Other History Lessons posts can be found here. If you’re looking specifically for console games, those are here. As always, you may click on images to view larger versions.

I’m still rectifying the timeline for this series. After reaching September 1988 with Spellcaster, I realized I’d skipped over some games that should really be included, and went back to cover them. Most recently, that was Sorcerian, released in late December 1987. Thus we now enter 1988 once again. Following Sorcerian in the timeline should be Dragon Quest III, which I’ve already written about, and now The Battle of Olympus, which released in Japan on March 31, 1988, and was later brought to the US by Broderbund in January 1990.

I’d originally skipped over The Battle of Olympus because I’d seen it referred to as a clone of Zelda II, suggesting it had little of its own to offer. After reading more about it, I decided to include it anyway, and I’m glad I did. It does have a lot of similarities with Zelda II, but it manages to feel like its own game despite them.

The Battle of Olympus is the first game by developers Infinity, and was made by a team of just three people. That team included Reiko Oshida, who did the story and graphics, at a time when female game developers were uncommon (there’s an interview with Oshida, among other female game developers, in the October 1990 issue of BEEP! Megadrive magazine). Games at the time — including the Zelda games — often used simple stories about damsels in distress, but The Battle of Olympus reaches back to such a story from Greek mythology: the legend of Orpheus, who embarks on a perilous quest to rescue his love, Helene (Eurydice in the original myth), from the realm of Hades. Oshida used this tale as a starting point, weaving in elements from other Greek myths and pitting Orpheus against an array of mythological creatures that players are likely to recognize.

Orpheus himself does control similarly to Link from Zelda II. He can thrust his weapon (a club initially, later a magic staff or a sword) either high or low, depending on whether he’s standing or crouching, and his movement and jumps in the side-scrolling environments feel familiar. Even the houses in the town areas recall Zelda II, each with a single inhabitant who will offer a hint when talked to. Orpheus’ shield is far less important than Link’s, however, and in fact Orpheus starts the game without one. Since his opponents rarely engage in one-on-one duels like the dreaded Iron Knuckles from Zelda II, and will sometimes drop life-restoring bay leaves, defense becomes far less important. I was occasionally able to block projectiles with Orpheus’ shield, but this felt finicky and difficult to pull off, since those projectiles were typically using awkward trajectories. Most of the time, I ignored the shield and just tried to anticipate enemy movement patterns and combine my own jumps and attacks to counter them.

As an example, let’s take the earliest enemies that Orpheus encounters, in the woodlands of Arcadia. These are small blue slime creatures, which begin up in the branches of the trees, but drop to the ground if Orpheus is nearby. They’re so small that even a low, crouching attack is too high to hit them. Orpheus must either catch them as they fall, or wait for them to make a little leap that brings them into strike range. Their tendency to drop from the ceiling reminded me of the slugs from Another World, which would not release until 1991. Perhaps these slimes were an inspiration? Other enemies in The Battle of Olympus offer similar challenges: swooping bats attack in unpredictable arcs, fauns bound forward rapidly, scorpions must be struck with low attacks but tend to keep their distance until they find an opening to charge in from behind. Combine a bunch of these together, and battles can become quite frantic indeed, all without any sword-and-shield duels. It wasn’t until late in the game that I found armored enemies directly inspired by Zelda II’s Iron Knuckles, but even then I fought differently and far more aggressively, using leaping attacks to bypass their shields rather than careful dueling like I did with Link.

The combat isn’t the only difference between the games either. There’s no overhead map wandering in The Battle of Olympus: it sticks solely to side-scrolling play, its areas connected via doorways. The interconnected side-scrolling world feels much like Simon’s Quest, even featuring Castlevania-style stairs. It also removes all of the role-playing mechanics from Zelda II’s design. Orpheus does not level up in any traditional sense. He can only gain power by obtaining important items, usually by locating one of the Greek gods and obtaining their aid. In this sense it feels more like the original Legend of Zelda, or Metroid, in that new items and abilities open up paths that were previously closed off. Obtain Poseidon’s ocarina, for example, and Orpheus can summon a dolphin and cross the sea in several places, reaching new islands hiding treasures needed to complete his quest.

That quest takes him all over Greece, and has him tackle beasts from across Greek myth. Centaurs, lamia, a hydra, a cyclops, a siren, the Lion of Nemea, and the minotaur all make an appearance. Oh, and Cerberus, of course. The different locations each have their own feel, whether it’s a maze-like forest, rocky mountain peaks, gloomy caves, seaside ruins, or a dangerous tower. For some of these locations, the challenge comes from navigating a maze of doorways, which can get annoying. But most of them were fun to explore, as varied in their challenges as in their appearance. I enjoyed navigating stairways across both the interior and exterior of a tower, for example, and the final realm of Tartarus is a highlight, otherworldly and strange. The theme really enhances The Battle of Olympus and makes it feel like its own adventure that stands alongside the games that influenced it.

But man, is it hard. Zelda II is very hard as well, and some might consider its system of limited lives to be harsher than The Battle of Olympus. Orpheus is able to continue his adventure upon death, after all, either from the entrance to his current location (at the cost of half of his olives, which are used as currency) or from the last time he visited a god’s temple. The latter has no penalty, and the gods give passwords too so players can resume their adventure in a later play session. But the temples are few and far between, and there weren’t many moments in the game when a temple was close enough to a tough boss or other objective that it made sense to restart from there. Most of the time, players will be tempted to continue from where they died instead, but the cost in olives will start to add up quickly. The only things that cost olives in the game are certain upgrades, usually the ones obtained after tackling the game’s toughest areas. Imagine trying over and over to best a particularly challenging gauntlet, finally succeeding, and then discovering that you can’t claim the reward because it costs 80 olives (Orpheus can carry a maximum of 99) and you have 6, since you retried the area so many times.

I quickly found myself resorting to save states to avoid this fate. Normally I’d have been more hesitant, but it often seemed that The Battle of Olympus was set on taking me out with cruel tricks. A bat would swoop down as soon as I entered an area, with no time to react. A gorilla-like creature would leap at me and knock me off a ledge to my death. Different enemies, combined, became impossible to keep track of, my careful wait for the opportune moment to strike stymied by a bird dropping a rock on my head. I often had to dodge attacks from all angles at once, one misstep causing Orpheus a ton of damage as enemies pile on. This is made worse by the fact that the up button on the D-pad is used for special attacks as well as entering doors or mounting stairs. On many occasions I meant to hurl a fireball but instead sent Orpheus into a cave or saw him climb some steps and take a ton of damage. I never figured out how to pass certain spots without taking some hits, and even when using save states to restart closer to my goal, I needed many attempts to get there.

I also needed to follow a guide at several points. Some things in The Battle of Olympus are so well hidden that I never would have discovered them without it. More often, however, I was simply unsure of what to do next, because hints were scattered seemingly randomly across the world. If I found a hermit in a cave with some sage advice, it might refer to the next thing I need to do, or it might not be relevant until the very end of the game. After finishing an objective, I often had three or four ideas of where I should go, with no real indication of which one is correct. It doesn’t help that traveling across Greece can be an ordeal, crossing through multiple dangerous areas. Some of the most frustrating moments were when I had crossed the map and almost reached my destination, only to get knocked into a pit by a deviously placed enemy, and realize that I hadn’t visited a god’s temple since the start of my journey. I’d either have to make the trip all over again, or sacrifice half of my olives to continue.

If I had tried to play The Battle of Olympus as a kid, I doubt I would ever have managed to finish it. Then again, I might have gotten farther than I expected. One thing that playing it “properly” (without save states) would entail is a much slower pace to the game, as I would need to repeat sections and carefully learn correct routes and strategies for tackling groups of enemies. This stuff quickly frustrated me when I played it now, but I’m also drowning in games I want to play now. Back in 1990, I would have valued a game that could last me a long while. And the satisfaction of reaching each new milestone would be all the greater for the struggle. With passwords letting me continue where I left off, I would never lose any of my hard-won progress, and Orpheus’ quest would become an epic one, each milestone marked by hours of effort. Those with the time to devote to it may find a rewarding adventure.

And I should reiterate that I appreciate a lot of what The Battle of Olympus does. I like the way Orpheus’ weapons (except for his starting club) remain useful throughout the game, as they enable different types of attacks. The ability to throw fire from the magical staff, for example, is useful not just as a ranged attack but also as a way to hit enemies close to the ground, making some early enemies much easier to deal with. The best locations in the game are a lot of fun to explore, and the strong Greek mythology theme holds the tale together. And, while the later locations bring in enemies and design that are direct references to Zelda II, most of the time The Battle of Olympus feels distinct enough from its inspiration that it’s not a simple retread. It’s worth some attention, and I’m glad I went back to play it. If you’re interested in trying it yourself, it never saw any re-releases beyond a Game Boy port in 1993, so your best bet is to use emulation, as I did. I used the Retroarch frontend and the Mesen emulation core to play.

We’ve almost caught up on the timeline now. Just two more games to cover before we’ll reach Spellcaster again. Stay tuned!

Next on Console History: Cosmo Police Galivan