Throwback Thursday: A history of Rampage

Video game inspired movies have a tendency to not do especially well at the box office, but that hasn’t stopped Hollywood from trying to get gamers into their local theaters. This year has already seen a new reboot of Tomb Raider, and Ready Player One takes place inside the world’s biggest multiplayer game and contains plenty of callbacks to older titles. The newest movie to take inspiration from a video game is Rampage, hitting theaters tomorrow. We thought it’d be good to take a look back at the history behind the game that started it all.

Arcade Origins

Rampage was developed for arcades in 1986 by Midway Manufacturing, and the game was immediately popular with players. Every level has a simple goal; completely destroy every building on screen to proceed. Each stage is supposed to represent a different city, but there aren’t any landmarks and each screen just has a different array of boxy buildings to obliterate. The prospect of taking control of an enormous monster and wreaking havoc through the cities of the world is appealing even today. At a fundamental level, we just like breaking things.

Up to three players could crowd around a Rampage machine, each controlling a different type of monster. They can choose to work together to destroy buildings faster, or harass other players by punching each other and stealing food. Copyright laws were looser in the ‘80s, but Midway wisely refrained from naming their digital creatures after famous movie monsters. Instead of King Kong or Godzilla, players could choose between George the ape, Lizzie the lizard, or Ralph(!) the werewolf. Each character played completely the same, so the choice came down to personal preference and aesthetics.

Every building on screen can take a certain amount of damage before it crumbles, and this is loosely based on how large it is. Occasionally a soldier carrying TNT will walk across the screen and place a charge at the base of a building. If the Kaiju don’t eat him first, the explosion a few seconds later will destroy the building the charge was placed in front of regardless of how much damage it had previously suffered. This helps the monsters achieve their goal, but reduces the opportunity to increase your score by destroying the buildings and finding power-ups.

Dust and smoke at the base of a building indicates it’s taken sufficient damage to crumble, and that’s the player’s cue to jump to safety. If a monster is still attached to a building as it’s destroyed, they’ll fall to the ground and take extra damage on impact. This mechanic may be inspired by the end of the original King Kong; the game’s logo (featuring an attractive woman clutched in an ape’s fist) most definitely is.

The monsters have a fairly diverse moveset, especially for such an early game. They can climb up and down buildings, swim across rivers, punch in six different directions, and leap through the air. They can also grab people and objects to cram them in their mouths. Breaking open buildings can reveal health power-ups, though the monster can also restore health by eating people. This is important because the monsters are constantly shot at by military vehicles and soldiers, especially helicopters and tanks.

It’s impossible to dodge all of the incoming fire, so the monsters’ health is constantly decreasing as they play. If a player’s health is completely depleted, the monster they’re controlling shrinks back down into a normal human, albeit one without any clothes on. The character will then cover their shame and embarrassedly sidestep off-screen. In a multiplayer game, you can take advantage of your buddy’s misfortune and eat them while they’re in human form. No doubt this started many a fistfight back in the day, but it’s still hilarious if your friend doesn’t see it coming.

If the player decides to continue by adding another quarter to the machine, they’re brought back onscreen in monster form by a blimp which reads “Scum labs” on the side. This ties into the game’s loose story, which describes normal humans mutated into beasts by the company’s unsanctioned experiments. George was mutated by vitamin additives, Lizzie by a radioactive lake, and Frank by unintentionally consuming tainted meat. The pictures listed as file photos “prior to mutation” are digital representations of the game’s creators, Brian Colin and Jeff Nauman.

The arcade game’s setting begins in Illinois, and the first few cities you destroy are supposed to be Peoria, Joliet, and Chicago. This isn’t coincidental; Peoria has a reputation as being representative of Middle America, and it’s not uncommon for companies to test market new products in the area before rolling them out for a wider release. The phrase “Will it play in Peoria” makes reference to this fact, even though it’s usually referring to entertainment products rather than food additives. Of course, the fact that Midway’s headquarters were located in Illinois probably contributed to the game’s setting as well.

Rampage doesn’t quite fit into the storied pantheon of classic arcade machines, but it was popular enough to warrant home conversions on most consoles and home PCs available at the time. Midway didn’t handle these home conversions itself, farming out the work to other developers like Activision. Everything from the Nintendo Entertainment System to the Atari 2600 to the Apple II and Commodore 64 got a port of the game, and they range wildly in quality and faithfulness to the arcade original. Players are probably most familiar with the Data East NES conversion which featured a 2-player simultaneous cooperative mode, but changed the game’s early stages from cities in Illinois to California.

Reviving Rampage

Despite the success of the Rampage arcade game the franchise lay dormant for nearly 10 years, although ports of the original continued being released as new consoles and computers made their debut. The first truly new game in the franchise didn’t make an appearance until 11 years after the original game hit arcades, but it became a success in its own right.

Rampage World Tour was developed for arcades in 1997 by Brian Colin and Jeff Nauman, the designers of the original arcade game. They left Midway by this point, but still worked together in Illinois as an independent game development firm called Game Refuge, Inc.

World Tour took the original concept behind Rampage and added some new features. Monsters could now attack buildings from the roof, kick the sides of structures to shake them to pieces, and bounce off of certain buildings to reach greater heights. The three original monsters returned, but each had slightly different stats this time. The plot called back to the first game, making it into more of a revenge story as the monsters try to destroy Scum Labs facilities all over the planet. You still had to completely level all the buildings in a given level to proceed, but the monsters were much more agile and the game felt fairer than the quarter-sucking original.

Even though Midway Manufacturing had been involved in interactive entertainment since 1973, the company never produced home versions of its arcade titles before 1996. The company rebranded itself as Midway Games and set up two divisions; Midway Amusement Games worked on arcade titles, and Midway Home Entertainment handled the home console versions. Before this, Midway preferred licensing conversion work to other studios. Rampage World Tour was one of the first Midway games to be developed and converted in-house by this new arrangement.

Home conversions of World Tour were much more faithful to the original arcade version this time, and most of the ports allowed three players to join in. The exception was the Sega Saturn conversion, which was limited to two players. The PC and Nintendo 64 versions didn’t require any extra hardware, but the PlayStation port needed a multitap to add a third player to the fray. Despite this, the game sold best on the PlayStation, and the third game in this revival (Rampage Through Time) was only released on Sony’s platform. A later version of World Tour was released for the Game Boy Color in 1998, but it shares very little in common with the console versions.

Rampage World Tour was another success for Midway and spawned two console-only sequels: Rampage 2: Universal Tour in 1999 and Rampage Through Time in 2000. Neither of these games added anything new to the formula, but each let players control different types of monsters and destroy different scenery. By the third game it seemed like players were getting tired of the same routine, and Rampage Through Time was the lowest rated game in the series.

One last try

Midway decided to let the franchise cool off for a while after the tepid response to Rampage Through Time, and didn’t release another game in the series until 2006. Rampage: Total Destruction for the PlayStation 2 and GameCube kept the same basic gameplay but added a few new creatures and features: monsters could now climb up the front of buildings, pick up and throw vehicles, and fill a special meter to unleash more powerful attacks. Despite the new additions players soon tired of the repetitive building bashing, and it’s not hard to see why. Better versions of this concept had been released years earlier with the PlayStation 2’s War of the Monsters and the Xbox and GameCube’s Godzilla: Destroy All Monsters Melee.

Critical response was mediocre, but Rampage: Total Destruction did manage to sell more than a million copies. It wasn’t enough to justify any sequels however, and Midway ended up going bankrupt three years later. All of its assets were purchased by Warner Brothers in 2009 and added to the company’s Interactive Entertainment division. Since then, WB has done a pretty good job of maintaining Midway’s legacy; the reboot of Mortal Kombat has been the biggest success story, but nods to the company’s history show up in everything from Lego Dimensions to Ready Player One.

Rampage is somewhat hard to find on current-gen hardware. Rampage World Tour was available on the PlayStation 3 as a downloadable title, but has since been delisted. The NES version of Rampage never made it to Nintendo’s Virtual Console, though the superior arcade version is available on several Midway classic collections. Total Destruction contained both the arcade version and World Tour as bonuses, but it’s been out of print for more than a decade and is getting harder to find.

The movie releasing this weekend is probably Rampage’s last shot at cultural revival, but it did generate sort of a sequel to Rampage in the form of a ticket dispenser, exclusive to the Dave and Buster’s arcade franchise. The game allows players to control the movie versions of George, Lizzie, or Frank (who appears to have been crossed with a flying squirrel in this version) and lets them collect vials of glowing green ooze to earn additional tickets for redemption at the prize counter. You still have to obliterate every structure on screen to progress, but once a level is clear the monsters will immediately jump into the background to begin smashing up the next set of buildings. There doesn’t seem to be any ending to this game, and players have progressed through more than 120 levels just to find more buildings waiting for them. Still, it’s a new HD version of a classic, and it’s nice to see an older arcade game getting another chance at relevance.

Dwayne Johnson has appeared in game-related movies before, but here’s hoping Rampage turns out a little better.