Gaming with the Gods: Video Valhalla

While scribbling my House of Eddas posts about Marvel’s Thor comics, I started thinking about my own introduction to the Norse myths. My first detailed exposure to the Norse myths was through Dorling Kindersley’s Illustrated Book of Myths, Tales & Legends of the World by Neil Philip and Nilesh Mistry, but I can remember coming across (generally rather loose) versions of the stories and their personages in the entertainment media I consumed. Not the Thor comics, though – I never read those as a child. Instead, the pop-culture versions of Norse mythology that I came across were largely video games.

Here are three games in particular that I can remember playing as a youngster…

Castle of the Winds

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Made for Windows in 1989, Castle of the Winds is a top-down dungeon-crawler in the fashion of Rogue. Creator Rick Saada has stated in an interview that he drew upon Norse mythology because it was a body of stories that “hadn’t been beaten to death” at the time. As it happens, the game’s world is – like so many other computer RPGs, particularly from this era – derived from Dungeons & Dragons, right down to the gelatinous cubes, carrion creepers an abyss fiends. Its main connection to the Norse myths are the bosses, an assortment of elemental giants who are named after various jotuns mentioned in actual Norse texts: Hrungnir, Rungir, Utgardhalok, Thrym, Thiassa and Surtur. Castle of the Winds is now freeware, and you can give it a go online if you feel like some old-school dungeon-crawling.

God of Thunder

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Released in 1993, God of Thunder was DOS’ answer to the 2D Legend of Zelda games, featuring the same gameplay but with Link and company replaced with Thor and his public domain brethren. It’s a very silly game: one of the puzzles involves reuniting a wise old magician with his favourite soft toy; killing NPCs gets you gently chided by Odin in a pop-up message; and the three bosses include not only Loki and the Midgard Serpent but someone called Non-Stick Nognir.

The goofy humour certainly didn’t bother me as a kid. Someone had made a game with those characters I’d read about in my mythology book! They even gave Odin his eyepatch! I’d played games based on films and TV series, of course, but a game that dropped me right into Asgard was something special.

Heimdall

Heimdall came out on various platforms in 1991 (I played the Atari ST version) and is notable mainly for its really quite lovely graphics. It clearly strove to be an interactive cartoon in the vein of Dragon’s Lair, and rendered the worlds of Norse mythology with a charmingly Asterixian aesthetic — Light-hearted, but not as irreverent as God of Thunder.

After an animated intro sequence shows us Odin creating the Earth, the story begins with Loki stealing Thor’s hammer, Odin’s sword and Frey’s spear, leading Heimdall (depicted as a Christ figure born to a mortal virgin) to go off on a quest to retrieve them. Controlling the title character, the player must solve puzzles, fight monsters and take part in a dodgy minigame that involves throwing axes at a barmaid’s braids (I vaguely remember GamesMaster receiving letters of complaint when Dominic Diamond made a joke about “a few wallops in the head just to show her who’s the boss”). Heimdall was popular enough to earn a sequel, although I never played that.

Had I been born fifteen years later, I imagine that my first introduction to Norse mythology would have been through the Marvel films. But as a nineties kid, I grew up in a time when Odin, Thor and company weren’t particularly prominent characters in mass-media pop culture. They did, however, turn up now and again in video games, as we can see. Is there any reason why Norse mythology might be particularly suited to video games, I wonder?

The three games discussed above may not sound like a great showing for the Aesir, but for context, I can only think of one game from this period based on Greek mythology (Kid Icarus on the NES). And when we consider how much better-known the Greek myths are, that seems significant to me. Norse mythology seems to have picked up an aura of geekiness about it – the purview of comic collectors and role-players, lacking the high-cultural validity of Greek myth. A curious side-effect of this is that in the world of eighties/nineties games design (arguably the geekiest of fields) the sagas of the Norsemen seem to have been a more popular source of inspiration than their Hellenic counterparts.

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