Before Kratos stalked Hellenistic Greece in the God of War franchise there was a little game called The Battle of Olympus. Developed by Infinity Games, it was released for the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1988 (Japan), before making its way to the United States in 1989 and Europe in 1991.
The game was a side-scroller, many people have compared it to Zelda II: Link’s Awakening, and that comparison is justified. The games look and play in a similar fashion. This is no bad trait to share. If you can replicate the play style of a Zelda game then you are doing something right. Only this game had its own lore to draw from, and it wasn’t conjured up in some workshop in Nintendo, this was telling a story during the time of the Gods.
The game painted Hades, God of the Underworld, as the villain. Kidnapping Helene, girlfriend of our hero, Orpheus, the player must win favour with the Gods and receive their blessings (along with various items of armour and weapons bestowed upon us). Eventually this leads Orpheus into the underworld to retrieve his love, and then a final showdown against Hades himself.
I haven’t played this game in over twenty years, and to this day the memories of it still fill me with a warmth and take me back to a past time when gaming was pure and undiluted. So recently I have taken it upon myself to go back, retread in the footsteps I left before, and replay The Battle of Olympus. Would I still have the same waves of nostalgia after having played the game for a few hours? Too many times in the past nostalgic memories have been laid to waste by harsh realities, so it was with trepidation I booted the game back up and began.
The first element that struck me was the music. My younger ears never heard an 8-bit soundtrack, they heard an orchestral score. Booming and powerful ready to sweep me into a Greek adventure. So what did my adult ears hear? They heard reality. They heard a repetitive tune played over and over, but long-dormant memory clusters flickered into life as I recognised the tune once again. I was back on my original NES.
When I pressed Start, it launched me into the game. The second element that I noticed was just how well the graphics had aged. Whereas many early 3D games suffer from looking extremely dated (as many cgi-heavy films also suffer from over time) the aesthetics in TBoO look magnificent. For a game of its time they are colourful and full of life, representing the gamescape perfectly. For what the developers, Infinity, had to work with at the time, it’s a marvel. I was expecting the game to look terrible due to the age of the game, but I was surprised how playable they are. You don’t get many 8-bit games look this good. Maybe Mario can match them, but this game would not look out of place on the indie scene as a retro title.
The game was well ahead of its time in some aspects. You could traverse most of the entire map without any limitations. This is quite a common feature in today’s games, but this game game out in 1989, so imagine the difficulty in running a non-linear game on the hardware available. The quests in the game are also interconnected, with the need to journey across half the map to pick up an item in town A that becomes vital if you wish to succeed in town C and so on. Neither does the game hold your hand and guide you with ease. TBoO tells you very little in what you must do to accomplish your goals, only trial and error will allow you to succeed, and even then you are only given the luxury of the Word of the Gods (a password-based save system) by visiting the temple of the local deity.
Each God will bestow upon you one of their favours. Be it the Sandals of Hermes, or the Staff of Fennel, you can build up a powerful arsenal to assist you in your goal of rescuing your beloved. And you will need them. Whilst you can access any area of the map, your game will be over very quickly without the right equipment and power-ups. The actual difficulty of the game is another element I was surprised with – it’s absolutely punishing to play. There is no selection of difficulty setting within the options, you get one level of difficulty and that’s it, and I would say this has been set to perma-hard as standard. How I managed to complete this game when I was twelve is a wonder. I was finding this hard to play now and I’ve got twenty-five years gaming experience to draw back on since then.
Overall, my return to The Battle of Olympus has been a pleasant one. Whilst I’ve not quite finished the game yet, it has me hooked again and I am determined to complete it. This is one game that has stood the test of time for me, and even after being dusted off from the nostalgic favour regions of my mind and exposed to harsh reality it holds up. And for that, it deserves nothing but applause and my favour.