Saturday 11 February 2017

Mega-lo-Mania for the MegaDrive/Genesis

God games. Oddly, there were a few knocking around for Sega's all-singing, all-dancing arcade conversion monster. Mega-lo-Mania started out life as a title from Sensible Software on the 16-bit home computing formats of the early 90s (Atari ST, Amiga), proved a bit of a hit (as well as scoring rave reviews) and made its way over to the consoles. For reasons unknown, the publishers decided to change the name for its North American Genesis release to Tyrants Fight Through Time, presumably as they believed it was beyond the ken of yanks to reach for a dictionary. Even weirder, for the Super Nintendo release they reverted back to the old name but gave it a ghastly sonic and graphical overhaul. If it ain't broken ...

Mega-lo-Mania is a God game. There's some piffle about worlds coming into being bearing intelligent life, and how the universe's deities cluster around and fight for the right to control it. The plot is hardly serious, but then it's not meant to be. Each level has three islands to conquer, and the player is endowed with a small pool of computer people to begin the task. Any left unused carry over to the next level, which is handy for the later stages where time is of the essence. You are then awarded a base, or tower, from which to direct your operations. You can assign folks to mining, designing technologies, forming armies and what have you. The aim is to develop weapons and grow your population so you have a hefty enough army to invade your neighbours' square until, in the words of the game, you've "conquered the sector!" Simple, right? The problem is you're squaring off against up to three opponents who are all trying to do the same and, terror of terrors, not all squares are as equally well endowed with resources. You might merrily and painstakingly build up a mine and a factory to manufacture cannon only for your base to be invaded by 50 spear men. The result is curtains for you.

The core game is simple. It's a matter of allocating numbers of people and growing them, and as you proceed through the game the rate of technological advance picks up. You start off in prehistoric times where the cutting edge technology of the day are rocks, and the game finishes nine levels later with Strategic Defence Initiative lasers and flying saucers. It's the later levels where things start getting tricky and you need to have saved some people over from earlier on. Levels seven, eight and nine are where nuclear weapons become available. It's usually a race to who can design and manufacture them first. If you win the production race you get to nuke your opponents and win. If not, you become the nuke-ee.

A further consideration the player must bear in mind is the end game. When your tower has reached 2001 (it was the future, once) and provided you either have other settlements or an army deployed somewhere, you can send your peeps into suspended animation. They wake up on the island of Armageddon at the end of the game to do battle with lasers with any opponents who also packed their folks into cold sleep. Generally speaking, because the AI isn't great the opposition are rubbish at doing this. During my playthrough 36 of my guys (out of 200+ who went into storage) survived. Only one other bothered earlier on in the game, and they must have had less than a dozen people to play with. The final battle was more a massacre than the promised mother of all battles, alas.

As an early real time strategy game, it is designed for quick play, of piling up your designs, manufacturing the most advanced weapons and taking it to the enemy. But when I was a little 'un determined to get full value of the £39.99, I quite liked playing long games, of slowly building up empires and military and toying with the much more stupid opponents. If you were the kind of kid that enjoyed tormenting ants, then Mega-lo-Mania is the game for you.

Mega-lo-Mania was noteworthy for a number of reasons. First, in a period where speech in video games was relatively rare, this was positively verbose and came packed to the gills with samples. Diplomacy, which began and ended at the striking of military alliances, was mostly a jovial affair. Of the four demigods you could play as/against, Madcap and Scarlet sounded quite gruff and serious. Cesar was every inch the comedy Italian with an overblown accent. And everyone's favourite was Oberon, who in his best Carry On camp voice would ask "do you want to be on my team?". And if he was turning you down, there came a very John Inman-esque "no, I don't think so". As he shared his name with Shakespeare's fairy king, perhaps camping him up sounded like a good idea at the time. The MegaDrive, oft noted for not having a fantastic sound chip, nevertheless rendered all the speech as clear as the Amiga version. The second point is its importance to real time strategy games in general. When it came out, the roost was ruled by an ageing-looking Populous and the first Civilization game on PC. The former was an RTS but relied on growing your population to overwhelm your opponent, while the latter was turn-based but was organised around a tech tree. Mega-lo-Mania married the two and was able to prepare the ground for the likes of Command and Conquer, Warcraft and Starcraft, which went on to dominate the RTS genre.

Thirdly, Mega-lo-Mania was important for a less celebrated reason: console optimisation. The 16-bit computers lent themselves to quick-thinking RTS thanks to the mouse interface. Point and click was and is much less cumbersome than pratting about with a joystick or pad. For instance, the MegaDrive's iteration of Populous wasn't so optimised, meaning it was a pain slowly dragging your hand of God from one end of the screen to another. A good job that it isn't a fast paced game, really. While the problem isn't eliminated entirely in Mega-lo-Mania, each pad press automatically places the cursor on a control pad icon - a system much simpler than the ugly-looking menu system inflicted on the SNES version. Still, in both cases it demonstrated there was no reason why strategy games couldn't be modified to suit consoles, and today - though perhaps thinner on the ground then they once were - games of this stripe now all draw on the lessons learned then.

This begs the question, if Mega-lo-Mania was a big deal at the time, if it was an important milestone in the evolution of RTS games, and if it played a crucial role that influenced how control schemes need to work for strategy console releases, why is it largely forgotten? It could be that its creators, Sensible Software, met their demise at the close of the 1990s and so has sank into history as an orphan. That it never received a sequel, that the American name change nonsense damaged its ability to solidify a following around a brand identity. More likely, unfortunately, was while the game is very good it is relatively short and doesn't offer the kinds of variety Civilization and, to a lesser extent, Populous did. Whereas they required a variation in strategy and tactics (of sorts), you can complete Mega-lo-Mania by building quickly and attacking in overwhelming force almost every single time. Only the nuclear weapon levels offer a slight variation on the theme.

And that is a real shame, because Mega-lo-Mania does, if you'd forgive the clumsy allusion, deserve its place in the video game pantheon. It doesn't need worship, but its importance demands recognition.

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