Digitized graphics used to be cool. Back in the mid to early 90’s, arcade games like Mortal Kombat made our jaws drop with semi-realistic sprite characters that looked like animated photographs – a visual style that, back then, seemed tantalizingly “next generation” when compared to traditional animated sprites. Heated debates between Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat followers popped up everywhere from school cafeterias to Internet forums, with no clear winner usually being pronounced. Of course, in the end Sony’s PlayStation came out and unleashed the world of polygonal gaming on the masses, causing all the old digitized vs. hand-drawn arguments to vaporize instantaneously as everyone lined up, shoulder-to-shoulder to play Battle Arena Toshinden and Tekken. In the end, digitized graphics quietly died off, relegated to a small section of the videogaming history books that only hardcore retro enthusiasts cared enough about to read in any kind of detail.
It was during that tumultuous – and totally awesome (if I must say so myself) – time that Atari released the digitized fighting game, Primal Rage. Designed as a competitor to Midway’s wildly popular Mortal Kombat games, Primal Rage, featured a roster of “fighters” that was completely unique in that every player character was a lumbering, prehistoric monster. You could perform special attacks just like other fighting games, as well as nasty (and often hilarious) fatalities that poked fun at Midway’s timeless series. Rage also brought new things to the table, such as an actual, well-thought out story arc (gasp!) and the ability to accumulate – and devour – human followers on your quest to conquer new Urth. Many overlooked Atari’s prehistoric brawler due to its limited availability in arcades and lacking roster size (you only had seven monsters to choose from), and also simply because of the crazed popularity of Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat II – to be seen playing Primal Rage in the arcades was to be labeled not quite as hip as the rest of the universe that was busy mastering tick throws and Babalities.
Not quite extinct
The plug was sadly pulled on Primal Rage 2 when it was in the development stages, but you can still get your extracurricular rage on by picking up John Vornholt’s Primal Rage: The Avatars – a novel that covers the ill-fated sequel’s imaginative story.
And that’s a bit sad, because Primal Rage was awesome. Somehow, the limited seven character roster and lack of boss was completely overshadowed by fun gameplay, memorable special moves, a foot-tapping tribal soundtrack, and general uniqueness of the game’s fantastic, digitized creatures. How could you not fall in love with Blizzard, a massive, contemplative blue ape (he’s seen in his ending sitting fist-to-chin, Conan-style on a gargantuan stone throne) with the ability to spit frost and summon a massive pillar of ice from the earth? And how kick-ass was Diablo, the fire-red tyrannosaurus who spewed Dhalsim-like pillars of fire and could end a fight by roasting the flesh from his opponents’ bones? The creatures were awesome, the music was awesome, and even the intro and ending stills (which were all character-specific) were awesome.
But that was the arcade version. How does this, the largely scaled-down 16-bit Genesis port hold up? The answer is good, but not fantastic. First off, and most obviously, the game doesn’t look nearly as good. The monsters themselves are nearly half the size that they were in the arcades, giving them a much less-imposing on-screen presence. Animation frames have also been axed, making the action look a bit choppy. The backgrounds have been scaled down as well, not in size, but in complexity, with stages like Diablo’s volcano area missing little touches like flame geysers and billowing ash. Other general stage details like your tiny digitized followers and zooming pterodactyls are either extremely pixelated (in your followers’ case) or gone completely (in the pterodactyls’ case). All in all, the game doesn’t come close to matching the arcade version visually, but that’s pretty much to be expected from a Genesis port. Games like Street Fighter II Special Championship Edition and Mortal Kombat II also suffered quite a bit in animation quality and background details when compared to their arcade counterparts (though they both got closer than this port does). In the end, Probe Entertainment did an admirable job capturing the essence of the arcade version, even after having to make several concessions due to Sega’s very limited 16-bit hardware.
Gameplay-wise, Primal Rage, remains strong on the Genesis. Some digitized fighting games, like Pit Fighter and Clay Fighter, didn’t quite nail the responsiveness and mechanics you expect from a top-tier fighting game (more so in the case of the former than in the latter), but Atari’s prehistoric brawler hits pretty close to the mark. Moves come out naturally on the Genny’s controller (an arcade stick is highly recommended, however, due to the ‘hold the button down and input d-pad motions’ nature of the game’s special moves), and combos, juggles and zoning techniques all feel fantastic (though some “cheap,” health devouring combos hurt the game’s overall balance). This is a game where button mashing will get you nowhere fast and proper knowledge of a character’s timing, move list, mobility and hitbox size will yield favorable results. In other words, this is one of the few digitized-style brawlers in the Genesis’ library that hardcore fighting game fans can really sink their teeth into. Some might even prefer it to Mortal Kombat and its sequels. It’s that good.
“…one of the few digitized-style brawlers in the Genesis’ library that hardcore fighting game fans can really sink their teeth into.”The Genesis hardware was never been known for its aural superiority, and Primal Rage doesn’t offer anything that would change that nagging stereotype. Compositionally, the music is great, but it comes out of the TV sounding muffled and impotent after filtering through the system’s underpowered 8 kilobyte audio chip. Sound effects also suffer a bit (slashing and gouging moves elicit an effect that sounds like someone stepping on a rotten watermelon – don’t ask how I know what that sounds like), but are varied enough to not grate on the nerves. Like the visuals, the game’s aural presentation emulates the arcade version’s admirably, but doesn’t quite hit the mark. Compared to the audio in most Genesis games though, this one gets a slightly shaky ‘thumbs up.’
If you never played Primal Rage in the arcades back in its heyday, but get a kick out of quirky (and great) fighting games, definitely give this Genesis port a go. It will sit proudly next to your copies of MKII, Eternal Champions and Samurai Shodown as a game you shouldn’t be afraid to dust off and snap into your system from time to time. If you are looking for the absolute definitive version of Primal Rage, you could try the Saturn, 3DO or Jaguar ports, all of which are respectably close to the original arcade build (about 80% away from a perfect translation, I’d say, compared to about 60% for the Genesis port). Alternatively, you could hunt down a copy of Midway Arcade Treasures 2 for either PS2, Xbox or GameCube – a compilation which features the most arcade perfect version of Primal Rage ever released (though it’s still not without its problems). Sadly, the only true way to experience the original arcade build in all its glory is to find one at your local nickel arcade or pop onto ebay and shell out around $1,000 for an actual arcade unit (hey, I actually entertained making such a purchase for about three seconds). Whatever route you choose, just make sure you try this bloody, jugular-ripping gem of a fighting game in all its digitized, “photo-realistic” glory.