RAMPAGE: The Blueprint For Our Love Of Destruction

The kaiju-inspired arcade game helped write the book on open-world action games and modern action cinema.

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I'm at the top of a skyscraper, looking over what remains of a city block in my wake. To my left, a military helicopter goes for a swooping attack that I counter with ease, sending the aircraft and its pilot diving to a fiery grave. Soldiers are tossing explosives at me. For a second I let them think they have a chance before I stomp them out. The building I'm on crumbles under the weight of my explosive force. I am unstoppable, and this is only the fourth stop on my tour of annihilation.

The above sounds like a regular session in a number of open-world games from the last few years. Far Cry, Just Cause, Grand Theft Auto, Saints Row; any recent installment from these would fit the bill with little-to-no added context required. Yet the game being described isn't a modern title. It's 1986's Rampage, from Midway Games, the kaiju-inspired arcade release that developed a blueprint for the way we engage in the cathartic energy of destruction.

Rampage is a simple premise – play as one of three monsters, smash stuff. That's it. Choose either Lizzie (not-Godzilla), George (not-King Kong) or Ralph, a giant werewolf, and start stomping, biting and clawing at every building and anything else that's moving on-screen. When it was released, the game wasn't a huge deal. The Nintendo Entertainment System had begun distribution three years prior and the game industry was in the midst of one of its most innovative periods, making the cool arcade game just one of many great coin-sinks available at the time. This wasn't helped by Godzilla's slump in the box office as 1984's The Return of Godzilla suffered a butchered edit for American audiences. But as the years went on, seeds that Rampage had sewn would start to really bear fruit as games grew and explored the potential of interactive power fantasy.

Rampage took the excitement of kaiju movies, removed the stuff required for them to be cohesive films – human actors, narrative structure and so on - and built itself around the kinetic thrill of controlling the monstrosity doing all the wrecking. It flipped the script on monster movies and honed in on our fascination with watching something big ravage our world, all while putting that power in our hands. The objective wasn't about saving anything or some righteous patriotic duty or whatever; the idea was to destroy cities and engulf the United States of America in an unending reign of terror. You, the player, were the reckoning this world has had coming for so long.

There were attempts at this previously, such as the 1979 board game The Creature That Ate Sheboygan and the 1981 home computer release Crush, Crumble and Chomp!, both of which centered around controlling a monster attacking landmark cities. But both of those were limited by the technology of the time, with user experiences that haven't aged well. Rampage had the power of an arcade cabinet behind it, allowing for sleeker controls and much better animation and graphical fidelity. The areas looked like actual city streets, public transport and traffic included, and the inhabitants looked like actual people. Everything was stream-lined and intuitive (for the time, at least).

Rampage played with ideas of what we could be capable of in a game. Scaling the side an apartment is easy. Killing those soldiers pestering you with bombs is easy. Bringing down that city street is easy. It's the same relaxed approach to devastation that Grand Theft Auto 3 would popularize some 15 years later - the large sandboxes paired with narrative progression that included access to a grander arsenal. After a certain amount of unlocking, you can just go wild. You can start popping off rockets atop a vantage point, taking out scores of poor NPCs, or ride a tank through a city while watching explosions bounce off your hard green shell. Comeuppance is minimal beyond a respawn minus some equipment. Heck, why wait? Enter in some cheat codes and you can skip having to engage the story at all.

And movies, too, have gradually included this more flippant sensibility towards action. The Fast and Furious franchise owes as much to city-destroying video games and their propensity for generating absurd set-pieces as it does anything else. The robotic car pile-ups and torpedo-kicking submarine chase in Fate of the Furious could easily be from a Saints Row or Far Cry, ditto the skyscraper leaps in Furious 7. The repeated use of parallax and leaps in scale in Michael Bay's Transformers often emulate the sweeping absurdism present in games featuring wide-scale carnage, and the Mission: Impossible series has literally become an extended treatise on how close Tom Cruise can get to becoming a living incarnation of your standard immortal video game protagonist. These are all drawing from the same understanding of the fantasy of controlled havoc.

Rampage was a progenitor in how these ideas evolved to where they are today. The game captured the raw satisfaction of being a cataclysmic event that has become standard in the industry since. And just as we have to return to our regular lives when these movies and games end, so too do the beasts in Rampage – upon losing a life, the creatures revert to the humans they mutated from. No matter how powerful we're made feel, we're still human, making these fantasies all the more fun.

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