What would an ocean be without a monster lurking in the dark? It would be like sleep without dreams.
Ah, Rampage. This game was my boyhood dream at one point: an infinite realm of cartoonish and inconsequential destruction where I could live out my ultimate prepubescent fantasy of being a huge lizard. My wife told me to envision my ideal self last night and I had to be honest… Just kidding. As an adult, I no longer want to be that ginormous monstrosity. I barely fit in my own clothes as it is. Plus, I have a family, a job, several hobbies, a house, California-tier taxes to pay, gardening, maintaining TWRM, a lot of things to care about which perhaps in some amorphous way contributed to the distinct disappointment that I had in replaying Rampage now as a grown-up.
The magic is gone.
What is happening to the lizard in this picture? Is the monkey backhanding it in the gut?
What’s left is a familiar but poor port of an arcade game I don’t ever remember playing. The concept of the influence of nostalgia is one we’ve addressed extensively in recent days but it appears that the BEST way to overcome nostalgia clouding one’s judgment is to actually go back and re-experience the subject in question ASAP. It seems to me that this is a valid means of evaluating retro games, especially when multiple evaluations are considered together on a larger scale. Returning to the perennial classics that remain thus because they really do hold up (Chrono Trigger, Super Mario Bros. 3, Super Metroid, etc.) re-tests their mettle all the more the longer one waits to replay them, it seems.
However, on occasion, there are undoubtedly going to be many games you’ll return to that don’t carry the same weight anymore. You’ve matured, they’ve aged. Faults you missed before are now apparent. You may find your palate has been refined. I wrote this regarding Secret of Mana, a game which I returned to and had this exact experience with.
There exists a unique sort of glamorization within retro gaming. This is not true with every game of the past, and I myself hold that there is much to learn from the perennial classics, but there are several retro games with glaring weaknesses covered over by the tenderness of nostalgia.
We may say of these flawed artifacts that they “don’t stand the test of time” or that they “didn’t age well”. By those phrases we mean that the steady march of years and the advancement of modern technology have rendered the antiquities unappealing and unsavory, most often said in terms of graphics. The gist is that we perhaps didn’t know better back then but now that tech has evolved, we can see things as they really are: games clutched like gems to the heart of childhood but cracked and lightless.
So we have here the precedent for my latest take on Rampage. Experiencing it again recently changed my perspective.
Rampage began as a 1986 Bally Midway arcade game about three giant monsters tearing up some cities but the port in question here was published by Data East for the NES in 1988.
The goal of the game is to destroy American civilization while racking up juicy high scores over the course of 128 days. One change that’s clearest between the arcade and the NES versions is that the NES kicks one kaiju to the curb. Instead of three playable monsters, there are only two in the NES version: George the King Kong-inspired Gorilla and Lizzie the Godzilla-inspired Lizard.
Ralph the Werewolf is nowhere to be found. Clearly, this was due to the limitations of the NES hardware and the fact that both the NES Satellite and the NES Four Score multiplayer adaptors hadn’t been invented yet. Besides, nearly everyone who owned an NES never simultaneously owned either of those multitaps. I don’t think I’ve ever even seen one in person.
Another notable change in Rampage on the NES was… well, pretty much everything. The graphics, the music, the sense of scale, the speed of the game all were trimmed way, way down. Each level consists of a single screen where the objective is to beat down each skyscraper and eat as many edibles as possible before transitioning to the next level and doing it all over again, but the NES version seems particularly minimal. Only a handful of buildings appear in each stage, the monsters maneuvering around them in what seems like slow motion.
One or two players can control George and/or Lizzie as they smash their way across the States from California in a big circuit all the way back to California. Yes, that’s right. The first and last levels are in the worst state in the Union. On top of that, the very final levels are in the City of Angels (fallen angels): Los Angeles.
I guess two classic movie monsters destroying everything is one way to solve California’s ridiculous taxes, Swiss cheese roads, stupid-high cost of living, Hepatitis A in L.A. epidemic, luxurious outdoor carpets of hypodermic needles, expensive beaches full of oil spills and cigarette butts and glass, toll roads (yay!), apocalyptic traffic, air pollution, colleges that resemble riot-zones, snooty Hollywood hypocrisy, horrible health care, tragically exploding homeless population, and those people who constantly say “But we pay good money for our weather!” You have any idea how hot it gets in Southern California? I fried an egg on my driveway last year. #Calexit
If it seems like I’m just taking a dump on California, that’s ok. After all, there are government-designated streets here where you can do just that! Anyway, back to the relative safety of digital cities being razed by fictional monsters.It’s not long before the US authorities intervene. With their sluggish pace, it’s impossible to get the monsters to dodge all the bullets and missiles fired by helicopters, soldiers, tanks, and police cars. Every shot taken will whittle away at their health bars and if these are depleted then the mighty behemoths are reduced back to their nude human form.
Yes, George was a man transformed by an experimental mega-vitamin whereas Lizzie was a woman transmogrified by the power of a radioactive lake. When in their squishy human form, they can walk off the stage or be eaten by the other monster. Though there are infinite continues, being eaten is a nasty way for your kid sister to render your high score back to zero.
Keeping up your health is therefore an essential part of playing Rampage if you intend to play it with high scores in mind. This means doing things the American way and stuffing every moving or inanimate object in fistfuls into your mouth as quickly as possible. Eating can help recover your health and there are a few bonus stages sprinkled here and there with bonus recovery items, as well. Grab the King Kong chick falling out the window. Snatch the poor bather whilst they bathe. Indiscriminately devour the Thanksgiving turkey without a second thought as to its internal temperature. Why? Because though you’re a giant monster, you’re not at the top of the food chain.
There’s your analogy for adulthood!
Everything is out to get you. Electric conduits can shock the monsters, they can both fall from tall buildings, even amateur photographers can stun them, or they can punch each other. However, while it seems like there’s a lot going on in Rampage, none of it is anything that really matters since there are infinite lives and little play upon skill development. This game is ultimately a drag, a tedious chow-down across 128 levels which somehow look exactly the same whether you’re in Houston or Honolulu.
That NES cover art is a cartoonish delight but it’s much more exciting than the actual game.
The 8-bit Review
I’ve already mentioned the hilarious dedication to homogeneity in this roadtrip across America (and a bit of Canada, because why not, eh?). Oh sure, every once in a while you’ll get a silhouette of the Statue of Liberty but this game obviously helped no American with their stereotypically poor geographical knowledge. That may all sound like typical red mage tongue-in-cheek but I assure you that after a while, the monotony of 128 days of the same ugly grays, greens, and browns wears one down.
Beside ignoring any potential theory of beauty, many of Rampage’s subjects are too tiny and too imperfectly realized to be comprehensible. Often times, you’ll shove your fists into a skyscraper and reveal some sort of item only to stick it in your maw and suffer the consequences. It’s tough to tell why some items heal you and why others make your sneeze or blow fire or make you sick (well, I mean the skull/poison item is obvious, sure). There’s a teeny human that walks across the screen carrying what looks like a big, striped birthday candle. You can eat the human and then eat the candle and even after 128 levels I couldn’t tell you what the effect of doing so was.
The best thing about Rampage’s graphics (beyond the title and character selection screens) are the two monsters themselves. They aren’t huge sprites but they’re big enough in comparison to everything else that at least the scale seems correct. Their grimacing expressions
Original arcade graphics on the right.
The NES is fondly remembered by enthusiasts for having some excellent and much-replicated music but Rampage has one of the worst 8-bit soundtracks I have ever heard. There is discernibly only a single song in the entire game, though I imagine there could be two or three more jangles upon victory and destroying a slew of states (in actuality there are apparently three stage themes so muted they cannot be heard about the din of monsters). None of these are at all catchy, whimsical, driving, enthusing, or even energetic. They’re not at all melodically sensible. The main song sounds like a bassist’s three-note solo. Then there are the sound effects which vary between bass-amp overload and dentist drill.
The things I do for science…
Every once in a great while I think of Rampage as “kinda fun” but describing it as “basic” would only be superficial. The problems with Rampage arise from several considerations: its length and the number of levels, the repetitive nature of beating each level, the complete lack of any stakes because of infinite continues, the complete lack of any reliance upon skill. Playing Rampage is therefore a matter of having the patience and determination to endure the totality of the game. That’s all.
You might not be able to dodge bullets. Who cares? You come right back. You might turn into a human and get eaten and lose your score. Who cares? A zeppelin floats your monster back into the city to earn points anew. Rampage is what happens when a game exists entirely without tension, an occasional stifling symptom in arcade ports to home consoles. Without tension, there’s not much reason to go on. Without tension, there’s little excitement to be found in the moment itself.
Rampage is as fundamentally easy to play as any arcade beat ’em up, even if the things that take the beating here are buildings instead of gangsters or robots. A few punches and leaps are typical gaming fare. Pressing up to scale the side of a building is fairly intuitive. The only chink in Rampage’s accessibility armor lies in the more visually insensible items you’ll come across with their unpredictable effects.
The only challenge in Rampage is not turning off the system through sheer boredom. I never saw the credits sequence for this game when I was a kid because I surely didn’t have the patience to reach it. Even playing it as an adult now, my heart sank when I played for an hour and realized I’d only smacked down a third of the US of A. Rampage has the worst kind of difficulty: it’s too easy and way too long.
I’ve played Rampage many times in my life, even though I never actually believed it was some kind of amazing video game. Why? Maybe because it’s perfect for getting out that pent-up anger. Maybe because it’s the digital equivalent of a punching bag. Maybe because I’m a masochist. Who knows.
Now that I’ve completed it this final time, I do hope this will indeed be my final time with it. It’s structure sways toward short bursts of gameplay, a few levels at a time, but taking it all on is something I’ll not want to do again.
I thought for a long while about what genre this game fits into. I couldn’t find a definitive answer online. Most sites have it listed simply as an “arcade game”, though I think “destruction simulator” might be a term that should’ve been coined in the late ’80s. Many arcade games feature similar gameplay over single screens with simple rules like this but Rampage still seems to me to swing more toward positive on the uniqueness pendulum.
My Personal Grade: 3/10
Rampage is the exact opposite of the kind of video game I play and think to myself “they really need to adapt this to film!” But, I hear the Rock’s Rampage movie is doing pretty well for itself, as far as video game movies go, so maybe that’s a better bet for some kaiju chaos than firing up the ol’ NES for this 8-bit altercation. It’s one of many examples from the time of terrible arcade ports.
Not even nostalgia could save it from my slings and arrows!
Aggregated Score: 3.9
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