Retrospective: The Battle of Olympus

Olive duty: ancient warfare.

The God of War series has popularised a vision of Greek mythology that could be best described as totally freaking epic. In Kratos' classical world, no beast that stands less than 10 stories tall can be considered a true challenge. Every story point is a heaven-rending clash of the titans: The loser falls to the ground in a thundering collapse that makes all 5.1 channels of your fancy speaker system explodes with sound, and the victor gets to preen in heroic cut-scenes. The stakes are always as high as they can be, at least until they're higher.

This outsized take on ancient myth has been a compelling one for God of War, even if also-rans like Clash of the Titans have shown that it takes skill to do it without looking cheesy. What's missing from the ultra-epic approach, though, is the part of classical storytelling that took place on the fringes of human existence rather than in the realm of the gods. It's the fringes that inform The Battle of Olympus, and that's why it has stuck with me for 20 years.

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Every citizen speaks fluent Vague.

Created by the obscure Japanese developer Infinity and released on the NES in the early nineties, The Battle of Olympus took its design cues from the side-scrolling portions in The Legend of Zelda II: The Adventures of Link. Like the Zelda sequel, in Battle of Olympus you play a dashing hero who fights with a dinky sword, and the resulting close quarters of combat make precision manoeuvres essential. (Read: You have to get right up in the enemies' faces, and you die a lot.)

The non-linear quest ranges back and forth across eight realms of ancient Greece, from Arcadia to Peloponnesus to Phrygia. Rule of thumb: the harder a region is to pronounce, the more difficult it is to play. Phthia is a nightmare. This is a very challenging game, such that as I was playing it again for this article, I was a bit amazed that my pre-teen self had endured the frustration to conquer it when it was originally released.

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Finally, you can live your dream of visiting Phrygia!

I stayed with Battle of Olympus back then not just because it was a fun game, but also because I was enamoured with Greek myths - a phase that many of us went through when we first learned that a bunch of people thousands of years ago came up with a whole race of gods and invented zany hijinks for them.

The striking thing about the gods in Battle of Olympus, however, is that they're so static and uninteresting. Zeus 'N' Friends live in empty temples, standing around in robes like wayward members of a community-theatre gospel choir. When you visit a god, he greets you by shuffling forward a bit and granting you some tchotchke - a new sword, maybe, or an ocarina that lets you hitch a ride on a dolphin. Or he might mutter an alphanumeric password string so you can resume your game later. Having the sun god Apollo declare, "Ao5nJW3!" is not quite the deity-riffic moment that the Battle of Olympus developers might have hoped.

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