Hydra and seek

Like any Amiga game, Gods has its entourage of dedicated fans… and it’s awfully hospitable of the Arkham Asylum psychiatric support staff to provide access to an Amiga computer to allow them to play it from behind bars. Sometimes the most efficacious approach is to indulge the crazies and humour them, no matter how misplaced their beliefs may be.

Over a year in the making, Gods is a puzzle-platformer in a similar vein to Black Tiger. It was developed by The Bitmap Brothers and published by their own in-house team, Renegade, in 1991. Entering the fray as an Atari ST game – as was often the case where the Bitmap’s creations are concerned – Gods was subsequently ported to the Amiga, in addition to DOS, Acorn Archimedes, NEC PC98, Mega Drive and SNES.

Mike Montgomery and Steve Tall took charge of the coding, Mark Coleman was the man behind the paintbrush, while tinkling the ivories were electronica band Nation XII (comprised of Ultravox’s John Foxx and Tim Simenon of Bomb the Bass fame), and legendary musician – and depressingly still late – Richard Joseph. 

We find ourselves marooned in ancient Greece where we play Hercules, the pugilist with a mission. The eponymous gods are disgruntled because their citadel has been commandeered by a bunch of four unruly guardians and terrorised by their minions who won’t give it back, or play nicely.

Nevertheless, they have proposed the ultimate challenge to anyone sufficiently dimwitted to take on the hellions, putting an end to their unholy dominion in exchange for granting a favour of your choice. Why these omnipotent overlords can’t just snap their fingers together, summon up an almighty thunderbolt and obliterate the usurpers themselves is anyone’s guess. If they had we could be watching vintage He-Man episodes on YouTube instead by now.

This hadn’t occurred to Hercules who without hesitation offers to throw his keys in the hat and give it a whirl on the proviso that – should he live to tell the tale – he is upgraded to an immortal and is permitted to take his place amongst the gods as an equal.

You know, most kids would be perfectly content with a day trip to the zoo or a Big Mac. Pfft! Not our social-climbing protagonist, he’ll settle for nothing less than the moon on a stick served on a silver platter.

While the snobby gods reluctantly agree to deliver on their promise, they secretly cross their fingers behind their backs and hope he fails miserably so as not to have to endure the humiliation of sharing the heavens with a mere mortal.

Incidentally, nowhere in the game itself is our mainstay referred to as ‘Hercules’, and even in the manual he is non-committally known as the anonymous “classical hero”. It’s on the back of the box where the cat is let out of the bag.

Who but the gods could have laid down a gauntlet to challenge both your skill and your intellect!

And who would have accepted such a challenge? Only the bravest and cleverest of warriors of the ancient world — Hercules. Become this mighty mortal as you enter the pantheon of the gods, brimming with an onslaught of fantastical monsters, mind-twisting puzzles, hidden underworlds and fiendish labyrinths. Slay your adversaries and earn points to help defeat the tougher enemies to come. Any of a multitude of encounters has the power to either help or complicate your quest. Explore and experiment because there are as many ways to conquer each world as there are stars above Mt. Olympus, and every choice has its consequences. Survive and you shall be immortal!

…………………………………………………..

It’s as though as the game was being developed, Mike and co. presumed there may have been an intellectual property obstacle surrounding the use of the name. Perhaps only when it was finished did they ask the question, and our intrepid swashbuckler was baptised at the 11th hour. That would seem feasible as the box art would have been one of the last elements of the project to have been finalised.

Curiously some of the critics at the time referred to Hercules as exactly that, while others switched to incognito mode. Perhaps they received divergent press briefs, or only some of them received and read the box blurb. 

The rule is that any works published prior to 1923 automatically pass into the public domain and are therefore fair game for adaptation. As the Hercules character emerged from the era of classical Greek mythology I’d hazard a guess that the Bitmaps would have been safe to proceed.

The action takes place across four extremely drab, medieval-esque, blocky levels, each split into three worlds. Perambulating the city, temple, labyrinth and underworld zones you will encounter a menagerie of adversaries that would look right at home in a Ray Harryhausen ‘Dynamation’ movie. Most notable among them are centaurs, griffins, satyrs, and winged bat-goblin hybrids with echos of the flying monkeys from the Wizard of Oz.

The scene in which a colony of stone statue gargoyles morph into the real thing and brutally assail you is especially amusing and inventive… until they relieve you of one of your precious lives! While the ‘living statue’ trope is a common concept in ancient fantasy fiction, it is executed particularly well by way of stop motion animation in Jason and the Argonauts, thereby cementing the parallels between these two works.

Plunging headlong into your odyssey empty-handed, you soon encounter your first collectible weapon; a limitless supply of daggers. As you progress you are given the opportunity to pick up jewels and cloth bags that serve as currency in the Xenon II style ammunitions emporium where you can upgrade your health and weaponry. The shurikens, spears, maces, axes and fireballs make the primitive dagger look like a Tomy ‘My First Weapon’ …which is apt.

Gods is quite literally the finest game I’ve ever played starring a warrior in a welding mask and black leotard, bar none. Somewhere between having his photo taken for the box art (designed by the British comic book artist Simon Bisley) and intro, Herc thought it germane to slip out of his metallic codpiece, lop off his florid helmet plumage and climb into the gymnast’s apparel we see in-game.

You’d think rocking 60 individual frames of animation our vanquisher would move with a tad more finesse. Rather he bears the demeanour of a geriatric, arthritic power-walker who struggles to manoeuvre without grunting and panting with exhaustion.

It’s as though he’s visited one of those tacky discount footwear stores where each of the shoes are tied together with their laces to prevent them from going walkies, and his mum has coerced him to try on a pair and shamble up and down the aisles to road-test them. Maybe that only happened to me at the four storey, wall to wall shoefest, Tommy Ball’s in Blackburn, where to break the tedium and torture of this annual family trip I’d stand mesmerised before the mechanical acrobatic monkeys as they dexterously traversed their balance beam! If anyone follows that reference I’ll eat my Kegelhelm.

To this effect, Hercules’ arms swing back and forth with all the vigour and momentum of a sprinting athlete, while his legs take baby steps lending him the most awkward gait seen since Linda Blair’s spider-walk in The Exorcist.

Another bizarre interpretation of physics is the way in which you interact with certain platforms. Standing upon a horizontally shifting podium, you have to keep apace with it, otherwise you slide off the edge and plunge into oblivion… or less dramatically, cause an owie in your ankle. Are they made of ice? In Greece?

Usually when this occurs in action games, you have butted up against a wall, while the platform glides beneath it. This makes sense. That said, I suppose when you can teleport between doorways with the aid of mystical crystals, it’s probably not worth quibbling over what logically should and shouldn’t happen.

…of course I will anyway because I’m a hopeless pedant. His level of exertion just isn’t concordant with the output. Hercules’ motion is stilted and sluggish, while there is a consistent lag between joystick movement and the corresponding response on screen. The upshot is you’re left vulnerable to attack from lowly adversaries that would be child’s play to dispatch if you could only turn to face them swiftly enough. If you realise mid-jump that nothing good will come of it, your sprite isn’t sufficiently agile to pull back or take evasive action. In effect every move has to be weighed up with careful deliberation, and ultimately, precise execution… a luxury rarely afforded in an action game of this nature.

It hardly helps your cause that you are incapable of crouching and firing simultaneously, or jumping vertically. This is due to the inconceivable way the controls have been entirely mapped to a single button joystick.

You place an object in your inventory by ducking down in front of it and pressing the fire button. Once you have selected an empty slot, you release the fire button and stand up. It doesn’t take a rocket surgeon to imagine that this mechanism could conflict with your involuntary reflexes mid-battle. Of course whilst perusing your inventory at an inopportune moment, you’d be rendered catatonic and defenseless just long enough to be swamped with enemy projectiles… and that dear readers can be bad for your health.

Why not have Hercules collect objects simply by walking into them? You could access the inventory later by hitting a keyboard key without torpedoing any core platforming game-play mechanics. The only benefit of this keyboard-o-phobia I can suggest is it would allow the player to sit back on their sofa, six feet away from the lounge-based computer as they control the sprite on a 60 inch LCD wide screen TV. Like me, I’m sure this is exactly the configuration you had as a kid in 1991.

Dropping an object to make room in your four slot inventory works in the same fashion. You crouch down, press fire until you’ve highlighted the desired object and then stand up again to release it. The dilemma that should immediately become apparent is that your four slot inventory can only really be relied upon to carry three objects because the highlighted item will always be ejected when you stand up, whether that’s your intention or not.

As half-baked as this is, why have a limited capacity inventory at all? Why create a slick, contemporary, fast-paced action game (well I’m sure this was in the brief anyway) and retrofit it with Dizzy’s inept object storage system? The Codies themselves eventually abandoned this concept for the later sequels, which should tell us everything we need to know.

Likewise, the ‘up’ motion is used to trigger switches rather than to initiate a vertical leap. You are only able to jump in all-or-nothing, fixed diagonal arcs which is limiting to say the least, especially when trying to grasp the foot of a dangling ladder.

Nation XII contributed the opening soundtrack that accompanies the brief introductory sequence, and it’s without a shadow of a doubt God’s greatest asset. The electro-dance band that also wrought their magic on Speedball II, created a timeless masterpiece with ‘Into the Wonderful’ that will forever remain inexplicably entwined with The Bitmap’s interpretation of Hercules.

Each time I experienced this robotic, grinding, gritty synth-pop number from the electro-funk camp sampled on a podcast with no context I imagined the hosts would be discussing Team 17’s Overdrive. In my mind’s ear I can detect the sound of revving engines primed by testosterone-fuelled petrol heads gearing up to burn rubber.

It in no way evokes any facet of life in ancient Greece, where a low-tech lyre, auletris, cithara, chelys, crotalum, pan pipes, or keras might have been more appropriate. Nonetheless, it somehow hits the spot and the fact that we all remember it verbatim 25 years after its inception is testament to this.

An extended, studio quality cut of the breakbeat single features on the band’s ‘Electrofear’ album and is still available to buy today from Amazon and similar outlets.

Regardless, I do feel the digitised speech is a smidgen optimistic given what follows. No amount of repetition of the key line by the game’s devotees in and of itself equates to a vindication of its supposed classic status. They’ll try it on, trust me. “Because I said so” doesn’t really cut it either.

Gods is a 17 frames per second, scrolling jerk-fest; not surprising given its Atari ST heritage. Embarrassingly, the SNES and Mega Drive versions trounce the Amiga in terms of smooth scrolling given that they run at full frame rate.

The visuals are intricately detailed and resonate with the Bitmap’s signature metallic style, though are hamstrung by excessive dithering and a limited 16 colour palette which tars all the textures with the same drab grey and brown brush. The result is an incredibly bland environment where one level looks much like the next, and it’s all too easy for your sprite to lose its definition against the busy backgrounds.

The SNES version compensates for this by painting Hercules a purple hue and his adversaries a mixture of purple and blue. It certainly breaks the gloom, yet at the expense of the medieval, Gothic atmosphere; essentially what makes Gods, well Gods. Nevertheless, the same could have been achieved with some sand, Mediterranean sea and sun-bleached stone. You know, something, anything that would suggest we’re in ancient Greece rather than Castlevania.

Richard Joseph has worked miracles with the cacophony of immersive sound effects. They’re as weighty and sharp as Hercules’ axe and reverberate with such potency that we have no trouble believing the gods’ beloved citadel has been transformed into an inhospitable dungeon, sonorant with the clinks and clanks of steel on steel skirmishes, jarring explosions, death-squeals and wondrous aural exclamations.

Aside from the title track, which was arranged, though not composed by Richard, there is no in-game music. The DOS and Atari ST versions are equally deficient in this area. You could argue that this accentuates the disconsolate, bleak atmosphere, though something subtly melancholic or foreshadowing might have been a welcome addition. 

Background music has been incorporated into the Mega Drive version… and it’s such a short loop of aural nothingness that you’ll wish it hadn’t. The SNES port features music that doesn’t make you want to rip your ears off in protest so would be a safer bet if it’s a deal-breaker for you.

Many people who take umbrage with Gods, cite the unfair difficulty curve as their main gripe. This may not be a genuine flaw, however, as it’s widely known that The Bitmap Brothers incorporated a self-sabotaging mechanism which would escalate the challenge if the Copylock copyright protection hadn’t been proficiently subverted.

The ‘Endless Piracy’ version wasn’t cracked at all; it was merely a copy with the Renegade moniker in the intro transposed with that of the release group’s, rendering it virtually unplayable.

In the botched edition, enemies can absorb a ludicrous number of hits before perishing, extra lives can’t be collected, the first level boss is indefatigable and the game will often freeze part way through the second world.

Assuming this was the genuine article, the experience can’t have left the pirates with a flattering opinion of the Bitmaps’ coding abilities. You could argue, “Who gives a damn? They’re not paying customers”, but pirates have voices too and protecting your carefully choreographed reputation in this business is imperative. Was it really worth the risk, especially when there were half a dozen alternative cracked copies available that didn’t vandalise their work?

In the run up to the game’s release, one much-vaunted feature which helped to levitate it above the competition was the dynamically adaptive difficulty level. This offers you a helping hand by way of generously distributed power-ups if the artificial intelligence detects that you are struggling, and conversely, raises the stakes by restricting them if you are breezing through unhindered. Gods help those who can’t help themselves!

Another conspicuously novel gameplay mechanic is embodied in the thieves in that they allow you to acquire objects that would otherwise be out of reach. Wait for them to pilfer something useful, and once they return from whatever awkward nook or crevice alluded your entry, kosh them over the head and claim it for yourself. I’m not sure it’s possible – philosophically speaking – to steal from a thief, but who cares? It’s a heck of a lot of fun so that’s the main thing.

Gods is often hailed as the “thinking man’s puzzle platformer”, though in reality the riddles largely boil down to flicking switches at random to see if they bring about any auspicious modifications to your environment. Any fortuitous benefits that arise through experimentation may occur way off in Timbuktu making it nigh on impossible to connect the dots.

It’s unlikely that your grey matter will be truly overstretched by any of this, not even the ‘put bits of a map in the holes in the wall’ task. Trial and error pushing, poking and incessant backtracking mixed with memorisation of what went well and where is what gets you through in the end, making a mockery of any claims towards platforming aggrandisement. 

The end of level guardians are prodigious foes, though protect their dominion with the predictably stilted animation and limited range of motion of a corpse in advanced stage rigor mortis. If this is a deliberate homage to the stop-motion movie monstrosities of yesteryear, I take this back, it’s genius!

Boss numero uno is such a dumbo you can skip beyond him and shoot him in the back until he gives up the ghost. Given that he only covered attacking enemies approaching from the left in terrorism school he’s totally flummoxed by this turn of events.

Getting lost in each of the sprawling labyrinthine levels is not uncommon, and would be a significant stumbling block but for the absence of a time limit. The same can’t be said for your patience-o-meter unfortunately.

Your adversaries often emerge from the ether right on top of you giving you no time to react, which is a wee bit inconvenient to say the least. In mitigation, once dead, they do have the common courtesy to stay dead. In other words, thankfully the game hasn’t been undermined with a punishing, perpetually respawning enemy mechanism.

Adding a touch of realism, Hercules sustains damage when he falls distances that would cause our own knees a fair bit of gip. Luckily, if that happens your health can be replenished by scavenging the food you’ll discover strewn across the floor. This was our equivalent of dumpster diving way back when, I’m reliably informed.

A pragmatic password system is in place to allow you to complete the game in stages. Unusually the codes are randomly generated and will only work for the player they are issued to. Nonetheless, in the Amiga’s hay day this wasn’t immediately apparent and some of them were submitted to magazine hints and cheats pages… and subsequently reported as defective. 

Once the tyranny of the final boss has been thwarted (an inflated skull with a serious case of cranial wormage), the gods prove true to their word by granting Hercules “the greatest gift of all – immortality”. After a second costume change, ‘box art boy’ is invited to ascend to the heavens to claim his rightful place among his new peers.

It may strike you as odd at this late juncture to be awarded with a plethora of extra lives. This is no mistake; they’re gauntlet-shaped and they’ve been well and truly thrown …erm, down. Even after the game’s terminal pay-off you are presented with the unique opportunity to rewind the tape and do it all over again… this time handicapped by a Doom-Nightmare-mode difficulty level.

Could it be that the Bitmaps were familiar with the story of Sisyphus, the king of Ephyra in Greek mythology, and intended to elicit a similar twist to the tale? Under duress from Zeus, Sisyphus was punished for his avariciousness and deceit through the compulsion to push an elephantine boulder up a steep hill, only to have it spirited back down by his tormentor and have to rinse, lather and repeat for all of eternity.

Grecian gods are notorious for their vindictive streak and would often toy with mortals for their own amusement. Men who succumbed to their trials, lured by tempting bounties would learn the hard way to “be careful what you wish for”.

This does allude to the possibility that your entire quest was nought but a diversion to break the tedium of day to day godly duties. Why else would the assailants you toiled so relentlessly to vanquish suddenly be alive and well, and chomping at the bit for round two? Perhaps the gods didn’t need to be rescued like Lois Lane helplessly tottering over Niagara Falls’ safety barrier. 

The English speaking magazines of the time held Gods in high regard, awarding it scores between 79% and 93%. In hindsight I believe this was largely a result of an acute bout of Bitmap Blindness; the developers were self-appointed rock stars (even before they were petrified by Medusa) and everything they produced was presented with exquisitely impeccable aural and visual polish. Critics and fans alike rode the hype wagon waving banners and mumbling something about “ice cream, ice cream”. They saw what they wanted to see in Gods and swept its flaws under the rug.

That said, just when we thought Gods had run its course, in the early 2000s, Crawfish Interactive were commissioned to produce a remake for the Game Boy Advance. When they folded in 2002 only 60% of the game was complete so the release never came to fruition, despite gameplay footage surfacing on YouTube.

In 2013 Gods suffered another remake set back. This time Abstraction Games were commissioned by Mastertronic to produce an HD version. The publisher went into administration in November 2015, which explains why this one never got off the starting blocks.

In a shocking turn of events, in 2015 a remake was planned and actually released …though only the intro was revamped, albeit in glorious 1080p.

More recently, Mike Montgomery has divulged in interviews that he is open to the idea of releasing a remake or sequel for modern platforms, beginning with iOS. Although other Bitmap IPs such as Speedball and The Chaos Engine have been revived in this way, Gods has yet to be brought up to date, not officially at least.

Perhaps this corroborates my sentiment that Gods isn’t the eulogised second coming it was initially lauded to be. Surely if there was sufficient lingering affection for the game, it would have been remade by now?

What we can say for sure is that without a cameo from Bertie Bassett, Gods was never going savour the dizzying heights of platforming royalty. I can’t fathom why the Bitmaps overlooked this. It’s criminal!

We will shortly be ‘leaving the wonderful’. Please ensure all explosives and weaponry are deposited at the reception desk on your way out. Thank you for flying with Air Amigos, we do hope you enjoyed your trip.

3 thoughts on “Hydra and seek

  • April 10, 2016 at 7:55 am
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    Whaaaaaat?!?! You're loco! This game helped sell Amigas!

    The graphics are among the best, and the sound fx and top notch.

    The stiff controls were always acknowledged by us players even back then, but it didn't bother us as this was not a run&jump platformer (like Sonic or Mario) but a slower action platformer.

    If you were to use the same approach, then every game from back then is bad because they all had flaws.

  • April 11, 2016 at 10:36 am
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    Quite possibly. My shrink says the same thing. 😉

    I think what motivated all the negativity in my review was the frustration of seeing such immense potential going to waste. Gods, as we both agree, has so much going for it, but in my opinion the Bitmaps shot themselves in the foot by implementing such awkward, illogical and unfair controls.

    I wouldn't write off a game because it has a flaw or two, only if they're real deal-breakers that spoil the enjoyment. Some games we love *because* of their flaws. I came from a Speccy background where everything we got was a compromise so it became second nature to embrace imperfections.

    On the Amiga too, there are some real gems that have awful (or just very primitive) graphics and sound, yet are unbelievably addictive and fun to play – my favourite example is a two player PD game called Extreme Violence.

    On the commercial side, there's E-Motion, Exile, Sim City, D Generation…

    Can you say the same thing if the tables are turned? Have stellar graphics and audio ever compensated for broken mechanics and controls? I can't think of any examples, but I'm open to suggestions and would be happy to be proved wrong.

    Anyway, take it with a pinch of salt, much of it's tongue in cheek. It's just one nobody's opinion. 🙂

  • April 11, 2016 at 9:58 pm
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    Well, the controls aren't so bad. Liek I wrote, precise controls are important for games like Mario or Sonic, but action platformers like this no.

    Consider the alike example of "Shadow of the Beast".

    But anyway, it's no big deal. It's enough that you like the criminally-forgotten masterpiece "D/Generation".

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