Review: PowerMonger (Bullfrog – Atari ST)

Awesome box art!

ST Format Review (Issue 19)

Could someone explain why these idiots are playing PowerMonger with a joystick?
Someone tore a hole out of the page – sorry about that.

Equipment Used/Recommended

  • MiSTer box running the Atari ST core – a 1MB STE running TOS 1.62 – you can replicate this with the Steem emulator.
  • Any of Automation 495, Pompey Pirates 91, SuperGAU 380/706, Vectronix 269/788
  • A mouse

My Review

The Automation release has a selector menu which lets you guide rick dangerous around some platforms – each door takes you to a different game

There’s a decent chance you’ve never heard of Powermonger, and yet it is, for me, one of the best. As I’m sure you’ll know, the Atari ST had 3 major game development supergroups. You had the Bitmap Brothers with their metallic sheen and coolness, penchant for shades and love of taking fairly standard arcade concepts and giving them a touch of polish. You had Sensible Software who were quirky, tended to have tiny men wandering around, and had more of a home computer interest with some strategy, some sports, and some Wizkid. Finally you had Bullfrog. Bullfrog were masters of accessible strategy. They made Populous, they made Theme Park, they made Theme Hospital, they made Syndicate and Magic Carpet, and they made Dungeon Keeper. Among all these giants of gaming, two games get forgotten. Flood, which was a mediocre platform game, and Powermonger. I enjoyed it immensely as a kid and it still holds up today, and I aim to show you why.

This is the map, or at least the first page of it. You start at the top left and work to the bottom right, maps getting harder as you go.

Powermonger had the misfortune of being released between Populous and Populous 2, and because of its similarity in presentation it gets overlooked, especially as it never got a sequel or any later re-releases. I should probably explain what Powermonger is – an early example of a real time strategy game. The conventions of the genre were still a long way from being settled so it does things in its own peculiar way and some things work well, some don’t. There’s a plot, but honestly it doesn’t matter too much. Your goal is to conquer a map of 195 territories from top-left corner to the bottom-right, by whatever route you like. Needless to say the difficulty goes up as you go towards that bottom-right corner.

Copy protection required you to find this information in the manual. Thankfully the pirate version lets you just put anything in.

You accomplish this in battles over 3D maps in which your tiny men wander around under the command of your captain. He can command them to attack, to move, to give food to a village or to take food, and he can make a village get to work inventing and constructing weapons of war. Your captain must be kept alive, and he exists on the map just as his men do. If he dies, you lose. You can recruit additional captains and their lives are less important. I won’t explain each icon since the ST Format review has a panel that does a decent enough job of that, but I will explain that the captain’s posture, his aggression level, determines much about how those actions are carried out. A 3-swords fully-aggressive captain attacking a village will kill everyone, while a 1-sword passive captain attacking a village will spare lives, meaning you can take villagers for your army, but making it more likely that the attack will fail. An aggressive captain will take all the food, give all the food, recruit all the men or disband all the men when commanded to do so where a passive captain will do those things with smaller quantities.

A peaceful village just waiting for me to attack it.

Inventions are where it gets a little more complicated. Equipping and dropping inventions works as food and recruitment do, but the act of inventing itself has some complications which will determine what gets invented for you don’t get to decide entirely. Posture has an effect of course, with an aggressive captain favouring heavy weapons like cannons and pikes, while a more passive captain will produce things for the village, like plows. Invention is also dependent upon availabe raw materials however so if you chop down an entire forest you won’t be able to invent much (and you can use this – starving your opponent of resources limits his capacity). Many useful items can be constructed from wood, but some require steel, which requires a mine. You’ll see a tower if a mine is present. If there are no resources available the villagers will make pots out of the mud which you can use for trade. What gets produced is also affected by the presence of a merchant (opening up cannons and catapults) and fisherman (opening up bows).

Clicking on anything after clicking the question icon allows me to get more information. You get a bit more when you click on a person.

In finest Bullfrog tradition you can play the game with another player either via a null modem cable or via modems in voice mode. I have neither of those things so wasn’t able to test this functionality but I’ll trust that it works and no doubt that adds a layer of entertainment to the game.

Lots going on in this quiet little fishing village

Powermonger is notable for its remarkable attention to detail. Each little person wandering around has a name and a job and an opinion of you. He’ll be performing a specific task and you can find that out by clicking the query icon and then clicking on him. Weather can slow your troops down, as can climbing up big hills. Killing a sheep might enrage the farmer if he sees it, and start a fight, which might bring in his village. If you chop too many trees down the weather in the area gets wetter, and if there are no trees left you can’t build new weapons, boats, etc. If you take the whole population into your army the village’s population will be slowly replenished by stork deliveries, which you can see. If you have additional captains and order them to do something, a pigeon flies from you to them, and they only acknowledge the order once the pigeon reaches them. If the enemy shoots the pigeon down, the order doesn’t arrive. All this detail is really quite remarkable.

Another village ready to be attacked

Video

Video of the brilliant game

In this video I demonstrate how to take over the first couple of islands while swearing about the frame rate.

Verdict

For all of that attention to detail, the truth is that what the game mostly boils down to is capturing as many villages as possible, starting from the smallest and working up, to build your troop strength. Inventions take so long to make that no sensible person would bother, and trade and alliances are probably of more use if you have multiple players but in this case only two are possible. It’s a shame because clearly effort has gone into those mechanics but they don’t quite get the use you’d hope for. If you allow for that you still have a fundamentally very good game, one which can get very challenging very quickly as you progress along the map.

I won – it’s better in the video. Getting good screenshots was a bit of a pain.

Visuals are pretty, but speed is an issue. I have a feeling they may have been better off going for a more 2D game, even if that did come at a cost of not being able to simulate the advantage of height for archers. In truth I think they probably pushed a little beyond the capabilities of the machines but then again Bullfrog were always ambitious. Still, what this game is is an excellent early RTS which still holds up well today, though you will need to read the manual (see link below) to get the most out of it.

Resources

Manual: https://mocagh.org/ea/powermonger-manual.pdf

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