Waaaay back in the early nineties – let us say pre-1993 and Doom — the PC was something of a duff gaming platform in the UK. Computers had yet to become standardised, Windows was not yet ubiquitous, and whenever somebody writes an article about those dark days they inevitably fall to reminiscing about DOS installers and IRQ settings while muttering “You weren’t there, man,” to anyone who asks why the hell they went to all that trouble when the games console renaissance was in full swing. PCs tended to be used for beardy games like RPGs and simulations since the beardy were the only ones obsessive enough to make the sodding things work. If you wanted innovation and excitement in your gaming life you didn’t buy a PC. You bought an Amiga instead.
It’d be an understatement to say that a lot of groundbreaking stuff went on on the Amiga before Doom made the PC ascendant. Companies like Gremlin, DMA, Bullfrog, the Bitmap Brothers and Sensible1 were responsible for an abnormally large number of classics including Lemmings, Speedball, Syndicate and Space Crusade2. It’s a Sensible game I want to talk about today, though; and it’s not one of their two all-time great titles – Cannon Fodder and Sensible Soccer – but instead one of the runts of their litter that everyone forgets: Mega Lo Mania.
Of course I’m referring to it as a runt because while it was generally well-received it didn’t have anywhere near the impact that it should have, because given the state of video gaming in 1991 Mega Lo Mania was damn near revolutionary in what it was trying to do. This is how ahead of its time it was: Mega Lo Mania is an attempt to combine RTS gameplay with the epochs and tech trees of Civilization one year before Civilization was released and five years before Command & Conquer brought the RTS into the mainstream. Of course board games had been doing technology advance as a concept for a long time before Mega lo Mania, but it’s the first game I’m aware of – certainly the first game I played – that based its entire structure around it.
Since it is an Amiga game and an example of an RTS game released before anyone knew what an RTS was, the way Mega Lo Mania goes about its core gameplay is a little bit unorthodox. You’re one of four gods vying for control of a new planet by fighting over a series of islands. Each island is split up into square territories, and once you’ve picked your starting area and decided how many men you’re taking into the battle you get teleported down to the island and find yourself staring at this charming isometric view of your first castle.
The castle is the only early-game building you get, and at first it can do a little bit of everything in order to teach you the ropes. Men can be assigned to a number of jobs in the castle; they can gather raw materials, design weapons, or use the gathered materials to manufacture those weapons. Men left idle will gradually generate more men – this happens even if there’s only one idle man, so I assume it’s some form of magic cloning rather than some of the more insalubrious alternatives. Finally you can send men outside the castle. If they’re left to their own devices in an empty sector they’ll eventually build another castle and occupy it. However, if they encounter an enemy army – or an enemy castle – a fight will ensue. Unarmed men are clad in only a pair of underpants and are reduced to throwing rocks at the enemy, so it’s generally a good idea to arm your troops before sending them out if you think they’re going to run into bad guys.
It’d probably be a mistake to characterise Mega lo Mania as a true RTS, though. There’s no direct control of your soldiers – they fight completely autonomously – and battles are decided by weight of numbers and the weapons each side has rather than any clever strategy3. Instead the strategic element resides in the man-management and territorial control aspects of the game, and in order to explain exactly how this works I think I’m going to have to break down how it works step-by-step.
Mega Lo Mania is broken down into ten epochs of history, with three islands to be fought over in each epoch. The first epoch is the Stone Age, and so you start the game looking at proposed weapon designs for a big rock (offensive) and a stick (defensive). However, there’s also catapults and pikes available if you have stockpiled the raw elements to build them. At first you can get weapon materials by just picking the stuff off the ground, but it doesn’t stay this simple for ever. Upon researching the catapult (level two offensive weapon) or the pike (level three offensive weapon) a sampled voice intones “We’ve advanced, a tech level!” and the visual look of your stuff updates to either the Bronze Age or ancient Rome. Then you go and look at the enemy castle, see that they’re still languishing in the Stone Age, and promptly send your army to crush them. Level complete.
This is how the game plays until you get to the fourth and fifth epochs, which represent the medieval age, at which point things change dramatically. You’re now trying to build longbows and siege catapults rather than piddly little pikes, and the work you have to go through to get the resources to do this starts to increase. Now you have to devote time to building a mine to extract elements directly from the ground. In the sixth epoch – early industrial – factories must be built in order to manufacture cannon. And finally the eighth epoch introduces laboratories where the really destructive weapon designs can be researched.
So Mega Lo Mania gradually ratchets up the complexity of what you have to do to win – and all the time you’re researching your designs and building your weapons, you also have to play the territory game. Not all sectors have the same resources present and you don’t know what’s there until you’ve colonised it, so expansion is a good idea for three reasons: denying the computer players access to those resources, increasing your own industrial base, and adding some redundancy in case your starting territory is attacked and destroyed. This aspect of Mega Lo Mania can be shockingly fast paced (especially if you accidentally leave the time controls set to Very Fast as I was unfortunately prone to doing) and it can be tricky to juggle all the different things you have to pay attention to in the later stages of the game.
That’s Mega Lo Mania’s gameplay. It’s got some rather large holes in it – chief of which is that defensive weapons are utterly useless (with one key exception) meaning the game revolves entirely around how many of the offensive weapons you can build, and often there’s only one or two available – but it was trying to do stuff that had never ever been done together in videogame format before, so I cut it a lot of slack in that regard. What makes me especially forgiving is its sense of humour; the guys at Sensible were clearly smoking the good stuff when they were making this game, because pretty much nothing is taken seriously. The names for the islands and the elements are particularly good since they’re all words which could be the name of an island or an element if they didn’t already refer to something completely different – Aloha, Pyjama and Etcetra are examples of the islands, while elements include Parasite and Moron (the in-game icon for Moron is literally a grinning idiot). The various gods in the game all have limited voice samples for refusing/accepting alliances, not to mention the immortal advisor exclamations of “We’ve nuked them! We’ve been nuked!” according to how well you’re doing in the modern ages – which at least balance out the horror of watching most of the sectors on the map gradually get turned into smoking radioactive craters (territories are completely unusable after they’ve been nuked).
Sadly Mega Lo Mania loses it at the very end of the game. The central conceit – that of battling for control of a new world – is represented by the player being given one hundred men to fight in every epoch. You choose how many of them to take to each of the three islands in that epoch, and any unused men left over at the end are frozen in stasis and can be taken to the Final Battle at the end of time. For 1991 it’s a nice idea, let down ever so slightly by the fact that the Final Battle is complete shit. All that interesting stuff I mentioned above? The developers chucked that all away for the last level; all you can do is breed men and make more castles. The men don’t need weapons since they all come with laser pistols by default, so the very last level of the game is this incredibly tedious meat grinder where you throw hordes of soldiers at the enemy gods until they die. And then – fittingly for an Amiga game – the ending is basically non-existent4.
It is entirely possible to track down Mega Lo Mania on your favourite abandonware site. I’m not entirely sure I’d recommend playing it for more than ten minutes today since it’s two decades old and hasn’t aged particularly well (not to mention the music, which was an arrangement of Holst’s Mars theme on a loop, being done in awful early 90s DOS audio) but if you’re interested in this mutant aberration of ancient gaming history there’s far worse ways to spend those ten minutes. Certainly I think it’d be worth it simply to see a certain vital essence that’s only just making a resurgence with the recent rise of the indie game; while the consoles were locked into a paradigm of terrible platformers and gory beat ‘em ups, Amiga developers were free to do pretty much whatever the hell they wanted. The result was brave, experimental games like Mega Lo Mania; a title whose DNA keeps showing up in games released today even if they aren’t direct descendants, and which played a large role in shaping my expectations for the future. Twenty years later, gaming is only just starting to meet them.
- Almost none of whom made the leap to PC successfully. Gremlin, Bitmap and Sensible sank without a trace, while Bullfrog released several successful games and then got lobotomised by EA. There is one notable survivor from the Amiga years, though; DMA Design released the first Grand Theft Auto game in 1997, changed their name to Rockstar shortly afterwards and never looked back.
- Not technically a classic because I’m fairly sure I’m the only one who remembers it, but it was pretty much a 1:1 implementation of the Space Crusade board game except that it replaced Genestealers with Soulsuckers, presumably to avoid even more confusion with the similarly-monickered Space Hulk.
- So it is a true RTS, really.
- I really need to go back and try to find out at what point having discrete game endings became an actual thing. Today it seems jarring to be booted back to the main menu with no fanfare whatsoever, but in the 80s it was seen as completely acceptable since most games were arcade affairs with no real storyline. There must have been a period of transition between the two, and I suspect Mega Lo Mania falls into it.