Release Date: 1994
Platform: Arcade, many others (see below)
Director: Jason Leong & Pete Kleinow
Developer: Atari Games
Publisher: Atari Games
In the early 1990s, Atari Games was trying to come up with a fighting game to capitalize on the success of Street Fighter II. Not to be confused with Atari Corporation– the hardware division sold off by Warner Communications in 1984 and responsible for the ST, 7800, Jaguar, etc- Atari Games was the arcade software developer famous for titles like Gauntlet, Paper Boy and Marble Madness. They first tried their hand with a robot-focused one-on-one fighting game called Cyberstorm. Unfortunately, after some difficult development and poor location testing, it was cancelled.
It was around the time of this cancellation that production began on a project called “T-REX” which was the codename of what would eventually become Primal Rage.
Primal Rage was inspired by fighting games like Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat as well as the films of Ray Harryhausen- we don’t know if the developers caught wind of Dino Rex, but I would be willing to bet that they had encountered the game at some point. While Dino Rex contained great aesthetics and the nugget of a great idea, it was clearly hampered by a small budget and extremely tight development timeline. Primal Rage, however, would not have those same shackles holding it back.
An initial demo, lead by Dennis Harper and Jason Leung, was created using stills from a Laserdisc copy of The Valley of Gwangi. “We found dinosaur poses we liked and cut the dinosaurs into pieces, so their parts could be separately animated. . . We ended up with this strange piece-together stop-motion animation that was derived from a movie, but we were able to get a demo together, showing a dinosaur running around and biting another dinosaur.” Funnily enough, Dino Rex’s main t-rex character is a repurposed Valley of Gwangi kit from Kaiyodo! I guess Gwangi really stuck out for video game designers in the 90s…
The demo was enough to get the game greenlit and production started soon after. The first and most important element was designing and creating the dinosaur characters- rubber creatures with metal armatures underneath. They cost around $50,000.00 USD to make in 1994 dollars! And given the game development team’s inexperience with stop motion, they needed to hire pros.
Atari Games hired Hollywood special effects craftsmen like Dan Platt (who worked on Terminator 2 and Gremlins 2) and Pete Kleinow (who worked on Gumby, Land of the Lost, and The Empire Strikes Back) to craft armatured models of their characters and painstakingly photograph them frame by frame to create detailed animations that were later digitized and inserted into the game. A similar process was used in Dino Rex, Doom I&II, and even Mortal Kombat but the extent to which Atari Games was pursuing this method was unprecedented. Each character had around 400+ frames of animation and each moved with the smoothness and expressiveness you would expect in hollywood films of the time. This was no small feat to achieve, but in a time before high quality real-time 3D rendering, it was the best possible option to achieve the look and feel for the game. Check out a video of that process here.
The plot of the game is also similar to Taito’s Dino Rex: A meteor hits Earth in modern times, causing a cataclysm that awakens seven ancient beasts from their slumber deep within the planet’s crust. This causes the downfall of civilization and the humans that survived the cataclysm now worship these beasts as gods while nature reclaims the planet and reforms it into the skull of a dinosaur. This new planet is called Urth, and the seven beasts are now in a competition to decide who will rule the new planet.
The creatures are split into “Virtuous Beasts” and “Destructive Dinos” (at least according to the toys” and are as follows:
Armadon – Simply named “Spike” in the prototype version of the game, Armadon is some kind of upright styracosaur-ankylosaur hybrid. Armadon is stated to have a connection with the Urth’s essence itself, and appears to stop the battle for supremacy and restore balance to the planet.
Blizzard– pre production materials referred to him simply as “KONG.” Blizzard became something of the series mascot. The SNES manual states that he is a wise and noble god that was frozen in the Himalayan mountains until the meteor freed him.
Sauron– Sauron is another popular character, and is basically just an upright yellow Tyrannosaurus with purple stripes (called a “Tyranodon” in official documents) . He is the “god of hunger” and attacks with his mouth, tail, claws, and energy blasts. Some of his win poses/fatalities involve him eating his opponents.
Talon– Talon is a velociraptor-like creature with orange and black striping and white feathers coming out of his head. Official materials paint Talon as a real family man- viciously defending his herd and raising humans as cattle to hunt for sport. Talon is nimble and quick.
Slashfang – Slashfang only ever officially appeared as a toy and in the Primal Rage: The Avatars novel, and was slated to appear in the cancelled sequel to Primal Rage. He’s a humanoid Smilodon.
Chaos – Chaos is the Scorpion to Blizzard’s Sub-Zero. Once a human witch doctor, Chaos had a spell backfire and turn him into a disgusting ape monster. Chaos is notable for having controversially disgusting moves like peeing on a defeated opponent and liquifying the meat off their bones (we’ll get to that in a bit) and one fatality where he simply spews his own vomit into the air only to walk around to the other side of the arena and slurp it up. I’m not making that up.
Diablo – Diablo is the Ken to Sauron’s Ryu and is considered the “embodiment of evil” in the Primal Rage universe. He features a lot of fire-based attacks and apparently intends to burn the world if he conquers the other creatures.
Vertigo – Vertigo is a king cobra-like monster and the sole female character of the cast. She has some gorgon-like abilities and can spit venom. The SNES manual states she was a sorceress banished to the moon that returned once the meteor struck Urth. Oddly enough, one of her fatalities involves her turning her opponent into a cow! She doesn’t even eat the cow- it just runs away.
Necrosan – Just like Slashfang, Necrosan only appeared in toy and novel form and was intended to appear in the cancelled sequel. Necrosan is supposed to have emerged from the meteor that caused “The Cataclysm” and thus was an alien creature hellbent on conquering the planet. He was intended to be the final boss of the game.
Gameplay is fairly simple, with a series of one-on-one battles culminating in a final gauntlet. Players have two high and two low attacks as well as the ability to perform special moves and Mortal Kombat-style fatalities. These fatalities play a secondary purpose, though as any character who is finished with one of these moves will be powered down when they show up in the end game gauntlet.
Players also have a “Brain Stem Meter” under their health that depletes with consecutive damage and refills slowly. If it becomes drained your character will be temporarily stunned. Special involving holding two buttons and completing a joystick (this was modified to more traditional inputs in later arcade revisions).
If you received a certain amount of damage in a single combo you character would go berserk, giving them extra strength to support a comeback- similar to future Tekken titles (and its contemporary in Samurai Shodown).
At first glance Primal Rage doesn’t appear to do anything terribly novel with the fighting game formula, but it does them very well. Even though the special attacks use an awkward control scheme, it works much better than Dino Rex. It should also be mentioned that, from a high-level perspective, Primal Rage brought some important evolutions to the genre and actually has some pretty significant depth under the hood. The game was the first to incorporate a damage % in the combo meter, as well as methods to cap combo damage and prevent infinites and other “cheap” tactics. In fact, the game no known infinites or “touch of death” combos to this day! I highly recommend checking out MKK TV’s thread on SRK where he explains some of the finer points of the game and even has some combos videos and matches on his YouTube channel.
Basically, while the game might seem like a shallow MK clone at first, once you learn the systems and how to perform combos, it actually becomes quite the fun and expressive fighting game, feeling more like Darkstalkers than Mortal Kombat (and thankfully you hold back to block instead of using a button like MK…).
The game is absolutely gorgeous. The stop motion animation on display is significantly smoother that Dino Rex and each character exudes an incredible amount of character. There are even great winks and nods to classic stop motion monsters, like Blizzard’s death animation having him mimic King Kong when he gets gassed in the 1933 original.
The backgrounds are lush and the colours are very vivid. You fight among ruined, overgrown skyscrapers, frozen mountaintops, flowing waterfalls, lush rainforests, and smoldering volcanoes. You can also see your followers run around your feet cheering you on. In fact, you can even eat these followers- eating your own damages your life but eating your opponents earns you some!
The whole game feels over the top and has that distinct 90s flair with exaggerated characters, over the top violence, and bold colour choices.
The music isn’t exactly catchy, but sets the mood well and the sound is suitably prehistoric. Monster roars are unique and fitting and the sound effects really sell the bone-crunching violence on screen. The announcer is a nice touch, too shouting “RAGE!” to start every match.
Primal Rage perfectly encapsulated the zeitgeist of being a kid in the mid 90s. It took our obsession with Dinosaurs (perpetuated by Jurassic Park) and combined it with the fighting game trend in its heyday while pushing the limits of video game violence when the introduction of the ESRB was still fresh. It should come as no surprise, then, that the game quickly sold over 1 million units and became a smash hit. But its popularity led to some controversy…
Infamously, Primal Rage came under fire from parents groups for its violence and crass sense of humour. One concerned mother, Ellie Rovella, purchased the game for her son and was so appalled by Chaos’ urination attack that she created a petition and got the game removed from Best Buy, Target, and J.C. Penny- questioning whether the game should have received a T rating. This caused Time Warner Interactive to resubmit the game to the ESRB who again granted it a T rating and the game was put back on store shelves- all except the Genesis version, which was the version Rovella had complained about, and the only home version with the urination fatality!
Time Warner was not concerned by this, and actually ended up making an ad mocking Rovella.
Primal Rage’s success was so big that it spawned a novelization, a 4-issue comic mini series, and a rather well made toyline! There were also offers made for an animated series, but they were turned down over concerns of quality. Yes you read that right- Time Warner Interactive turned down an offer to license the IP for a show because they didn’t want it to be bad like other 90s video game cartoons. They were that successful (or foolhardy?).
The toys were produced by Playmates and are still popular among collectors. They were successful in their own right and were offered in 6 and 10-inch scale, as well as a board game and two Polly-pocket style playsets..
The 6-inch scale figures covered every fighter from the game and each of them came with battle accessories, cardboard dioramas, and small human followers. The 10-inch “Super Rage” figures only rendered Sauron, Diablo, Blizzard, Chaos, and Talon with rubbery skin and sound features. (as a fun aside, a few of these molds resurfaced in Playmates Ninja Turtles toy line in the mid 2000s):
However, there were a few strange things that Primal Rage fans noticed in these pieces of merchandise… Who were these two new characters added to the toyline? Slashfang and Necrosan were not available in any version of Primal Rage, even with all the arcade revisions. Who were the ‘Avatars’ mentioned in the novelization? And what was up with that final issue of the Primal Rage comic? Wait a second… is that… Primal Rage 2??
That’s right. A sequel game was announced that had human avatars transform into the powerful beasts from the first game, but due to many many reasons (worth an article of its own) the game was never released despite being damn near completed. It was later discovered and brought back to life thanks to Galloping Ghost Arcade in Brookfield Illinois, and the game is now playable on MAME.
Primal Rage became a massive success, becoming the #1 arcade game of 1994 and receiving no less than 10 unique home versions on the following platforms:
- Game Boy
- Game Gear
- PS2 (as part of Midway Arcade Treasure 2)
- Xbox (as part of Midway Arcade Treasure 2)
- Gamecube (as part of Midway Arcade Treasure 2)
While Primal Rage was ported to just about everything under the sun at the time of release, the quality of those ports varies wildly. Some added extra features, like the CG intro movies and endings on the 3DO, PlayStation, Saturn, and Jaguar CD, while others cut features. There are missing fatalities on most home editions and the PlayStation version doesn’t have background music! (note: apparently this can be remedied by playing the PS1 disc on a PS3?!) The Jaguar CD, 3DO, and SEGA Saturn versions are generally considered to be pretty good, but feature long loading times.
While they aren’t terrible, every console conversion is lacking in graphics and sound and to make matters worse the arcade original is not easy to emulate thanks to some obtuse copy protection. This has rendered the game slightly broken on MAME and virtually unplayable in its complete state.
This is made further confusing by the arcade revisions. The most popular and widely available revision is 2.3 which simplified inputs and added an extra fatality for each character. However, this version also removed some attacks and oddly censored some moves. This was the version most home ports were based off of. That is, besides the Genesis port which is based off of 1.7, which means less fatalities but also less censorship. For what it’s worth, the home versions also contained special cheat codes to access whacky match modifiers and other gags. It should also be stated that all currently emulated vesrion of the game suffer from a form of encryption that locks out certain moves and censors certain attacks. It’s unclear if 2.3 natively featured censorship or if the censorship noted in that version is due to the rom encryption that to this day has not been cracked.
The best possible way to play the game at home is through Midway Arcade Treasures on PC, PS2, Xbox, or Gamecube. Even this version still has some audio/graphical issues, but it’s arcade accurate otherwise. It’s a shame, though, that the game never made a comeback during the “lets re-release old fighting games with online” craze of the late 2000s/early 2010s. The most pleasant surprise in researching for this article was discovering how well made and finely tuned PR really is. An arcade-accurate release of 2.3 with the censorship removed, online play and training modes added would be a treat for modern fighting game fans.
In fact, I believe if the sequel hadn’t been cancelled we would have seen more Primal Rage today. It’s a real shame. Warner Bros. now owns the rights for the game but has done nothing with it since they acquired them.
I implore you to grab a friend, some beanbag chairs, and a jug of Dino-sour juice and play a few rounds of Primal Rage on an old tube TV.
As for the cancelled sequel, here is a great GDC talk from Chris Tang about the history of that game: