invisible to the player, yet activating them often leads to the secret areas containing treasure, extra lives, and more besides.

The actions needed to find these locations are almost exclusively obscure and unfathomable, particularly those requiring the player to reach a certain point in a level within a set time limit, and this would almost certainly have been an achievement hunter’s dream, had it been released today.

Solutions to some of these would be discovered through accident, others by way of magazine cheat pages and help guides, but many would remain undiscovered (or at least undocumented) for some considerable time.

Fortunately, dedicated fans have uncovered many of the game’s hidden secrets. Various guides have been published online to help other would-be heroes on their quest, and it provides an interesting insight into just how intricate, not to mention confounding the solution to these puzzles actually were!

Despite making much of it’s more cerebral elements, the emphasis in Gods is very much on combat. The game features a range of weapons and power-ups with which to equip yourself and, as would be typical of Bitmap Brothers games, there’s a definite progression system present.

Commencing with little more than a throwing knife, players can upgrade their arsenal with additional weapons, power-ups, and even change the spread of their projectiles. Collecting power-ups and weapons will replace your current load-out, so players must think carefully as to whether the bonus item they’ve just discovered will prove to improve their combat effectiveness, or reduce it.

In addition to finding weapons in the game’s various levels, a travelling shopkeeper may occasionally present himself, allowing the player to purchase upgrades with loot and plunder acquired during your adventure. Weapons and upgrades become increasingly expensive as the game progresses, so you’ll need to make some shrewd decisions when it comes to making purchases.

The third and final stage in each world plays host to a Guardian, a formidable opponent of terrifying strength and stamina, which blocks the path to the next zone; these foes do not require any special tactics to defeat, other than pelting them with projectiles and avoiding their various attacks. That being said, it’s all too easy to lose one’s sense of timing, succumbing to the onslaught of fireballs and arcs of lightning being hurled in your general direction.

As is typical of so many games from this period, the difficulty level in Gods is greater than many modern gamers will be accustomed to.

The game purports to include an AI system that monitors how effectively the player is progressing, adjusting the difficulty of enemies based on the player’s ability. While it’s difficult to say whether I personally witnessed this artificial intelligence at work on my particular play-through, the fact that one of the game’s copy protection routines increases enemy health and aggression does indicate that such a mechanism does exist in the game.

Despite his muscular physique, the hero possesses only a small amount of health, represented by the beaker of orange, bubbling liquid, located the bottom right of the screen. Coming into contact with enemies, walking into traps, and even falling from too great a height will swiftly drain your health, and it won’t be long before you’ll find yourself a hair’s breadth from dying.

This last point is particularly irritating, thanks to fiddly controls that make attaching oneself to ladder especially difficult, which often results in the player falling through the hole below and losing considerable health in the process.

Confounding matters is the fact that, despite looking visually impressive, the animation played when the hero changes direction makes it difficult to react to the many foes that appear out of thin air (literally) a short distance away. This requires that players learn exactly when and where monsters will spawn, rather than rely on quick reactions alone.

Mercifully, the game does include a password system, which allows players to resume their game without the need to start from scratch. However, even this comes with strings attached, with the caveat that passwords are only given out following completion of each world, which means beating all three levels and defeating the Guardian.

Having played the game through to completion and experienced it’s various quirks and foibles, I found it difficult to warm to a game that felt quite so exacting – punitive, even – by today’s standards, and I was starting to question whether the game really deserved it’s long-held status.

Despite it’s flaws, I think it is the context of what Gods represents, not to mention the time of it’s release, which are contributing factors as to why the game is remembered so fondly.

While Gods might not be the best platforming game, it’s clear that the developers created something with more in-depth gameplay than it’s contemporaries. The various systems, mechanics and scripted event systems coalescing to form a platformer altogether more sophisticated, and the size of the game is not insubstantial; it will take you many hours to discover everything that the Ancient City has to offer. All of this takes time and effort to create, refine and transform into a workable structure, much less making it an engaging experience.

Of course, the other major factor contributing to the game’s success is Mark Coleman’s artistry. The game’s background art and level tile-sets are still quite something to behold, and the game really remains a visual showcase from the 16-bit generation.

Machines like the Amiga (and even Atari ST) brought huge technical advances to the world of computer graphics, enabling artists like Coleman, Dan Malone and many other talented creatives to finally bring their games to life, boasting rich detail and colours never seen outside of the arcades.

For gamers who grew up with the C64, Spectrum and similar 8-bit micros, the colours and fidelity of the images on display here meant that Gods – and many other titles from this generation – seemed like a genuine renaissance. A far cry from the abstract, misshapen amalgam of pixels of Horace, Roland and other 8-bit oddities, game graphics had become a true art form. Gods was probably one of the first examples of a game where you sat back, looked at visual presentation and realised that this was the future.

I think the point I’m trying to make is that Gods is something greater than the sum of it’s parts.

No longer created by individuals secreted in the confines of their bedrooms, these were advanced, interactive experiences with state-of-the-art sound and graphics, developed by fully-fledged teams of professional coders, artists and musicians. These games had reached a level of sophistication and depth, that they helped to define milestone in industry’s continuing journey, a point in time where games had started to become recognised as a legitimate rival to television, cinema, and other forms of mainstream entertainment.

It’s on this basis that I believe that Gods deserves it’s status as a classic; not purely on the merits of it’s constituent parts, but as evidence of what was to come. A generation of gamers would load up titles such as these, and would be left spellbound by what they would see and hear.

This was just the beginning – for those of us fortunate to be growing up during this period, we had caught a glimpse of what the future of gaming might hold, and it would be glorious.

(Sources: RVG Interviews Mike Montgomery, January 2018; Metamatic: The Official John Foxx Website – Electrofear Sleevenotes; Mobygames: Gods; Wikipedia: Gods (Video game))

Author: Alec
PC gamer, C64 fan, Amiga advocate, creator of longplay retrogaming videos on YouTube, occasional wordsmith - follow me on Twitter

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *