There's nothing videogame developers love more than taking classical mythology and using it as a framework to hang their games around. That's the reason I've been able to write about games where King Arthur fights a samurai or forest creatures with scrotum-based powers try to take over the world, and why not? Mythology provides ready-made casts of characters and epic confrontations just begging to be turned into platformers or brick-breaking games or what have you, and no library of gods, monsters and legendary deeds has been so thoroughly mined as the tales of Ancient Greece. From Kid Icarus to God of War, inaccurate representations of Hellenic lore pop up time and again through the history of gaming, and here's another: the 1990 Genesis / Megadrive conversion of Namco's 1988 arcade shoot-em-up Phelios. Sadly, it contains no Eggplant Wizards.
All the rich texture of the tales of the Olympian Gods to work with, and Namco went for a "kidnapped girlfriend" plot. Were there “damsel in distress” quotas that had to be met in the Eighties or something? In this case, the villain with the Bowser complex is Typhon, father to most of Greek mythology's monsters and general angry thing. He's kidnapped the goddess Artemis, presumably to piss off Zeus because that seems to be Typhon's whole shtick. He chains Artemis up in the most fan-servicey pose he can manage and then... well, he doesn't do much, really. Guess he just figured having a goddess hanging in the corner was that one piece of ornamentation he needed to really tie his lounge together.
None of the other gods show much concern over this, but lucky for Artemis her cries for help are heard by her beloved, the mighty sun god Apollo. That'd be Apollo who is Artemis' twin brother? Alright then. I could rag on Namco for creating a videogame where the aim is to further an incestuous relationship, but this is based on the mythology of Ancient Greece; after all, when your dad is the kind of guy who thinks that turning into a swan to get his freak on is perfectly reasonable behaviour you're bound to view relationships differently to the ordinary run of man.
Apollo hops onto Pegasus (I assume I don't need to explain Pegasus to you) and flies off to save his sister-lover from Typhon's clutches. Well, this should be easy, what with Apollo being a god and all.
Oh crap. Three screens in and already I'm being overwhelmed by a squadron of birds who are firing radishes at me.
So obviously Phelios is a standard vertically-scrolling shoot-em-up, where you control Apollo and Pegasus as they shoot swarms of monsters that appear in front of them. You know how this works, and Phelios doesn't really overcomplicate the core mechanics any. You can fire your piddly little shots, but a better bet is to hold down the fire button to charge up a much more powerful attack. In fact, using the charged shot is almost mandatory for defeating all but the most basic enemies, because to say your regular shot is weak would be like saying that the Atlantic Ocean is a bit damp.
I wonder how Pegasus feels about having his status as a miraculous flying horse undermined by these plum-coloured lancers? This is the point, roughly three minutes into the game, that your regular, uncharged attacks become useless. These jousting guys? Not fazed by Apollo's divine power in the slightest, unless he's held the button down for a second or two.
You might have noticed the "Attack the head of Ladon" message at the top of the screen, but who is Ladon?
Why, he's that red dragon over there. In Greek myth, Ladon was the serpent who guarded the golden apples until Heracles came along with his checklist and put an end to Ladon's tree-protecting ways, which must have been a much more enjoyable task than all the stable-cleaning. Ladon is described as a serpent-like dragon, so Namco get ten out of ten for accuracy on this one, because that's definitely what Ladon looks like here. No word on whether the Ancient Greek texts mention Ladon's ability to fly and shoot projectiles from his gob, but it's probably in there somewhere.
By the way, that thing at the top-right of the screen is a power-up container. It's supposed to be an owl, but it looks more like the result of a three-way teleporter accident between a bat, a pigeon and a small pile of gold bullion. If you shoot it a power-up will fall out, although it's very rare that this is a new weapon.
For example, while I was fighting the flock of Ladons I collected a "beam" weapon that fired faster and with a wider beam. It was great, until it suddenly ran out and I didn't see another one for the remainder of the game. In the screenshot above, the crescent-shaped projectiles are homing shots that fire independently of your main weapon. They're also useful, until they disappear at the end of the stage. New weapons are rare in Phelios, and for much of the game you'll be relying on your main weapon - there isn't even a traditional screen-clearing smart-bomb attack, just Apollo's ability to charge and shoot, charge and shoot, over and over again. At least it stops your trigger finger from collapsing under the strain. A much more common power-up is the Option, which works like Options in shooters usually do - it's a small blue orb that follows your movements and fires when you fire. Much like the charge shot, having one or more Options becomes something of a necessity later in the game.
Here's the first boss, and it's a sight plucked straight from Simon Belmont's nightmares: a giant, floating Medusa head the size of a minivan. Somewhere just off camera, Dracula is taking notes.
After the surprisingly tough first stage, Medusa is pretty easy and offers an almost relaxing respite. Just dodge the eye-lasers she fires at you and shoot her... I was going to say "in the head," but as she's all head that's pretty redundant.
Accuracy Rating: Not sure that Medusa was know for possessing the powers of head levitation, but other than that, yeah, she's pretty accurate. You show most people this snake-haired demon-woman and I reckon they'd know who it was supposed to be. 9/10.
Before we move on to the next stage, do you know what the most amazing invention of the Ancient Greek age was? Pythagoras' theorem? Water mills? Hell no, it was the miraculous yet rarely-discussed discovery of rug-o-vision.
Between stages Apollo flies over a large blue carpet that becomes a screen via which Artemis (or sometimes Typhon) can relay a message to you. In this case, that message is "save me quick." Or possibly the message is "breasts." Either way, you're not making progress fast enough for Artemis' liking, so let's move on to stage two.
It's called "Death Dungeon," so I'm not expecting marimba music and cuddly toys. Those purple warriors standing in a line represent an unusual type of enemy that pops up fairly often in Phelios, and that's the bad guys who are impervious to Apollo's fiery blasts of vengeance but not so tough when it comes to falling six feet to the ground. These guys can't be killed just by shooting them, but each time they're hit they move backwards slightly until, after enough hits, you force them off their platform and down to their death. Yes, one of the deadliest weapons in your arsenal is Ancient Greece's reluctance to install safety railings.
After a while you head underground and hey look, I found a new weapon. It shoots boomerangs that rebound when they hit a wall, making them incredibly useful in the narrow corridors that make up the second half of stage two and proving especially handy at clearing those (frankly adorable) green lump-monsters from the walls around you.
Straight from the cover of a heavy metal album, or possibly the grimy depths of my local fish market, comes stage two's boss: the Graiai. They're a trio of crones who share one eye and one tooth between the three of them, but they've put their usual bickering aside to work on killing Apollo. While you can attack them directly, and doing so causes some nicely gory details like writhing neck-stumps, you're supposed to be shooting the crystal behind them. You know what that means: lots of cat-and-mouse as you wait for them to get out of the way. On the whole, not too difficult.
Accuracy Rating: They may not swap their facial features about like a coven dedicated to the blasphemous worship of Mr. Potato Head but they are definitely three grey-haired old mummies with magical powers. 7/10.
Next is a stage set high above Ancient Greece's well-known network of floating buildings. Who would have thought that the Olympian skies would have looked like a close-up of a K'nex model? Yet more winged horses are deployed in an effort to further demoralise Pegasus (who by now is about as rare and remarkable as a four-legged dog) and much of the stage consists of our heroes negotiating their way through a series of narrow passageways. Phelios, unlike most shoot-em-ups, works on the health bar principle - you can see your health as the orange blocks underneath the big sword - and thankfully you can take a couple of hits before dying. Unless you touch a wall, that is, because that leads to instant death. One of Zeus' mightiest children, laid low by masonry. They should have sent in the Vic Viper, at least that way I'd have some more interesting weapons to use.
"Seiren is a dreadful witch." Like, really bad at the witchcraft. Couldn't even magic herself up a costume that didn't make her look like she'd wandered in from a nearby carnival.
She can transform into a more menacing "giant bird" form, though, so maybe my analysis of her magical powers was a little off. This is Seiren, who is presumably supposed to be a siren - she's got the bird-features but isn't near the sea and does no singing. What she does do is try to kill you by firing feathers at you. Feathers. Yup. A god from right up near the summit of the pantheon of Greek deities turned up for a fight, and Siren decided that the best way to defeat him was with the power of feathers, a weapon notorious for its destructive capabilities. I think she should probably stick to serenading sailors.
Accuracy Rating: She is bird-like and not mermaid-y at all so she has more in common with the original myth than you might think, but the lack of singing, the feathery projectiles and the fact that she morphs into a giant cockatoo rather take away from her innate siren-y ness. I don't care how good you are at singing, love - if you look like a massive parrot you're going to struggle to lure anyone in. 5/10.
Stage four is a standard fire level, with lots of lava, fire-breathing dragons and flaming kamikaze skulls. It's not terribly interesting and I don't have much to say about it, so let's get straight to the boss, shall we?
This is Antios, and for the first time I'm not which member of the Greek pantheon he's supposed to be. The most likely candidate seems to be Antaeus, (or Antaios,) the half-giant son of Poseidon who was known for challenging people to wrestling matches, killing them and then harvesting their skulls. I don't know where he was hanging about that there were enough people who saw a half-giant son of a god and thought "yeah, I reckon I can take him" for his skull-collecting hobby to get very far, but his reign of terror was ended by Heracles, who killed him with a bear hug. Ancient Greece, folks - a land of democracy, culture and roadside wrestling matches that end with ruined spinal columns.
Quite how Antaeus (if that is who this is supposed to be) made the transition from big wrestler to fire-monster is never explained, but that's how he appears in Phelios and boy does he love fire. His only real attack is to drop a curtain of flames at you, so just dodge around them and shoot him in the face. He's simple enough to beat, but the problem is that he takes so long to kill that your attention begins to wander and you end up getting hit by attacks that you really should have avoided. This brings me to one of Phelios' more brutal gameplay mechanics, and that's when you die, you go back to a checkpoint instead of respawning where you died like in most shoot-em-ups. Spending ten minutes whittling down a boss' health, only to get sloppy and die right at the end and have to do the whole fight again? That feels like a real kick in the balls. My advice? Don't die.
Accuracy Rating: Assuming this is supposed to be Antaeus, none. There is no accuracy. 0/10.
What comes after a fire stage? Why, the obligatory ice stage, of course! Although, this stage is icy only in decor and you don't fight frost titans or anything like that. No, your main foe here is balls - big, spiked balls that roll through the level like it was Typhon's own pachinko machine, providing obstacles to dodge while you try to shoot the goblins down from their perches. It's a noticeable shift in gameplay, and it makes a nice change from the bland previous stage, and it also marked the point (for me, at least) that the game started getting really difficult. The upswing in challenge is continued by the toughest boss so far, the dreaded sea-monster Scylla.
Sea-monster, a bunch of flying purple heads... eh, close enough. You can't damage the outer ring of heads and that where the challenge of this battle lies: you have to wait for the circle to expand enough for you to fly between them and shoot the vulnerable three-faced head in the center. That's all well and good, but when it comes to shoot-em-ups I pilot my craft - be it spaceship, anime witch or mythical winged horse - with all the skill and grace of a soap-box go-kart driven by a bag of cement. I crashed into those heads. I crashed into them a lot, and when I wasn't getting Pegasus' face intimately acquainted with them I was wasting my charged-up shots by firing at the wrong time and blasting the smug purple bastards to no effect.
Accuracy Rating: According to her description on Wikipedia, Scylla had four eyes, six long necks with heads on the end, tentacles for legs, dog's heads bursting from her waist and (most bafflingly of all) a cat's tail. A cat's tail, really? "Damn, I'm looking pretty monstrous. Maybe an accessory will help to balance out my hideous appearance! Everyone loves cats, right?" At least this Scylla has the multiple heads, but mostly I'm just disappointed I didn't get to fight the tentacled horror of the mythological Scylla. 1/10.
All hail Artemis, Goddess of Fanservice! At some point, Typhon undressed her. That's not creepy at all, Namco. Thanks for that. Apollo better get a move on before Typhon starts trying to get her into a fursuit or something.
And lo, mighty Apollo travels to the gates of Hell, a dismal land populated by fat trolls who would defy the very gods themselves by throwing potatoes at them. Seriously, this is pretty much the entire stage - a horde of spud-chucking monsters who can only be killed by shooting them off their platforms and into the sea. And you know what? It’s really hard. Probably the hardest part in the game, because if you miss with a charged shot then you'll quickly be overwhelmed by airborne tubers while you wait for your sword to power up again. I won't be defeated by flying carbohydrates, though - I must push on, and reach the stage's boss...
...who is Cerberus. But not a dog. Oh no, Cerberus is now some kind of space lizard, and I have to say he looks much more like something you'd find lurking on the threshold of eternal misery than a dog does, even a dog with three heads. Given how much I struggled with the previous boss and the stage leading up to Cerberus I was expecting to be swiftly and brutally destroyed, but this fight is much easier than the preceding two stages. Phelios doesn't really have a difficulty curve, at least not a smooth one, and as a result the game never really settles down into a satisfying rhythm. The whole thing feels a little disconnected, and any sense of mounting urgency or tension is ruined when you reach someone like Cerberus and it doesn't result in the epic encounter you were expecting.
Accuracy Rating: Pros: Three heads, is guarding hell. Cons: Not a dog, looks like a rejected entry into the Aliens toyline. 4/10.
Artemis finally does something other than pose for the cover of a Sixties fantasy novel by informing you of Phelios, a magical sword that probably would have been handy six stages ago but hey, whatever, I guess I'll go and find it.
Alright, I'm in space now, and you know how I mentioned that the ice stage was like being trapped in a pachinko machine? Forget that, this final stage is truly the pachinko zone. Balls drop down from the top and bounce off the green pegs and I think the whole thing might be a front for the Yakuza. During the development of Phelios, someone at Namco was clearly jonesing for some hot pachinko action, but at least they remembered to finish the game off before they ran out into the night, desperate for the deafening din of the rattling steel balls.
Apollo's task is to find Phelios (the sword) but it's not as simple as pulling it out of a rock or anything. No, you have to find the letters that make up its name, floating in deep space.
There's one now! After much searching, I've managed to collect all the letters and assemble the holy sword. Was it worth it?
Yeah, I'd say so. Once you're all Phelios-ed up, your charged shot becomes this big fat beam attack, which I'm sure you can imagine is very useful for clearing a path (particularly through those destructible green orbs that block your way through the level.) Now that I've finally got a weapon that matches my godhood, I suppose it's time to go and defeat Typhon.
Oh, he's conveniently labelled, that's handy. It's a two-part fight, as shoot-em-up boss battles so often are, starting with the floating robed guy. He's really not a threat, especially with the mighty power of Phelios on my side, and he's quickly dealt with. Next up is the big demon thing, and you know what? He's not that much of threat either. I've struggled through the entire game, dying frequently, suffering humiliations at the hand of rogue pachinko balls and potato-launching horrors, but once I reached the final boss I don't think I died once. He just doesn't seem that into the whole thing - he's had his dress-up fun with Artemis, and now he's bored. He listlessly fires some orbs at you which can be destroyed with your charge shot, usually hitting Typhon in the process, and occasionally a laser fires from his navel in a random direction. Other than that, you just have to make sure you don't fly into him. It's a let-down, basically. A long, boring, pointless waste of a final battle, and once it's over Phelios is complete.
Accuracy Rating: Much like Scylla, the Greek version is much cooler than the fairly generic muscle-Satan that we have here - Typhon's traditional mass of snakes for a lower body, his covering of wings, fire shooting from his eyes, all replaced in favour of a standard demon that looks like something the Power Rangers would have fought. 2/10.
Artemis is rescued, and I'm sure Apollo is very excited by the whole thing. A little over-excited, maybe.
I'm not touching that one.
Namco just had to cram in some more goddess-ogling with the ending, which is mostly just a screen of Artemis looking at you all doe-eyed for what seems like waaay too long. I tried pressing a button, thinking that maybe I needed to in order to advance, but the game just displayed a message at the top of the screen that said "BE PATIENT." Namco really wanted to make sure you got a good, long look at your scantily-clad sister, but after a while this screen does fade away, leaving this behind.
I don't think Artemis understands lined paper. Actually, this was all I could think about when I saw this little note.
So, Phelios is over and Artemis - the chaste, virgin goddess of the hunt - simpers after her lover and sibling Apollo. Nice work, Namco. But what about the game itself? It's odd, but I'm not entirely sure how I feel about it. I like the setting, I like the graphics (especially some of the cuter enemies, like the skeletons) and the core gameplay seems fine, but I can't really say I enjoyed the overall experience that much. One reason is obvious, and that's the utter uselessness of your uncharged weapon. Beyond the first stage every shot needs to be a charged one, otherwise you're not going to kill the enemies quickly enough to avoid being swarmed, and it's not a style of shooter than I enjoy. That's just personal preference, though - maybe it'll be right up your street. Aside from that, there's the wonky difficulty level, the anticlimactic final stage, the uninspired enemy attack patterns and the reliance on enemies that can't be killed, only knocked over. It's not a terrible game, and I'm sure there are people out there who would really enjoy the Megadrive version of Phelios, but sadly I'm not one of them. If you're looking for a Genesis / Megadrive shooter set in a fantasy world filled with magic and monsters that ends with you receiving a more powerful charged attack, I suggest you stick with Elemental Master.
Of course, the real lesson here is that when you're adapting Greek mythology for your videogame, whatever versions of the gods and monsters you come up with will always be less bizarre and less interesting than the "real" thing.