Syndicate was one of the first games I saw on the Amiga. A friend of mine from primary school had it and when I went over to his after school one day he advised me that “lots of research is being done”, cue me staring at a screen with a graph on it. I was like “Whaaaaaaat” and he was like “to get better weapons dude!” and then I was like… you get the picture. As soon as we finally got to playing the game properly, only one thought appeared in my head – wow. If you haven't played Syndicate on any platform I advise you to, now. Its lack of regard for the general public (you'll see what I mean) laid the groundwork for a lot of today's popular titles.
Syndicate was developed by Bullfrog whose iconic logo will forever be etched into my brain. Bullfrog's magic didn't just stop and start with Syndicate, no no, their back catalogue is impressive and without some of their invention (as previously stated), a lot of today's popular titles wouldn't exist.
Bullfrog was founded in 1987 by Les Edgar and Peter Molyneux. Their team also comprised of legendary designers Gary Carr, Glenn Corpes (who we've interviewed here) and Paul McLaughlin. They had to wait a few years for their first smash hit and I need say only one word – Populous. To say Populous was ground breaking (ho ho) is a massive understatement. 90% of retro gamers know what it is, the first widely acknowledged “God Game”. The isometric view, coupled with the world map encompassed in a book, really made you believe that you were working as god in his “office”. One of my favourite actions on the game was to “do a spot of landscaping”, i.e. flatten out some mountains (because I felt like it) and also to vanish some of the enemy's followers land – no barley for them this year!
Released at the same time as “The Satanic Verses”, Bullfrog were actually warned by the Daily Mail that they might also receive a fatwa like Mr Rushdie – thankfully it never materialised and Bullfrog were allowed to continue!
The next Bullfrog game I remember was Powermonger, another “God Game” but that introduced a 3D game engine and looked fantastic. I believe this title laid the foundations for the iconic Black & White PC title (also designed by Mr Molyneux) with its “artificial life” engine and a population with its own statistics. The game took a different approach to Populous as in it focused less on the terraforming aspect (hardly at all) and more on keeping a population alive (or not!). Thus proving that innovation doesn't have to involve a completely new idea in order to work.
The inevitable Populous sequel followed (which again was excellent) but it was during 1993 and 1994 that Bullfrog produced two of my favourite games ever. The aforementioned Syndicate and also Theme Park.
Syndicate's main concept was global domination (I see a theme here Bullfrog… ) through the conquering of territories (Bullfrog!). The game has in fact turned out to be a rather crude satire on the world we live in. The player would guide his team of four cyborgs around said territories, annihilating the enemies, torching a lot of buildings and gentle (or not so gentle) persuasion of the population. You would then need to tax the populace in order to raise money for research, as I've touched on previously. All of this, in an enjoyable computer game, from 1993. The fact that the Mega Drive port worked just as well as the Amiga version is attributable to the extremely talented team at Bullfrog.
And so to the next piece of wonderment – Theme Park. Show me a child at primary school who doesn't want their own theme park and I will show you a liar! After visiting Alton Towers one summer, the first thing I drew on the first morning back at school was the “Super Looper” or something that sounded similar. Although Theme Park's main objective was less fun, spend money to make more money, the freeform nature of the creation of each theme park was a joy to partake in. Want to put in a big dipper right next to the burger hut? Be my guest! In all honesty, my theme parks were paltry compared to some created by my friends and cousins but you'll be pleased to know I now have another copy to rectify this! Roller Coaster Tycoon has been lauded as its successor but do you see a 16-bit version anywhere? The Mega Drive version of Theme Park still holds up which again is quite simply amazing given the limitations of the console.
Bullfrog were also responsible for the gorgeous Magic Carpet on PC and the timeless Dungeon Keeper (also on PC) but I'll always remember them for the innovation and life they breathed into the 16-bit regardless of the obvious limitations. If anything, it meant that us poorer gamers didn't miss out, quelling the taunts of our PC-owning chums.
Electronic Arts deserve a mention here for it was they who published these landmark games with Bullfrog. The inevitable merger with (or incorporation into) Electronic Arts happened in 2001, 14 years after the company was first founded.
So we say thank you to Bullfrog, for your innovation and desire to stay relevant. We will enjoy your titles for years to come, just don't hold your breath for any more real-time research.