Kingpin doesn’t waste any time getting its chief interests across. The game opens with a high-angle shot of your character lying in an alleyway bleeding. Two goons stand over him and warn that more violence will follow if he doesn’t stay out of their territory. Our hero stands, bruised brawn and ego in tow, and says: “I’m gonna bury those two motherfuckers.” Revenge is the main course, garnished with guts, gore and swearing.
Of course if you know anything about Kingpin, this isn’t a surprise. It was released for the PC in 1999 by Xatrix Entertainment (later known as Gray Matter) with the intention to be as controversial as possible. All told, the timing wasn’t perfect. The Columbine massacre was a fresh wound and it was immediately banned in Australia and Japan for its adult content. It survived the scrutiny of Europe and America but the press decided to decry it all the same. Here was another scurrilous videogame training our youth to be violent.
Kingpin did itself no favours. It was designed to be crass and offensive and it desperately reinforced this ambition at every turn. There was a soundtrack by Cypress Hill and a script — if I can call it that — quite obviously penned by a game designer in flannels imagining what it would be like to wear a hoodie while listening to Snoop and smoking a spliff. The scenery was at least more interesting and brought you close to the grime of a seedy metropolis, with thuggish men and loose women walking the mean streets. Everyone was cold and hard and edgy — at least, they were supposed to be. Play Kingpin today and it feels surprisingly tame. It might have been flaunted as a risqué product but in reality it was a game for adolescent boys and their fantasies; Xatrix secretly knew this too.
The game has gone on to sell well, but the bad-boy image Kingpin courted so brazenly has helped overshadow what gameplay actually entailed. You see, profanity becomes such an abiding memory of the experience that sitting down to revisit it fifteen years later, I thought I knew what I was in for: goons dropping f-bombs and exploding in a cloud of giblets.
In fact, I had forgotten a great deal. By manufacturing its own image, Kingpin has helped bury its own considerable achievements.
So what’s so good about it? Well, Kingpin doesn’t waste any time showing off its tricks. With our character up and out of the alley it’s time for revenge on the mobsters that bloodied him and their entire organisation. But where to go next? Like all developers from the ‘90s, Xatrix doesn’t cosset you. There’s no blinking arrow showing you where to go. So you set off in the dark only to quickly realise that the game has a system in place that lets you converse with the local populous. Five minutes and a dozen “fucks” later you learn from the townsfolk that, for ten dollars, you can hire backup muscle, and that down one of the alleyways there’s a bum offering information in exchange for a bottle of booze. Next you turn to the local gun shop – the gloriously named Pawn-o-Matic – where the man behind the counter promises a pistol if you run an errand for him. It becomes clear early on that the first level of the game is a small hub of interconnected sidequests feeding into the main mission at large.
This formula remains throughout, but even after five minutes in Kingpin’s world you’ve seen more examples of interesting level design than in an entire Call of Duty campaign back to front. Xatrix might be guilty of re-using their tricks a little often, but in an era before QTEs and overwrought exposition, the developers have had to think hard about how the world connects together.
Elsewhere, Kingpin reminds me of an era when games dared to be difficult. There’s the contemporary notion that you need tohave your hand held at every turn. It’s refreshing then to visit a world that forces you to inch forward, save, and inch forward again. The early pistol, for instance, is laughably underpowered and doesn’t even dent the fleshy skin of the goons you face. Later on you come across the flamethrower which, even today, remains a sure-fire delight (excuse the pun). But as your arsenal improves, so do the enemies. The men in vests brandishing lead pipes make way for the suits with Tommy guns. You’ll die a lot, but Kingpin is rewarding as a result.
There’s also the inescapable irony that in a story about antisocial behaviour, Kingpin loves you talking. Non-playable characters stand around looking tough in bars and huddle in alleyways in the midst of the piss and the grime waiting for you to initiate conversation. They’ll often tell you to fuck off all the same (I put that down to the ‘roids) but you can respond in turn. In this world of testo-bristling thugs there are only ever two ways to direct a conversation and it turns out to be highly appropriate.
The Quake II engine chugs away admirably in the background. Time has not been kind to Kingpin, but even so, the downtrodden metropolis still evokes that feeling of a city of steel, with its cold, impersonal metal surfaces falling to decay. The subway is caked in grime and the shipyard spells an eerie portent, while the final salvo takes place in the lavish marble home of the main villain himself. The engine is old and the graphics dated but there’s still a ruddy charm to Kingpin; a rustic styling that feels like an unintentional tribute to film noir.
With any game this old, not all is rosy of course. The Quake II engine has its fair share of technical constraints and the most damning comes in the form of the character models; each goon is built in the shape of a brick outhouse and saddled with a face that seems to be caving in on itself. For some reason their faces wobble too, as if they’re oozing a viscous liquid. These aren’t actually criticisms because the whole thing is utterly hilarious, but the character models do become a bugbear during gameplay when you’re presented with three identical outhouses and you can’t tell who is an enemy and who is an ally. You might approach a thug and his dog for a conversation of grunts and fucks (good-naturedly) only to find the dog barking and the butt of the thug’s shotgun down your throat. It becomes a game of guesswork every time, which would be fun if it didn’t repeatedly consign you to a swift death.
As a story, it’s a tale of revenge told most simply. The cutscenes are brief kinetic exchanges of violence and bad language. It sees the bruised and beleaguered reprobate of the opening cutscene ascend the criminal fraternity until he’s presiding over the entire underworld. And there’s satisfaction to be had in knowing you’ve navigated him there, without a helping hand or a blinking arrow showing you where to go.
In an era that closely followed on the heels of Half-Life, games needed an edge. And Kingpin had an edge. It sported cover art promising violence and profanity and the chance to be the hippest, baddest gangster in town. The media storm that swelled and engulfed Kingpin upon its release was hugely exaggerated. But then Xatrix actively courted this publicity. In doing so both the media and the developers undersold what Kigpin did well.
Ultimately it’ll always be remembered for its muscled goons and buxom babes and bad language and as a salutation of all things crass, it’s a puerile and often unintentionally hilarious game. But I’m here to tell you that it has plenty of hidden charms that were never advertised on the box.