Have You Played… Populous?

Have You Played? is an endless stream of game retrospectives. One a day, every day, perhaps for all time.

Wikipedia tells me I was eight years old when Populous [GOG page] came out and it was my birthday or Christmas present around that time. I’d have been nine at most when I first played it so at least some of the blame for my current predicament must lie at its feet.

Populous is a god game. Some would argue it’s the first god game and it was certainly the first that I played. You can unleash mighty powers on the landscape to aid your people, or to vanquish their enemies, but Populous is not concerned with theological dispute or the nature of the divine.

The way I played it, as a kid, made me look like a tiny version of Richard Dreyfuss sculpting his potatoes in Close Encounters. What Populous taught me very quickly is that gods are essentially responsible for laying the groundwork so that people can breed and build. The isometric landscape is full of peaks and valleys, all pleasingly angular, and you click on the corners of a tile and cause it to rise or fall. Flatten out enough land and people build there.

Flatten even more of the surrounding land and their houses became more impressive.

It’s the simplest input for immediately rewarding output, and at a young age, I thought I was seeing civilizations rise as I clicked rather than simply accruing enough points to smash the other tribes.

Whatever its complexities, or lack thereof, Populous taught me to love that feedback loop. I smooth and flatten and prod and stroke, and the screen and its world become more complex, more colourful and more impressive.


  1. rocketman71 says:

    Such an awesome game, from an age where Molyneux did things rather than talk about them.

    First game I played over a modem, too.

  2. Kitty says:

    I have not, but I did play Populous: The Beginning, which I thought was really good when I played it. Had a cool theme and a nice aesthetic (and good music).

    • Artist says:

      We dont mention Popolous The Beginning…

      • DelrueOfDetroit says:

        Really? Because RPS did on March 7th.

      • PaulV says:

        I actually think Populous: the Beginning is the better game. The first two games aged very poorly while the third is still great.

      • DuncUK says:

        Boy, did you misread the mood in the room. As the previous RPS article on Pop:TB says, there is still an obsessive community of people that play the game to this day. It was far superior, if for no other reason that it not being a ‘land flattening simulator’.

        I enjoyed Populous and Populous 2, but this was back in the day where there were no decent competitors to the game and my young gaming mind was prepared to put up with alot of crap. In retrospect , it was not a good game at all. It was more or less just a Sim City level editor modded with a strange metagame about population domination tacked on.

  3. Andrew Ducker says:

    This would be perfect on a phone.

    Why don’t I have it already?

    • ThePuzzler says:

      The heart of the game was “left click to raise land, right click to lower land”.

      Which means (a) it’s hard to translate to a touch screen, and (b) what was OK in the pre-Command & Conquer era of RTS probably doesn’t hold up today.

      • KDR_11k says:

        The iOS clone I played (Four Tribes) just mapped tap to “move ground towards average height” so it would raise or lower depending on what’s needed. I don’t think you could deliberately make something higher than the rest but I also didn’t see any benefit to doing so.

        The DS version of Populous uses a touchscreen so there’s no rightclicking, I forget how it handled the difference between raising and lowering though.

      • poliovaccine says:

        I’ve tried a mobile-based god game called Godus which had terrain-raising and lowering. But the rest of the game wasnt very involving so I’m not quite recommending it (seemed a bit simplistic and easy, then again I didnt stick with it very long), but I just mean to say, that mechanic is definitely doable on mobile. And anyway, the game is free, and might be good enough to satisfy a minor flutter of Populous nostalgia. Keep in mind how relative the word “good” can be. It’s bad, it’s a bad mobile game, but nostalgia is the blindest love.

  4. noodlecake says:

    Populous was one of my favourite games as a kid. I had it on the Master System so the graphics looked worse than the pc version pictured there, but it was still pretty much the same game as far as I’m aware.

    • thekelvingreen says:

      The Master System version was great. It had those weird alternate landscapes — what we’d call skins or texture packs these days — that I don’t remember being in the Amiga original.

      • gunrodent says:

        You mean Silly Land, which was checkerboarded and had ice cubes for houses? Or Wild West, with cactii and wooden forts? Or Block Land that was a totes LEGO clone? Or Revolution Francaise that was, well with guillotines? Expansion pack, came out for Amiga too. I bought it when on a school trip to England in some dingy little gameshop in Brighton.

        • LexW1 says:

          Good god, that’s the first time I’ve thought of Silly Land in 28 bloody years!

          I had completely forgotten the Promised Lands expansion, like entirely, but remembering it, my brother and I absolutely loved it, and loved Populous in general. We must have been around 10 and 8 when we got it.

          • Yyve says:

            Aww man I loved Populous too. The most played game I had on the Master System by far.

  5. Robmonster says:

    Played this loads, but Powermonger was what I really loved!

    Although, reading Wiki make me realise I was 13 when this was released. I always thought I played this when I was younger.

    • Someoldguy says:

      I played a lot of Populous but I will always remember the week I spent playing Powermonger with a friend. We alternated sectors and had a blast.

    • floogles says:

      God yes! Powermonger was indescribably fascinating, challenging and compelling. I didn’t get very far into the map, but am planning on returning and beating it one day. There doesn’t appear to be a proper longplay yet.

      Might’ve helped if my Amiga version came with a manual.

      • something says:

        No one got very far into the map. Everyone is planning on returning one day. Personally, I’ve filed it under things to fill the endless tedium of the afterlife.

        • LexW1 says:

          Is that what our Steam collections are? Pharonic gatherings of games to be played, not in this life, because who has the time, but after we have been judged by Anubis?

    • Menthalion says:

      I thought Powermonger was the greatest thing ever until I disovered it’s horrible hidden miso√∂vistic agenda.

      • BenAttenborough says:

        Just Googled “miso√∂vistic” and had just one result – this page!

  6. Premium User Badge

    phuzz says:

    This was sort-of the first game I ever bought (well, I was 9, so ‘convinced my parents to buy for me’ is more correct).
    I say sort of, because actually the first game I bought was “Populous: The Promised Lands”, which was an expansion (that’s basically like DLC kids) to Populous.
    Of course, without the main game, the disk (That’s like a download, but physical, kids) was useless, but I only worked this out in the car on the way back from the shops (they were basically like Steam, but in a building, kids).
    So I had to admit my mistake to my folks, and start working all over again to persuade them to drive me somewhere with a games shop to spend even more of my pocket money to buy the base game for my Amiga (that was basically a PC, but better, kids).

    Still, it started a love of Bullfrog games that lasted, oh, until Black & White, and I’ll still buy anything that says Populous on the box.

  7. KDR_11k says:

    I only played the DS version (and an iOS clone) but it seemed like the main gameplay was flattening land square by square in order to build up your population? More like a menial work simulator than a god game…

  8. ElementalAlchemist says:

    I remember in Populous II quickly cottoning on to the fact that you could cover your enemy’s land in trees, then set fire to it and burn them all out in glorious fashion.

  9. Neurotic says:

    It was released exactly one day after my 16th birthday. I remember zooming up to Brent Cross chopping centre to buy it, in Boots (they had a great selection of games back then), and using the change to buy 3 Turkish Delights. Which I stuffed myself with whilst playing Populous on my Amiga. Truly a magnificent birthday! :D

  10. engion3 says:

    I completely forgot about this game. I now remember playing populous 2 on my grandmas compaq presario. Thanks for the memories.

  11. keefybabe says:

    Someone is going to invoke Godus’ law.

  12. wombat191 says:

    i have to say i really did like it back in the day.. syndicate was more my cup of tea apart from the shitty ending which im cranky about decades later

  13. ansionnach says:

    Yes, I played Populous. I got it around the time Populous II was causing a stir with its fancy fiery volcano and other disasters. I thought there was something wrong with my game because they weren’t there. You could do earthquake, (non-fiery) volcano, floods, swamps and (maybe the most effective?) create a knight. I was so disappointed that the game I got wasn’t the one I expected but when I got Populous II in a bundle a few years later I didn’t play it that much. Which is the better game now? No idea. They were both quite simple (raise and lower land). Maybe in this case the second one is better? Think I prefer the graphics of the first one now. They’re less cluttered and bring back some warm feelings. I suppose I grew to love populous even though I didn’t ever get very far. Maybe it was like playing Civilisation on easy mode – the lack of challenge allowed you to engage in building what you wanted to build uninterrupted. Then you could smash all opposition when you wanted to.

  14. Artist says:

    Popolous was great. Popolous 2 got me into really serious trouble with my parents… Ah, good times..!

  15. JagdFlanker says:

    if anybody wants to watch an excellent super detailed doc on Peter Molyneux/Bullfrog/Lionhead:

  16. milonz says:

    Great article, Populous was one of the marvelous games … i’ve never played to, despite being a hardcore fan of the 4X genre !

    What struck me when reading the news is that another glorious game has the same exact user interface : “Ultimate Domain”, aka “Genesia” in Europe, which came out in 1992.
    And i’ve played it A LOT on my first PC.

    As Genesia is posterior to Populous, i suppose it was a blatant clone / copyright infringement, but a great game nonetheless ?

    As the great french writer Alexandre Dumas once said (sorry for the crude XIXth century language, it’s french after all) :
    “you can rape History as long as it bears beautiful children” ;-)

    • milonz says:

      Errrr can’t edit anymore my earlier post : sorry, Genesia is a clone of Populous, but the interface is similar but not exactly the same.

      In fact, i mixed so much the interfaces that i’m pretty certain i’ve also played Populous, on my PC or my Sega Genesis ^_^

  17. CheeseFarts says:

    Next Stop: Magic Carpet