The Nintendo DS is a breeding ground for remakes, especially of old PC titles that were never able to transition properly across to consoles. That’s the beauty of the touchscreen for you, it’s like a keyboard and a mouse wrapped up in one. Classic strategy games Theme Park and Sim City have already made the leap into the 21st Century, and received fairly mixed reviews. Now it’s the turn of the original god sim, Populous, to rise up and bring early Nineties point-and-click style back into fashion. Bow down and worship Populous DS, which is, shockingly, Populous on the DS.
Populous was pretty big back in 1990, in part because it put you in the shoes of a god. Over one of the game’s many available landscapes, your people (dressed in blue rags) would wage war on the followers of your rival demon (who are dressed in red rags), ultimately culminating in Armageddon. To increase your tribe’s populous and power, you must use the miracles available to you. The most basic of these miracles allows you to landscape the world, creating flat land for your people to build on. This helps them grow in number. Get enough peeps together and you can use your divine powers to appoint leaders and warriors to strengthen your ranks. The more land your people claim as their own, the greater your power gets, until you can unleash devastating natural disasters against your foes, decimating their towns. Of course, the enemy demon has got pretty much the same idea as you, so look out for any damage his people and powers may cause. The gameplay may seem basic compared to the complex strategy games you can find on PC World shelves these days, but this was the original and there was a charm to its apparent ‘simplicity’. The game may seem easy, but it was a nightmare to conquer, and required the patience and management skills of a… well, a god. Or a really patient manager.
The DS version adds to this story by offering you control of five different gods, who are unlocked over the course of the Challenge mode. The gods are Earth, Fire, Wind, Water and Harvest – each has the relevant elemental powers such as tsunamis and volcanoes… Wait, did I say ‘Harvest’? That guy’s seriously called Harvest? My favourite elemental power is the ‘Brainwash Pool’ – marshland that swallows up your enemies and spits them back out as your followers.
Of course, this isn’t all that the DS remix offers us – the entire gameplay system has been broken down and rebuilt, complete with new levels, a tutorial and bonus game modes (and a Gallery that nobody cares about). Touchscreen controls bring the isometric and potentially cumbersome screens to life – clicking in the relevant places on the map can now issue instructions to your peeps, deliver pain to your foes and, most importantly, landscape your territory. The stylus makes for a fairly clumsy landscape tool at first, but once you are accustomed to the isometric view, dragging the land up and down becomes natural. The top screen shows you what the map actually looks like (complete with your roaming villagers and their cosy huts), while the bottom screen is designed to highlight the shape of the ground and how it can be manipulated in order to assist you.
Providing a mixture of old and new levels (fifty of them in total, plus a Free Play mode), Populous DS is fairly substantial in size. Of course, that’s mostly because every level is a pain to tackle, and I spent most of an evening waging war on the very first map. This isn’t a game for lightweights or newbies – anyone interested in revisiting Populous must be ready for basic, yet demanding controls, dominating enemies and an old school work ethic that will squeeze blood and sweat from your palms.
Of course, it’s supposed to be fun! And, technically, it is. There’s a wealth of interesting variety to the levels and powers to keep things from growing stale. Like the original game, there are worlds of ice and fire, each presenting unique threats, while there are newer worlds, ranging from Ancient Japan to 8-Bit World, which stars old Nintendo consoles as parts of the scenery. Free Play mode allows you to customise the level to your own specs, while Warrior Hunt sets you ‘Where’s Wally?’ style tasks. Of course, the biggest and best variant is the multiplayer. Three fellow gods can join you on the battlefield, and while this is far from the most intense multiplayer mode ever, gathering your people to fight real opponents is so much more enjoyable than getting stomped on by the DS. Think of it more like playing ‘Risk’ than ‘Twister’, get some middle-class beers in, and have a quiet, strategic evening of intense wargaming.
This is a masterful reinterpretation of the original classic, which not only puts a new coat of paint on the old girl but also buys her a new wardrobe. Like the original, the graphics are plain, with animation only making a brief cameo, but the soundtrack is relaxed and thought-provoking. If you loved Populous, then there is absolutely no reason why you shouldn’t like this – just make sure you try it out and make sure you still actually like it and not just like the memory of it, because it is quite a difficult game to like. It’s hard – surprisingly so – and not the most interactive of experiences. In fact, the original game engine has been beaten so many times over the years by the likes of Civilization that all that Populous DS has going for it is nostalgic appeal and bare bones, rock-hard simplicity. If you liked it when games were tough, but didn’t require five million buttons, then Populous has enough game modes, options, variety and general junk in its trunk to provide you with a substantial, enduring, challenging experience. A love-it-or-hate-it 8 out of 10.
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