Sorry for the delay on this article- my time has been taken over by other things in my life, namely Dawn of the Monsters. But here is the part 2 I’ve been sitting on for a while!
Despite a roaring 70s and 80s, Kong had a quieter go in the 1990s. Toho planned to make a new King Kong vs Godzilla but it got scrapped, remodeled into Mechanikong vs Godzilla and then that also got scrapped. And Peter Jackson began working on a brand new King Kong film that, surprise surprise, also got scrapped!
Nintendo managed to spin their Donkey Kong franchise into something more unique, ditching the “ape snatches a damsel in distress” and instead having a trilogy of SNES games where you control Donkey Kong’s grandson in an action platformer. Donkey Kong’s popularity continued to grow throughout the 90s as he appeared in Mario Kart, Mario Party, Mario Tennis, and his own 3D adventure on the Nintendo 64. He even got a sidekick in Diddy Kong (who got his own racing game!).
Only a handful of major new pieces of King Kong media came out during the 90s:
Kongfrontation (1990) – An excellent theme park ride at Universal Studios Florida inspired by the King Kong encounter section of Universal Studios Hollywood’s tour.
King Kong (1991) – A 6-issue comic book retelling the story of King Kong by Monster Comics.
King Kong 60th Anniversary Set (1993) – A set of Laserdiscs and VHS tapes that included the recently colourized version of the film.
The Mighty Kong (1998) – A fairly maligned animated musical version of the King Kong story from Warner Bros
The lack of a major motion picture also meant the lack of interest in producing a video game, simply due to the cost and risk involved. In fact, the only King Kong game planned was a cancelled pinball machine!
King kong – The Eighth Wonder of the World (1990 – CANCELLED)
Developer: Data East
Publisher: Data East
Platform: Pinball Machine
Data East Corporation, a Japanese company famous for their arcade and Nintendo games (like Bad Dudes vs Dragon Ninja, Burgertime, Karnov, and Karate Champ) started making pinball machines in 1987. Data East Pinball was founded by purchasing Stern electronics and eventually was purchased by SEGA in the 90s and then their licenses got absorbed into the new company Stern Pinball (who, by the by has the Godzilla license for a new pinball machine!). They focused almost exclusively on licensed pinball tables with IP such as Robocop and Total Recall, and eventually The Simpsons, Star Wars, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
In the late 80s, Data East began production on a new table- a King Kong table. While the game was showcased in 1990, it was never released to market and there are only 9 prototypes available- each one being slightly different. It’s not 100% clear why the game was not finished, but it was likely due to the cost of licensing the character.
There are some interesting things to note about the table based on the surviving prototypes in collectors’ hands. The backglass features King Kong climbing Sears Tower- not the Empire State Building or the World Trade Towers. This is likely an homage to Chicago being the real home of the entire pinball industry. The playfield art features multiple famous scenes inspired by the film, including Kong at the gates with Ann, Kong climbing Sears Tower, and Kong battling a theropod dinosaur (the backglass even has him pulling open the monster’s jaw!).
Each prototype plays differently, and they all feel unfinished- ramps too steep and target placement unrefined. That being said, those lucky enough to play a unit all agree it should have been released and would’ve made a great pin.
I would absolutely love for someone like Farsight Studios or Zen Studios to rescue the rights and the table design and add it to one of their virtual pinball collections! And while they’re at it, they can do the same for Godzilla (1998) from SEGA!
KONG: The Animated Series (2002)
Developer: Planet Interactive
Publisher: Bam Entertainment
Platform: Game Boy Advance
Made to capitalize off the television show from BKN, Kong: The Animated Series is a poor man’s Donkey Kong Country. It has decent sprite work, but completely fails to stick the landing in the gameplay department. The normally optional collectibles are now requirements to proceed in the game and levels are sprawling and incredibly vertical affairs. Kong jumps well over a screen’s height, and the camera flips back and forth when you turn leading to an almost nauseating experience. To top it all off, every time you land Kong locks in place, plays an animation, and then lets you resume control. Jumping is a pain in a game focused on jumping.
Planet Interactive mostly produced portable licensed fare, and Bam Entertainment was a publisher of mostly licensed games- both seemed to go bankrupt shortly after this game released. The opening of the game also references a company called “Planet Canada” but I can’t find out what their involvement was.
King Kong’s first portable game since the 80s and we’re not off to a great start. It’s a shame, since aping Donkey Kong Country for a King Kong game is actually a great idea, but I can’t recommend picking this one up. If you are so inclined, it is not hard to find a cheap copy on eBay or a local game shop.
Kong King of Atlantis (2005)
Developer: Skyworks Interactive
Platform: Game Boy Advance
Released in 2005 in tandem with the direct-to-video animated film of the same name, Kong King of Atlantis is the ape’s second GBA title. Maybe it fares better?
When I first booted up the game, I couldn’t help but notice how much worse it looked compared to the last title. Characters lacked definition and backgrounds seemed amateurish. Right off the bat the controls seemed a bit tighter, and the camera was certainly better but then I jumped. The previous title would give you a little lag when you landed- that was bad, but this game gives you a little lag when you start the jump! Even worse!
It does start off with the interesting idea of playing as Jason and then as Kong- recontextualizing and resizing the same hazards, but it’s all for naught when the level design is this dull. Walk forward, punch a tree, jump over a pit, that’s about all you do. It doesn’t even have collectibles like the last game.
While Majesco is pretty famous (or infamous?) as a publisher, the developer Skyworks is not as well-known. Apparently, their claim to fame is pioneering work in advergaming (thanks guys) and their canceled reboot of A Boy and His Blob for the Nintendo DS which was mercifully handed off to WayForward Technologies.
Just like the last one, I can’t recommend it, but you can easily pick this up for cheap if you’re morbidly curious.
Kong: The 8th Wonder of the World (2005)
Genre: Adventure / Beat Em Up
Platform: Game Boy Advance
Rounding out Kong’s GBA trilogy is Ubisoft’s game based off of the Peter Jackson film. Thankfully, this is a different class of game than the other two.
Right off the bat the production quality easily outshines any previous 2D Kong game. The opening cutscenes are all hand-drawn with colorful sprite work. It almost makes you wish there was an animated adaptation of King Kong (oh wait… nevermind.)
The gameplay this time takes the majority of its cues from The Legend of Zelda (though it looks more like Beyond Oasis). You take control of Jack, Carl, and Ann in a top down adventure game. Each character has their own unique skills and you flip between them and even separate them (similar to The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventures). Jack has a machete and a gun for killing monsters, Carl has grenades for breaking rocks, and Ann can heal everybody.
Between the extended adventure sequences are moments where you control Kong in classic 2D Beat-em-up fashion. You get to smash raptors and avoid charging triceratops and while it is animated beautifully, it’s pretty dull. Kong is sluggish, the combat is unresponsive, and the toolset is incredibly small. Even as a beat-em-up die hard fan, there’s no denying this is the weakest element o the game. Thankfully these sections are brief.
King Kong GBA strikes a similar balance to its home console big brother, but doesn’t manage to give both parts of the action the care and attention needed. This being said, the Kong sections aren’t so bad as to ruin the experience, and roaming around Skull Island in a beautifully rendered 2D action-adventure is still great fun. Absolutely worth checking out for a short but sweet Kong fix!
Peter Jackson’s King Kong The official Game of the movie (2005)
Genre: First Person Shoot / Beat em Up Hybrid
Platform: Gamecube, PlayStation 2, PlayStation Portable, Xbox, Xbox 360, Xbox One (Backwards Compatible), Windows PC, Nintendo DS
Peter Jackson’s King Kong The Official Game of the Movie (yes, that’s the full title on the box) is a bit of a lost art. It really is the pinnacle of the movie-license-tie-in game, and was incredibly influential on the game industry as a whole- especially Ubisoft’s future.
Ubisoft in the early 2000’s was quite different from the Ubisoft we know today- their output was massive and they relied heavily on licensed titles to make bank. In 2020 Ubisoft released around 10 original games to various platforms, while in 2000 they released 67. And the vast majority of those games were licensed- ranging from Ubisoft classics like Tom Clancy all the way to Disney properties and even… Little Nicky for the Game Boy Color. A huge number of those games weren’t even developed in-house and were instead simply published by Ubisoft. In fact, if we add in their distributed titles Ubisoft released more than 70 games in the year 2000.
I’m not going to mince words here. A lot of the licensed fare that Ubisoft put out was drivel. there were the occasional diamonds in the rough, but Petz and Imagine: Party Babyz were not lighting the gaming world on fire. When it came to King Kong, however, Ubisoft brought out the big guns and handled the development internally- led by Rayman and Beyond Good & Evil creator Michel Ancel.
But why? Why not treat King Kong like Batman, Bratz, ET, and their other licensed properties? They could have easily made quick, cheap, dirty games that aren’t good but sell on brand recognition alone. While I can’t definitively find an answer as to why King Kong was given to Ubisoft’s A-Team, it seems likely that it was due to good old PJ himself.
Peter Jackson was hot off the success of the Lord of the Rings trilogy and after playing and enjoying Beyond Good & Evil it appears he specifically asked for Ancel to helm the project and for Ubisoft and Universal to take the project seriously as an extension of the world presented in the movie. And boy should we all be glad he did.
The team at Ubisoft was involved directly with the production team of the film, getting an early and up-close look at production art, sets, concepts, storyboards, and more to make sure the world of the game felt precisely like the world of the film. Another big piece of evidence of the level of commitment Ubisoft and Universal put into the game is that the entire voice cast from the film reprises their roles for the game. Adrian Brody, Jack Black, Naomi Watts, et al returned for extensive speaking roles- further indicating the commitment to quality.
As for the actual design, the game transitions between first-person survival sections as Jack Driscoll (the bulk of the game), and third-person action setpieces where you play as Kong.
The first-person segments are essentially linear levels where you and the crew of the Venture must find resources and avoid (or fight) monsters as you search for Anne and try to get back to civilization. The level design is quite novel in its structure in that you might encounter a door you need to open by slowly turning a crank, but the area ahead of you is crawling with raptor-like Venatosauruses. You could try to kill them but it would waste your precious ammunition, and there’s an incredibly high chance you’ll die. So you might instead take cover in some tall grass to avoid detection, spear a flying creature and let the carcass distract the monsters while you open the door. You might instead take a torch and burn the tall grass, hurting the monsters and making a run for it in the confusion. Or you tactically knock one over with a spear to the head and pray you have enough time to open the door. When King Kong is at its best it is asking players to assess a situation and use the appropriate tools to craft a play style that suits them and their resources. It can be incredibly fun.
You also meaningfully interact with your squadmates. There is no HUD in the game, but your character calls out how much ammo they have and you can talk to others in your group to request weapons or assistance. The camera smoothly zooms in on whomever you’re talking to as they turn and start chatting. It adds another layer of strategy since Jack is sometimes on his own or sometimes needs to protect his teammates- and Anne.
And peppered in between these bits of strategic first-person action are the Kong sequences: you get to climb cliffs, swing from vines, and crack dinosaur skulls as you try to keep Anne safe. These sections offer a welcome change of pace and are brilliant in their own right. You can effortlessly zip around the ruins of Skull Island with only a few button presses needed, and finishing enemies with cinematic finishers is immensely satisfying.
The avid gamers reading this article must by now realize how familiar this all sounds- not because Kong was aping similar games, but simply because this game laid the groundwork for what Ubisoft would ultimately hedge almost its entire company on: Far Cry and Assassin’s Creed. The dynamic environmental interactions of far cry and the parkour-fueled antics of Assassin’s Creed can be traced directly back to King Kong, and even The Edler Scrolls IV: Oblivion’s camera zoom trick was first experienced here.
And so, I have to strongly recommend Peter Jackson’s King Kong The Official Game of the Movie – as it is a high watermark not just in King Kong games, but for first-person action in general. It doesn’t feel like a licensed game from 2005. It feels like it could’ve been made yesterday. And once more King Kong leaves an incredibly influential mark on games history!
Retail copies of the game are still very affordable- you can pick up a copy on any given platform for under $20 (usually way under). I played and enjoyed the Gamecube version, but the Xbox 360 version is considered “definitive” as it has upgraded models, textures, and lighting. I personally prefer the look of the “old gen” versions, but really you can’t go wrong with any edition of this game. It’s also currently available on Xbox One/X/Series S/X through backwards compatibility.
King Kong of Skull Island VR (2021)
Developer: Raw Thrills
Publisher: Raw Thrills
Genre: VR Arcade Attraction
Raw Thrills is the largest remaining American manufacturer of genuine arcade video games, and consists of ex-Midway employees and was co-founded by Eugene Jarvis. If you walk into a local Dave & Busters, you’ll likely see their Jurassic Park, Transformers, and even their recent Rampage game based off the 2018 movie. Back in 2019 they unveiled a new licensed title of theirs- King Kong of Skull Island VR.
A first for Raw Thrills, King Kong of Skull Island VR uses 4K VR headsets, in-seat speakers, motion seats, air jets, and hand sensors to allow you to “interact” with Kong and company. While initially it wasn’t clear if the game would feature “gameplay” or if it was a VR “ride” now that the game has been fully unveiled at IAAPA 2021 we can see that it does indeed have some sort of dinosaur-slapping arcade action.
The title was expected to release in the summer of 2020, but you can guess why that didn’t happen. It’s a shame, but then again, releasing the same year as Godzilla vs Kong isn’t a bad thing!
What’s fascinating about this game is that it isn’t licensing the Warner Bros movie “Kong: Skull Island” or even the 1933 film “King Kong” but instead it’s an adaptation of Joe DeVito’s King Kong of Skull Island and Kong of Skull Island books and comics. DeVito ArtWorks is credited with a copyright notice on Raw Thrills website and in-game you can even see elements like the two-headed Gaw that Kong fights in the comic book.
I’m not sure when I will get a chance to play this game but hopefully it makes its way to a local Rec Room or Dave & Buster’s. It’s sad that we didn’t get any home console King Kong games to take advantage of Godzilla vs Kong, but this looks like fun and honestly caught me by surprise. Considering King Kong never really got a legitimate arcade experience (the closest he got was the pinball game) it’s nice to see the character finally represented in one of video gaming’s oldest formats.
Cameos & Miscellaneous
Before we wrap up, there are some other things I should mention, such as Kong’s appearance in Godzilla Battle Line to promote Godzilla vs Kong, the freakish and horrific Kong and Godzilla outfits in PUBG Mobile, and the surprisingly fitting collaboration between Godzilla vs Kong and World of Warships, but these aren’t games as much as they are events inside other games. Events long past whose digital goods are already lost to the ether.
Speaking of “tragically lost to the ether”- I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the the two Java mobile phone games made for the Peter Jackson film.
The first is King Kong the Official Mobile Game of the Movie developed by Gameloft and released in 2005. It appears that this can still be emulated, which is surprising given the state of Java and flip phone game preservation. It’s interesting because it’s not a simple port of the GBA game but its own beat em up/Prince of Persia hybrid! Some levels you play as kong running through 2D platformer levels beating up dinosaurs while others see you playing as Jack and Anne fighting Skull Islanders and avoiding traps.
The second is, funnily enough, King Kong the 8th Wonder of the World Pinball (2006)! Looks like Kong finally got his pinball table. This is a pretty basic and naturally choppy pinball game with some nice colourful sprite work. Funnily enough 2005 would also see the release of an electric tabletop pinball game of the same name as a movie tie-in.
Kong also cameos in LEGO Dimensions– Lego’s attempt at the “toys to life” genre. Apparently based off of his appearance in the LEGO Batman Movie (What? I really should watch this.) He only appears in non-playable form as a kind of boss fight for the LEGO Batman characters. Funnily enough, LEGO Dimensions also features George from Midway’s Rampage as part of their Midway Arcade Pack.
There are also at least 3 King Kong gambling units in existence. One of them is from Bisty and is a Japanese pachislot machine based off of the 2005 film. Another is a Pachinko machine based off of the 1933 film and simply titled “King Kong.” Last there is a slot machine based off of Joe Devito’s King Kong of Skull Island from Ainsworth. I don’t really cover real-money gaming, but for those interested there are videos out there of these machines. There are also a number of online slot games including the confusingly named King Kong Island of Skull Mountain.
That rounds out pretty much every King Kong video game until the present. The ape has had an incredible impact on video games, and I hope we can see more new takes on the character in digital form in the coming years.