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.
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.
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.
This game just doesn't do "epic" very well - the great city-state of Athens, for instance, is a quiet little cul-de-sac with a couple of wimpy fountains and not a single decent bathhouse. That's OK, though, because even as Battle of Olympus whiffs on grandeur, it nails a quieter, strange Hellenic ambience.
One of my favourite moments comes early on when you stumble into a pit of venomous salamanders (which look suspiciously like pink snakes, but we'll forgive that). In the middle of this nightmarish hellhole, there's a tiny sub-cave where a man has made his home - not the best neighbourhood, but I suppose the rent's reasonable. He gives you a piece of life-giving ambrosia, cackles, and that's it. No explanation of what he's doing here or why he thinks this whole exchange is so hilarious. Just an old half-crazy person in a cave of poisonous amphibians.
The spare, remote weirdness of the scene is a theme of the game, where so many critical moments play out on the periphery of Greece. And as an adult, that's what appeals to me most about Greek mythology, rather than the gods - a sense of the rawness of this young society, on an uncertain cusp between anarchy and civilisation. Characters like the Sirens, labyrinth-obsessed King Minos, the oracles - they're all basically weirdoes playing at the fringes.
What makes the strangeness work in Battle of Olympus is that the game is so matter-of-fact about it. While you're wandering through Laconia, the teleporting, spell-casting crones known as the Graeae just suddenly appear - there's no fanfare, no big cut-scene building up to this boss fight. At Peloponnesus, Cyclops appears in similarly inauspicious fashion. The takeaway is that this weirdness is simply part of the fabric of mythological Greece. And as a result, the world is more intriguing and unsettling than it would be if Battle of Olympus tried to go the God of War route.
The game is helped immeasurably by a top-notch soundtrack, which captures a Mediterranean sound with amazing fidelity given the crudeness of the NES' audio capabilities. There's also an impressive range of feel across the various tunes, from the wistful melody of the Peloponnesus theme to the pulsing point-counterpoint you hear in Phthia.
To be sure, not all of the game's design has held up well. The quest is diverted two or three times by tedious quests to gather up dozens of olives - which drop occasionally from defeated enemies - because the gods demand you garnish their martinis before they'll hand over the best kit. And there's a reason that the Zelda II combat system never really caught on: stabbing with that little sword means that you often feel like you're trying to slay a dragon with a butter knife.
Still, Battle of Olympus endures not just because it's a distinctive, atmospheric platformer, but also because it provides an important counterpoint to the Kratos-ian vision of ancient Greece. God of War is, naturally, a game of godliness; Battle of Olympus is a game of mortality.