Why Rampage Is the Most Faithful Video-Game Adaptation Ever Made

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Photo: Midway Games

It’s extremely easy to see Rampage, the latest blockbuster starring Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson, and have no idea that it’s based on a video game. Rampage, which is about genetically enhanced animals turned Godzilla-sized monsters on a path of destruction, seems like boilerplate Hollywood action bolstered by Johnson — a charismatic video-game hero made flesh — to please crowds with an appetite for chaos. But Rampage, in the purity of how it sets out to do one thing (wreck stuff) is actually one of the most faithful video-game adaptations ever made, because the 1986 source material is built on the very same idea: wrecking stuff is stupid fun.

Why It Almost Didn’t Happen

Rampage came into existence at the very tail end of arcade games’ boom years. In 1986, a confluence of forces — economic recession, cultural concerns over the idle habits of young people, and the gaming public’s constant, expensive hunger for new and exciting games to play — hadn’t quite killed arcades, but the waters were rising. But in 1982, when Brian Colin started making arcade games, they were still in their golden age, competing fiercely for quarters and longevity.

Colin got into video games more or less by accident. After graduating from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, Colin was an animator and filmmaker with an award-winning short under his belt and little money in his bank account. He applied for a job at arcade development giant Bally/Midway, thinking he’d be making art for pinball machines. But in 1982, Midway was building its in-house development team for arcade games, and they wanted something they hadn’t had before: an animator.

It was at Bally/Midway that Colin started working with Jeff Nauman, the programmer who would co-create Rampage with him. Together, Nauman and Colin would collaborate on a number of games, starting with 1985’s Sarge. Rampage, according to Colin, emerged from an idle conversation one day.

“We had come back from a trade show, and I was like ‘Hey, why can’t I do big stuff?’ Because with my pen-and-ink style, if you’ve seen the Rampage cabinet art, there’s a lot of comedy in there, and I wanted to make bigger characters so I could get that comedy across,” says Colin. “So I thought, hey, I’ll just do big background characters, and they told me no … There were so many things we couldn’t do.”

As an animator, Colin wanted to animate — but the limits of arcade hardware meant there was only so much that could be animated, particularly when it came to everything that wasn’t the player characters. Jeff Nauman summed up the limitations of animating backgrounds succinctly: “It’s gotta be a rectangle.”

Colin then turned to Sharon Perry, another artist on the Bally/Midway team, and said, “Okay, so buildings falling down.”

The spine of what would become Rampage was formed simply because the only feasible animation that could be programmed into every level’s background was a building collapsing on itself. From there, Colin worked backward. A giant monster would climb the building, punching it to bring it down. Nauman would test the animation, to make sure it was feasible. Colin immediately wrote up a design document, dubbing Rampage “next year’s number-one game” in his pitch to Bally/Midway executives. They declined.

How It Became a Hit

According to Colin, however, Rampage’s rejection would only be temporary. The management that turned the game down would soon be replaced in a leadership shake-up, and the Bally/Midway developers all found themselves reporting to a new executive, Maury Ferchen. Ferchen, Colin says, was a guy who wanted to make a good impression from day one, and immediately gave a speech about having an open-door policy.

“So you can guess who was at his door at 9 a.m. the next day, with game design in hand,” says Colin. “And he said ‘go with it.’” It wasn’t long before Colin was vindicated: Rampage very quickly became a hit.

The August 1986 issue of RePlay magazine, an arcade-game trade publication, featured Bally/Midway executives nearly beside themselves with how well Rampage had performed in testing and how much it was expected to make. Rampage was, on paper and in practice, the perfect arcade game, satisfying both operators’ desire for a machine that vacuumed up quarters and players’ desire for a game they didn’t mind pouring quarters into. RePlay estimated that a decent player would need to put a new quarter in every two minutes and 45 seconds. Taken in conjunction with Rampage’s open-ended nature, with goofy little surprises hidden for the curious (hidden gags like a man on a toilet revealed after a window was smashed), or the fact that Rampage was built so up to three players could drop in and out to either cooperate or compete as they saw fit, they had a force multiplier on that steady stream of quarters.

“There was so much about that game that had never been done before, but it all came naturally from the idea that you’re this big guy,” Colin says. “Three hits and you die in every other game, but as a monster, you gotta take 40 or 50 little hits. And that worked to our advantage too, from an earnings standpoint. People weren’t too concerned about getting shot, because you were this big awesome killer monster.”

And being a big awesome monster cut to the heart of why Rampage was so fun to play: wrecking stuff is cathartic.

A Lightly Cautionary Tale

There’s a story to Rampage, one that you’re likely to completely miss if you aren’t looking for it. Right before you start up a game, a screen briefly flashes. It shows the portrait of a man whose photo was “taken prior to mutation,” with the text “experimental vitamin has ill effects” followed by a portrait of what that man looks like now: the giant, angry, mutant ape named George. String these bits of information together, and Rampage becomes a goofy tragedy about people transformed by mad science, taking out their rage in a Looney Tunes–esque tantrum with no goal other than worldwide havoc.

An affable, loquacious man by nature, Colin will offer you a rationale for the story that he cooked up for Rampage if you ask him for one, even as he undercuts it in the next breath. He’ll tell you about how going to college in the ’70s made him environmentally conscious, how the monster movies of the ’50s all stemmed from atomic anxiety, how all this was probably bouncing around in his brain when he sat down to write up the design document for Rampage.

“It was a nice bit of yin and yang for me. You create these monsters, and well, monsters knock down cities.” Colin says. “Now, it sounds deep. Really, it’s just a fun, stupid game.”

Rampage: The Most Faithful Video-Game Adaptation Ever Made