Rampage: From Game to Feature Film

As it's announced that Dwayne Johnson's Rampage movie is to film this year, we look back at the 1986 video game that inspired it...

This article first appeared on Den of Geek UK.

If you wanted to experience the simple pleasure of punching a skyscraper until it collapsed back in 1986, then arcade hit Rampage was for you. A homage to American and Japanese monster movies like Godzilla and King Kong, Rampage was a comic action game that looked quite unlike any other coin-op available at the time.

Rampage doesn’t waste much time with back stories, but the premise is this: three average joes – Lizzy, Ralph and George – are exposed to a toxin which transforms them into giant monsters. Lizzy becomes a Godzilla-like lizard, George a Kong-like ape and Ralph a toothsome giant werewolf of some sort. What follows is a comic caper of mindless destruction: each stage takes in a different 2D landscape of skyscrapers and attacking army forces; your job, as one of those angry giant monsters, is to destroy every building and avoid as much enemy fire as you can.

Even judged by the standards of its time, Rampage is a simple, chunky game. It’s essentially a single-screen brawler with precisely two moves (jump and punch), and where most of the things you have to beat up don’t even move. Nevertheless, there remains something oddly addictive about Rampage even 30 years later: it appeals to the same childish human instinct that compelled us to jump in piles of leaves or kick over abandoned sandcastles as kids (or, in our case, as adults).

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Back in 1986, Rampages novelty factor alone made it stand out from the crowd. Simultaneous co-op games were still comparatively unusual; Atari’s hit, Gauntlet, came out the same year. That up to three players could get around a Rampage machine and collectively smash up buildings, punch helicopters clean out of the sky and eat hapless civilians added hugely to the game’s simple appeal. 

Plus there were the graphics, which were unusually bold and detailed for the time and still a cartoony, retro appeal. The giant monsters may be inspired by such classic movies as King Kong and Godzilla, but their design is more like something out of Mad Magazine. They snarl as they rip great chunks off the sides of tower blocks and cover their eyes with their outsized hands when they hit by flying bullets. If a monster eats a soldier carrying a flamethrower, he’ll burp a brief, harmless jet of flame. Eat a puny human leaning out of a window, and a monster will gaze out at the player as they chew thoughtfully on their victims’ bones.

Rampage was designed by Bally Midway employees Jeff Nauman and Brian Colin, who’d previously worked on the 1983 arcade hit, Spyhunter. Colin had initially trained as an artist and animator before joining the games industry, and his elastic, bold designs and movements are Rampage‘s lifeblood. In an interview with Sega Addicts, Colin recalls that Rampage had to be designed carefully to fit in with the hardware limitations of the era; Colin wanted to make a game with big, expressive animated characters. A Bally technician said that such a game wasn’t possible unless it simply involved “moving big rectangles around” – and that was when Colin got the idea of a game about knocking down blocky tower blocks that reached the top of the screen.

One of Rampage‘s basic pleasures comes from knocking holes in the skyscrapers and discovering things within them: each one is like a concrete pinata of items, unsuspecting victims and downright strange objects. Uncover an ordinary civilian, and you’re faced with the option of eating them or carrying them, Kong style, to the safety of the street level, where you can set them down and scuttle off the screen. (If you’re feeling really cruel, you can also carry them to the top of a building and drop them to their doom.) Random objects like plant pots can be tossed onto the street below, where they’ll shatter; roast chickens will restore a precious sliver to your energy bar. 

Keeping your energy levels up is vital, too, because perils lurk everywhere in Rampage. Tiny bullets chip away at your health. Even smashing up a building is fraught with danger – if you’re still clinging to the side of a structure as it collapses, you’ll find yourself hitting the ground with an energy-sapping thud.

Once all your energy’s depleted, Rampage has a couple of other blackly comic surprises in store. Your once mighty giant monster will revert back to human form and, now small and profoundly naked, will shuffle off the screen in humiliation. If other players are still in the game, they can deliver their fallen friend a final embarrassment: they can rush over and eat them before they can escape.

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Several sequels followed the release of Rampage, including Rampage World Tour in 1997 and Rampage: Total Destruction in 2006, but none of them acquired the huge popularity of the 1986 original. Rampage was ported to just about every computer and console imaginable at the time, though few of those ports captured every little detail in Nauman and Colin’s deceptively rich design.

In a way, it’s fitting that Rampage is one of several games from the golden age of arcades to be picked up for a movie adaptation. The game itself is liberally dotted with cute references to movies; its debt to classic kaiju flicks is obvious, but there are also other incidental details. On one stage, a boat sails past; in the boat sits a fisherman and mermaid – an apparent reference to the 1984 hit comedy, Splash. 

News of a movie adaptation first surfaced in 2011, and it’s since been confirmed that Rampage: The Movie will shoot this summer. It’ll see director Brad Peyton team up with Dwayne Johnson again after their 2015 disaster film, San Andreas. Johnson’s clearly a fan of the game, too, and seems intent on retaining its premise largely intact:

“…the basic storyline is three mutated gigantic monsters (Silverback, Alligator and Wolf) destroy major cities and landmarks across the US,” Johnson wrote on Instagram. “If you were a fan of the video game like I was, then you KNOW how bad ass and fun this movie can be.”

Interestingly, Johnson also adds that he’s spending his summer at a wildlife preserve in San Diego and an anti-poaching unit in Africa. From this, it doesn’t take too much of a leap to assume that Johnson’s preparing himself for the role of George, the scientist who winds up turning into a giant gorilla after eating experimental vitamins. If our Holmes-level deduction is correct, that just leaves the production with the task of casting two more actors as Lizzy and Ralph – oh, and finding a load of extras to play the ill-fated army.

Although not involved with the movie’s production, the original game’s co-creator Brian Colin even has his own idea of how the plot could pan out. Speaking to Geek Dad, he suggests that the monsters’ trail of destruction should be an actor of revenge against Scumlabs International, the “world’s foremost toxic waste recycler” that inadvertently turned George, Lizzy and Ralph into giant creatures. Their ultimate aim: take down Scumlab boss Eustas DeMonic and his private army. “And so it goes,” Colin writes. “The creatures’ single-minded (and dim-witted) and relentless rampage to rid the world of Scumlabs International versus Eustas DeMonic’s deadliest weapons of destruction… with mankind smack dab in the middle.”

(It’s certainly a development from the game, which ended in Illinois with a “mega vitamin bonus” before looping back to the first city.)

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Given just how old Rampage is, it might seem like an odd property to revive; but with the recent popularity of Godzilla and Pacific Rim, maybe the time’s right for a comic kaiju movie that sends affectionate nods to the genre that inspired it. After all, the original game wasn’t the most complex or strategic game of its time, but it had a humour, energy and charm that still makes it worth playing today. If the movie can capture that, then it could bring Rampage’s simple, smashing delights to a whole new audience.