“Monster is a relative term. To a canary, a cat is a monster. We’re just used to being the cat.”
-Dr. Henry Wu
Here’s a video game about dinosaurs with a premise less stupid than Jurassic World’s. Basically it’s prehistoric monster beating the DNA out of each other. And that’s it. Like I said, better than Jurassic World. At least this game owns its nonsense without playing it off as pseudo-science.
Primal Rage is a hyper-violent fighter original released by Atari Games in arcades in 1994. I remember when it hit, it hit hard. Everyone was crowding around this game. The local arcade became the hunting ground for dominant, early-twenties super-predators feasting on the less experienced teenagers, the pre-teens watching with terror from the shadows of their boring racing games and pinball machines. The roar of monolithic lizards and fearsome beasts echoed through their cold-blooded arena.
In a post-apocalyptic vision of Earth, renamed “Urth”, dinosaurs rule the planet once more. Primal Rage features seven playable characters who must battle and tear the flesh of their opponents in order to decide who is big enough and scary enough to rule the world, either to return order or to bring further chaos. Believe it or not, there’s an actual storyline here.
A meteor has struck the planet, nearly wiping out humanity, taking us back to the Stone Age. The survivors of the devastation are left at the mercy of the new masters of Urth, terrible creatures that are awoken from their long hibernation under the planet’s crust: themselves survivors from the prehistoric age. The humans quickly swear their allegiance to the titans, believing them to be angry gods, and our race separates into tribes, each under the authority of their chosen monster. Out of the seven, four monsters are forces of order and three are forces of destruction.
Sauron is the god of hunger. He’s a gigantic ochre t-rex and is one of the most powerful characters in the game, though this is augmented by his lack of agility. Sauron is in fact immortal, so long as he feasts upon human flesh, which his purple-clad followers are fanatical enough to keep in constant supply. Sauron has the ability to breathe energy from his maw. Like Godzilla’s laser breath. This stuns his enemies. Sauron also uses his massive jaws and tail to attack his opponents. He must rule or he will die of hunger. Sauron serves as a kind of neutral force in the game, despite his penchant for devouring people. A man’s gotta eat. Or at least, a dinosaur, in this case.
Diablo is the god of destruction. He’s a crimson tyrannosaur, smaller than Sauron, but master of flame and leader of the forces of destruction. He envisions turning the entire planet into his own personal nightmare of eternal fire, torture and death. Diablo can breathe fire on his opponents and is a beast at ranged combat, though he suffers if he lets his enemies come to close. Terrifying, brutal and hateful as Diablo is, his red-clad followers must be out of their minds to live anywhere near him.
Talon is the god of survival. He’s the game’s velociraptor, which made him a popular choice upon the game’s release. The fastest of the monsters and the smallest, Talon is able to dodge attacks easily and then swoop in to tear his opponents to shreds. He must get in to close range since he has no projectile attacks available to him. As the father of a race of dinosaurs he has sired, he is fiercely protective and desires a safe home for his family, which his gray-clad followers must know since they reside under his wing.
Vertigo is the goddess of insanity. Yes, she’s the only female character in the game. Dinosaurs don’t give a rip about diversity, eh? She appears to be bluish half-raptor and half-snake, with huge fangs, a cobra’s hood, and a long, muscular neck that gives her the longest reach in the game. As if her build wasn’t bizarre enough, she was also imprisoned on the Moon and not on Urth, making this a space-dino-snake thing. Her cyan-clad followers have no choice but to obey, since Vertigo has command of mental abilities, able to stare down her opponents with fixed eyes and hypnotize them. Vertigo wants nothing more than to enslave the world and strip all living things of free will.
Armadon is the god of life. Heavily armored like a gigantic ankylosaurus/stegosaurus, Armadon is covered with spikes and armed with a huge club on his tail. Before the meteor strike, Armadon dwelt in peace beneath the Urth, communing with the forces of life. But when the cataclysm occurred, the tremendous loss of life telepathically tortured him (similar to Alderaan, I guess?). He rose from his domain and gathered his followers in light-green to confront the forces of destruction and restore the land to its verdant origins. Armadon may be powerful but he has the shortest reach in the game, forcing him to close in on his enemies and beat some sense into them.
Blizzard is the god of virtue. Beside the terrible lizards, two huge ape-like monstrosities emerged from the Urth. Blizzard is a blue and white bipedal ape and was released from a glacier by the meteor, where he had been trapped for millennia. He’s the Sub-Zero of Primal Rage. Blizzard, as his name suggests, has control of ice powers. His followers clad in blue seek him ought for his wisdom to stand against the other monsters and restore some semblance of order back to the world. Blizzard is perhaps the closest the game gets to having a “good guy”. He’s a friendly, freezing yeti.
Chaos is the god of decay, another ape-like monster and the polar (heh) opposite of Blizzard. Unlike his wise and frigid counterpart, Chaos is brown and red, twisted, cruel and disgusting. How his yellow-clad followers stay with him at all is a testament to the stupidity of the human race in a post-apocalyptic, dinosaur-ruled world. Chaos was originally a man who was transformed into his current, frightening form and then imprisoned in filth for millennia. Now free, Chaos wants to bring his namesake to the world… by throwing up and urinating acid on his enemies. It’s not hard to believe the controversy that Primal Rage created for its ultra-violence and gory graphics, and Chaos had much to do with that.
You think sissy games like Grand Theft Auto are violent? Then you’ve never seen Primal Rage. Witness health bars represented by beating hearts explode into smears of blood once defeated, human beings being picked up and devoured, and bone and viscera being torn from still warm flesh. Cute!
It was so bad it was withdrawn from shelves at Best Buy, the arcade versions were reprogrammed with a “no gore” setting, and the multiple ports of the game to home consoles experienced some censorship to varying degrees. It’s enough to make moms who don’t care to read about game ratings get all up in arms about their mistake of buying a gory game for their 11 year olds.
Parental ignorance of ratings that are put there for a reason aside, Primal Rage is Mortal Kombat with dinosaurs. It’s unashamed brutality (and terribly spelling: “Kombat”, “Urth”, “Katz”) sets it neatly among the fighters of the mid 90’s. Rawr!
The 8-Bit Review
It’s kind of funny, but as an adult now I think of these graphics as stop-motion dinosaurs from those old, hokey Harryhausen movies. It’s choppy and blurry and clunky. Despite possessing a dystopian setting, Primal Rage’s pixelated-3D is surprisingly colorful and even sometimes vibrant. Though the dominant color is mostly blood red, the monstrous fighters and the backgrounds are examples of almost chemically neon yellows, purples, oranges and blues. However, the graphics have not aged all too well. The console versions specifically have some uglified visuals taken from the original arcade version, the worst being those on the Genesis. Oh, and there’s some major cheese: like the monkey face in the ice mountain on Blizzard’s turf. It’s graphic and stupid simultaneously.
The soundtrack is pretty bad. What’s the music that pops into your head if you think of prehistoric sounds from early 90’s video games? That’s exactly the music that’s used here. Super generic drums and wooden sticks knocking together mixed with synth noises, buzzing din that is probably an electric guitar (?) and electronic “oohs” and “aahs”. I never really noticed the soundtrack was so blehh back in the arcades. There was too much rowdiness about.
After picking your monster, players can either face each other in one-v-one combat or take on the single-player campaign as per your standard fighting game. The objective is to reduce your opponents arterial “heart meter” to zero, causing it to blow up as previously described. The heart beats faster and faster until death. That’s probably one of the cleverest health bars to be found in any game. There’s also a brain bar below the heart meter, which is basically a yellow brain stem that measures how close a character is to being stunned or dizzied. When killed, the characters brain turns into ash.
One innovation is the inclusion of the tribal worshipers. Each monsters’ followers dance around and generally genuflect during the fighting, even reacting to their masters’ victory or defeat. Sometimes, a few brave souls will come too close. At that point, they can be scooped up and devoured, earning the player back a fraction of life. Just like chicken nuggets!
The seven characters have three finishing moves each. These are similar to the “fatalities” from Mortal Kombat. They’re honestly not as great as those to be found in other games. Most of them involve simply savaging the fallen body of your enemy, eating their entrails, biting through their jugular. You know. Basic stuff. Some others are just plain ridiculous. Vertigo can turn an enemy into a cow. Armadon can conduct electricity with his spikes. Diablo can of course bring his flamethrowing esophagus to bear. And we can never forget about Chaos’ infamous acidic “golden shower”.
Narrative: 5/10The narrative is silly and merely a slave to setting up a situation where dinosaurs can eat each other. There is no shortage of post-apocalyptic games but Primal Rage may be one of the more unique ones, narratively speaking. And it does have going for it the boon that it gave, or tried to give, its seven characters some semblance of personalities and motivations for why they’re eating each other.
One of the hardest things with picking up a new fighter is learning the combos, timing and special attacks. Primal Rage went out of its way to make this easier by taking a backwards approach to unleashing abilities. Normally, fighting games require you to input movement direction and then press attack buttons. The original arcade Primal Rage reversed this by requiring you to hold down attack buttons and then perform specific directional inputs in order to trigger special attacks. It made the game easier to pick up. If it sounds too easy, let me tell you that Primal Rage included a “no cheese” mechanism that could interrupt a player abusing their combos or abilities, like camping at the edge of the screen and “hadoukening” their way to victory.
An unplayable last boss character was not included and I read it was in fact scrapped. That means there are only seven monsters to choose from, slim pickin’s for the average fighting game mid-nineties. It also means the game is pretty brief. Most of the fun is going to come from kicking the snot out of another living breathing human being on player 2, but as far as single-player goes? Minimal lasting replay value. The real question is: Why did everyone think this game was all that and a bag of chips in the first place?
Most fighting games use human characters, sometimes built around a particular theme like martial arts or folklore, but how often do you see a fighter with zero human playable characters? Believe or not, they exist. Battle of Giants: Dinosaur Strike and Dino Rex (pictured below) do exist. We may wish they didn’t, though. Primal Rage takes the concept to the extreme.
My Personal Grade: 6/10
Not as fast as Street Fighter, as franchised as Marvel vs Capcom, as hilarious as Super Smash Bros., as slick as Tekken, or as iconic as Mortal Kombat, Primal Rage was undoubtedly popular upon its arrival in the arcades. It was THE fighter to play. Jurassic Park had just come out a year earlier, so Primal Rage tapped into the current dino-fever. This hyper-violent fighter may suffer from some mild to poor basic construction in audio and visual departments, as well as the fact that it features characters which never really took off, but it’s an easy and unique game and it was one of the highlights of the dim arcades of ’94. At least it’s not Dino Rex…
Aggregated Score: 5.9