Populous review

Well, it isn’t too hard to figure out which Bullfrog game I’ll start reviewing for this retrospective. And it’s only fair that I start with Bullfrog’s first and possibly biggest success ever: Populous.

Populous is a managerial/strategy game developed by Bullfrog and published by Electronic Arts. It was originally released in 1989 for the Amiga, Atari ST and DOS. The following year, it was ported to the Genesis/Megadrive, PC-98, Sharp X68000 and the SNES/Super Nintendo. In 1991, it was ported to the Master System and Turbografx-16. In 1992, it was ported to the Acorn 32-bit and the following year for the Macintosh. In 2011, it was re-released for Windows at GOG.com.

Peter Molyneux came up with the initial idea of Populous, first by watching Glenn Corpes’ work and then by experimenting with the AI, in which small sprites (called “peeps” by Molyneux) travel through the land until they encountered water. And then, after increasing and reducing the terrain into flatland, the peeps were programmed to build houses that would grow in size the more flatland would be available to them. To help the team visualise the gameplay, they used LEGO blocks.

But before looking at said gameplay, let’s first look at the covers, shall we?


This is the first and most famous cover and I have to say that it’s a good art rendition of the core gameplay itself. While it doesn’t give the players nearly any indication of what the game is really about, one can’t deny that it’s visually striking to say the least.


Now this cover is a bit more ominous, but it also conveys what the game is about more properly than the previous one. I simply wish it had more elements to it, though.


This is the US SNES cover and it’s just a poor man’s version of the original cover. They tried to make it more compelling in order to convey action, but as you’ll see, Populous is anything but an action game.


This is the Japan PC Engine cover and while it’s better and more faithful than the previous one, it still tries to convey a bit of action, although I do like the ominous background.

But let’s finally boot this sucker, shall we?

The game doesn’t have a story per se. You’re simply a god given a few followers and your objective is to make your followers grow enough so they can kill the other god’s followers and conquer the world they’re in. Pretty simple objective, don’t you think? Well, it’s in the execution that you’ll find the core gameplay.

In the title screen (that features two angry guys, one blue and the other red, locked in a staring contest), you have three options to choose from: Tutorial (where you can go through easy levels just to get the hang of the gameplay mechanics), Conquest (the single player mode, where you have to conquer more than 500 levels or worlds, as the game calls it) and Custom (where you can design a level, customise all the options, even the AI, or simply play a multiplayer game through a modem).


Sometimes this fellow appears and starts shitting mountains across the map.

But whatever the mode you choose, you end up in the main gameplay screen where you have an isometric view of the current world in the center, a book in the upper left corner that shows an overview of the world, an horizontal scale and a coat of arms in the upper right corner that shows your mana level and the followers’ info, several icons in both lower corners; the left with your commands and the right with the game’s options.

Although the icons are all pretty self-explanatory and the gameplay is somewhat intuitive, I still recommend reading the manual before playing to get a good idea of each icon and their purpose.

The objective in each level, like I said before, is to grow your followers and defeat the other god’s followers, but here’s the gist of the game: you don’t actually control your followers directly, but the world they’re in! What do I mean with this? Well, you can only control the terrain, the weather and your followers’ leader to an extent. The only control you have on your followers is that you put a giant ankh anywhere on the map and tell your leader to go there (which subsequently your followers will follow suit) and also you can order them to attack the other followers.


Everytime you finish a level, this fellow appears and challenges you to conquer a new world.

To deter the other followers, you have access to several natural disasters, ranging from creating inhospitable swamps to flood large portions of the map, but the most powerful the calamity, the more mana it needs to invoke. And the more followers you have, the more mana you’ll get. Also, you need to be careful that you won’t hurt your own followers when invoking the catastrophes.

Also, the first levels all occur in green areas, but later on you find yourself playing in snowy, desert and lava environments. In fact, the more inhospitable is the environment, the harder it is for your followers to grow and expand. And the three expansions, The Promised Lands (originally released in 1989), brings 5 new landscapes and 500 new maps, The Final Frontier (also released in 1989, but only for the Amiga and Atari ST), brings 1 new alien-looking landscape and even more 500 new maps and the World Editor (released in 1991, only for the Amiga) gives you the opportunity to build and edit your own worlds.


From The Promised Lands: welcome to the Wild West. No giant mechanical spider included.

But is due to the high number of levels (even counting the expansions) that it’s almost impossible to actually finish it. And although the console versions have an ending of sorts, the computer version simply repeats the same animation after finishing each level. Populous is one of those games that simply repeats itself (but harder each time) until the player is satisfied or until he/she stumbles on a really hard level. So, there isn’t any actual ending to the game per se.

But on a technical level, the game is undoubtedly pretty, with colorful graphics, despite the sprites being somewhat small. The animation is also pretty good, although the natural disasters could benefit from better animation. The sound effects could also be better, but are important to the gameplay (as a warning to the AI’s actions). The title theme is quite good (especially on a Roland MT-32), but it’s the only musical theme on the entire game. And if you decide to play with the music on, it plays over the sound effects for some reason.


Maybe building a house next to a river of lava, might not be that bright…

In conclusion, I found Populous a bit repetitive (although the expansions do bring some variety, despite being only the cosmetic type), but the gameplay is without a doubt addictive, because I always end up trying to fill the entire map with my followers and it’s a time-consuming game, meaning that before you know it, you’ll end up playing it for several hours without realizing. So, despite not having aged all that well, I still say to give it a shot, especially if you enjoy these type of games.

Regardless to say, that for bringing such innovation to the managerial/strategy genre, Populous was a groundbreaking commercial and critical success, so much so, that Bullfrog and Peter Molyneux became famous almost overnight. The “god genre” (as Molyneux himself coined it) became extremely popular and influential, especially in the 4X genre and in Sid Meier’s Civilization series, among others.


Bit Land from The Promised Lands. Probably my favourite landscape.

It even spawned two sequels (Populous II: Trials of the Olympian Gods and Populous: The Beginning), which we’ll review on a later date. It was remade for the Nintendo DS in 2008 by XSEED Games (simply titled Populous DS) and it also had two spiritual sequels: Molyneux’s Godus (which the lesser said about it, the better) and Reprisal by Electrolyte and Last17 and originally released in 2012.

So, where can you get your hands on Populous? Well, you can buy it here on GOG.com (along with the expansion The Promised Lands) or here on Origin (although I don’t recommend it because you’ll be giving EA your money and apparently it doesn’t come with any expansion included).

Anyway, did you enjoy our first review into our Bullfrog retrospective? Well then, be sure to stay tuned because next time, we’ll be taking a look at one of my personal favourite titles made by Bullfrog. Until then, keep on creating more flatland and on playing.

Bullfrog history and retrospective

Well, as you recall, last year I did a Sierra retrospective and apparently you all loved it. So, this year I decided to do something different:  I did a pool for which retro studio closed by EA (just to remind everyone that EA now stands for Eldritch Abomination) would you like to see a retrospective from, and you all chose Bullfrog. So, this year’s Retro Developer Month is dedicated to British iconic developer studio Bullfrog.

A very ingenious tadpole.

Bullfrog was originally founded as Taurus Impact Systems (AKA Taurus Software) around 1982 by Peter Molyneux and Les Edgar. They’ve met each other at a software shop that year and Molyneux (who was selling baked beans to the Middle East back then), jumped at the opportunity to make computer software.


Peter Molyneux

But some time later, Taurus was contacted by Commodore Europe, who wanted to hire Molyneux and Edgar to make a database program and they would provide as many Amiga computers as needed for the task. Molyneux noticed that Commodore mistook them for another company called Torus but accepted the task anyway, confident on his own programming abilities (and because he really wanted those Amiga computers).


Les Edgar

Struggling, Molyneux was able to finish his database (called Acquisition) and presented it at a software show in Germany, where it ended winning the “Product of the Year” award. The success of Acquisition (along with another program called X-CAD) provided enough money for Taurus to keep their doors open, but Molyneux, after seeing the Amiga’s potential for gaming, approached his partner for a change in direction for Taurus.

The froglet starts leaping.

So in 1987, Bullfrog Productions began its existence as a computer game developer when a friend of Molyneux asked him to port Druid II: Enlightenment to the Amiga and Molyneux (who renamed his company after a frog statuette in his office), along with the new staff he hired, did so. He would also develop Fusion, a shoot’em’up, again for the Amiga. But these two games weren’t enough to keep Bullfrog from eminent bankruptcy, so Molyneux pitched a last idea to his partner for a new concept that, according to his own words, would revolutionise all the gaming industry. A new genre which he called “the god game”!


Bullfrog’s original logo

So, Molyneux, along with Glenn Corpes, Kevin Donkin, Andy Jones, Sean Cooper and Dave Hanlon, started working in this new concept, which he initially called “Project K”, in which the player acted as god and influenced his or her followers against other gods and their followers. “Project K”, now called Populous, was released in 1989 by Electronic Arts (who became Bullfrog’s main distributor and publisher) and it became such an instant critical and commercial success, that it put Bullfrog on the map as a serious gaming developer.

At the apex of the highest jump.

Populous had such a great success, that Molyneux and Edgar were forced to scout universities for new talents to hire and moved their company to Surrey Research Park. Meanwhile, Electronic Arts started to pressure Bullfrog for a sequel to Populous and Bullfrog released Powermonger (that uses a very similar interface to Populous) in 1990 and a year later, released Populous 2.



These two games gave Bullfrog the necessary breathing space to make new IPs and dedicate themselves to new projects, which later turn out as Syndicate, Theme Park and Magic Carpet, among others. Bullfrog even worked with researchers from the University of Surrey in studying underwater life’s behaviour, in order to apply it to a very ambitious project called Creation, but it would be later on cancelled.

Bullfrog was also developing Artificial Intelligence and even came up with two new techniques that are still used nowadays: Personality Mapping and Skeletal Mapping.

The downward fall.

In 1993, merger talks with Electronic Arts began, but Bullfrog also contacted Sony, Virgin and Phillips about the same matter. But due to their profitable relationship throughout the years, Molyneux and Edgar ultimately decided to merge with Electronic Arts in January 1995. Molyneux became Electronic Arts’ vice-president and responsible for their European studio, with Edgar as vice-president of the latter while maintaining chairmanship of Bullfrog.


Bullfrog’s team: from left: Glenn Corpes (artist and programmer), Shaun Cooper (artist and tester), Peter Molyneux (designer and programmer), Kevin Donkin (designer and programmer), Les Edgar (office manager) and Andy Jones (artist and tester).

Bullfrog, who after the acquisition by EA, grew in size exponentially and was able to maintain their independence initially. Around this time, they had seven projects in hand: Magic Carpet 2, Theme Hospital, The Indestructibles, Syndicate Wars, Gene Wars, Creation and Dungeon Keeper. But unfortunately, Electronic Arts demanded Molyneux to release either Magic Carpet 2 or Dungeon Keeper in the following six months, so Hi-Octane was made and released just to appease Electronic Arts.



But Electronic Arts wasn’t happy. They wanted their games to be made as fast as possible, with little time for QA and beta testing, so Bullfrog was forced to reduce their quality standards and cancelled both The Indestructibles and Creation in order to be able to complete the other projects on schedule.

Everything must come to an end

In July 1997, Molyneux quitted as Electronic Arts’ vice-president to focus exclusively on Bullfrog, but the real reason was that he and other Bullfrog’s employees were growing more and more stressed over Electronic Arts’ managerial approach, that according to Molyneux and others, was becoming more dictatorial each passing day. And shortly before Dungeon Keeper‘s release, Molyneux left Bullfrog to found Lionhead Studios with Tim Rance (Bullfrog’s technical director) and Mark Webley (Theme Hospital‘s project leader).


Dungeon Keeper, Windows version

Also around this time, other disgruntled Bullfrog employees also left the company to either join Molyneux in Lionhead or fund their own studios, like Mucky Foot Productions.

In the two following years, Bullfrog released four games: Theme Aquarium, Populous: The Beginning, Theme Park World and Dungeon Keeper 2 with some modest success, which prompted Edgar stepping down as Bullfrog’s chairman in mid-1999 and more veteran employees (like Glenn Corpes) also leaving for other endeavours.

Due to most of the talent leaving, Electronic Arts was forced to bring in employees from other studios (like Mindscape) and even brought Ernest Adams to initially design Genesis: The Hand of God, which would be the fourth instalment in the Populous series. But it was cancelled due to being too similar to Lionhead’s Black & White. Adams was then put in charge of developing Dungeon Keeper 3, but that too was cancelled due to Electronic Arts negotiating the film licences of Harry Potter and The Lord of The Rings and wanting for Bullfrog to focus on the videogame adaptations of these.


Sim Theme Park

In 2002, Bullfrog released his final title, Theme Park Inc. But during its development, Bullfrog was absorbed into EA UK, effectively ending the legendary studio once and for all.

Bullfrog was one of those studios that, although it didn’t have a very long career or a lot of titles under its belt, it did undoubtedly left its mark in the industry, mostly due to its dedication and Molyneux’s vision. Its influence in modern games is undeniable and a lot of the developers that worked there are still currently working in the industry.

Links of interest:

So, I hope you’ve enjoyed this retrospective. Stay tuned for Bullfrog game reviews during the reminder of the month. Until then, keep on playing.