From ‘Rampage’ to ‘Monster Hunter’ – The Evolution of Kaiju Video Games


Whether it’s because of the hours we’ve lost in traffic or an unconscious desire to rebel against the unnatural rat race of modern life, there’s an undeniable catharsis in watching gigantic monsters obliterate a metropolitan area on the big screen. Don’t get me wrong, a real life Kaiju incident would probably be regarded with the same severity as a massive terrorist attack, but fictional casualties are a small price to pay for some monster movie fun.

That’s why it makes sense that video games have been trying to emulate these destructive thrills for decades now, with Kaiju having been present in interactive media ever since it was possible to animate a crude little radioactive dinosaur out of 8-bit pixels. And with modern audiences still hungry for giant monster mayhem, we thought that this might be a good time to look back on the evolution of Kaiju in video games.

While Godzilla games are popular and abundant enough that they warrant their own article, it’s generally accepted that the first interactive kaiju experience was in fact an unlicensed Godzilla title. Released back in 1983 on the Commodore 64, the appropriately named “Godzilla” was a primitive strategy game that put players in the shoes of the military as they attempted to thwart the giant monster’s rampage. While it wasn’t exactly a massive hit (possibly because you couldn’t actually play as everyone’s favorite radioactive lizard), this depiction of the giant monster as a deadly force of nature ended up inspiring several other games, such as the NES’s Godzilla 2: War of the Monsters, the Sinclair ZX Spectrum’s Godzilla: The Atomar Nightmare, and, bizarrely enough, elements of Maxis’ original Sim City.

While Godzilla kept consistently getting new titles both in and outside of Japan (from the obscure MSX exclusive Gojira-Kun to the NES’s popular Godzilla: Monster of Monsters), in 1986 we’d also see the first original Kaiju game in the form of Bally Midway’s Rampage arcade cabinet. Boasting a trio of giant monsters inspired by King Kong, Gojira and, weirdly enough, The Wolfman, Rampage was the first fully-realized monster destruction simulator – which is likely why it was such a huge hit.

It almost feels like a playable parody of Kaiju flicks!

Allowing players to level buildings as they ate humans and competed over a high score (and featuring monstrous graphics that actually looked somewhat like the cover art), it’s no surprise that Rampage would go on to become a successful franchise with over seven titles under its belt. Though these titles never flinched when it came to on-screen destruction, the exaggerated monster designs and a cartoony sense of humor kept these citywide demolition derbies from feeling too serious. The movie-inspired series would also come full circle as it eventually spawned its own big-screen adaptation in the form of the criminally underrated Dwayne Johnson vehicle, 2018’s Rampage movie.

The technical advances of the 90s would eventually lead to more complex and action-packed kaiju games, from the one-on-one claymation duels of Atari’s Primal – which featured clear analogues for characters like Godzilla, King Kong and even Anguirus – to SNK’s surprisingly engaging tokusatsu homage, King of the Monsters. That being said, the real golden age of Kaiju games would arrive with the sixth console generation, when polished 3D movement and more advanced hardware made it possible to really bring those cardboard buildings and rubber suits to life.

There were plenty of officially licensed Godzilla titles during this time, like the fondly-remembered Godzilla: Save the Earth or even the GBA’s Godzilla: Domination (as well as other licensed projects, such as the absurdly named Peter Jackson’s King Kong: The Official Game of the Movie), but this era also gifted us with spirited knock-offs like Incognito Entertainment’s War of the Monsters. During the 2000s, these pseudo-wrestling games actually became more popular than the films that inspired them, introducing a whole new generation to the concept of giant radioactive monsters.

Good times were had by all!

Fortunately, these over-the-top brawlers weren’t the only giant monster games available at the time. We also had kaiju-inspired experiences in the form of more experimental titles like Team Ico’s Shadow of the Colossus and Robot Alchemic Drive. While these games didn’t necessarily borrow the narratives tropes and characters of famous Kaiju flicks, they certainly took inspiration from their sheer sense of scale. Two of the most popular franchises that came from this age of gaming were Capcom’s Monster Hunter (which had plenty of homages to the Kaiju of yore despite its monsters being more similar to animals and dinosaurs than radioactive behemoths) and Sandlot’s Earth Defense Force, which allowed players fight back against gigantic invaders.

With game development becoming more and more expensive, it makes sense that more recent hardware would mostly see new iterations of the previously mentioned franchises. That means titles like 2014’s critically panned Godzilla (which is actually quite fun if you can stomach its overall janky-ness) as well as numerous entries in both Monster Hunter and Earth Defense Force. However, one innovative licensed title came in the form of Granzella Inc’s ambitious crossover City Shrouded in Shadow. While this 2017 oddity remains a Japan exclusive due to character rights, the game flips the destructive catharsis angle on its head by having you play as regular people attempting to survive a giant monster attack, making it the only known instance of a survival horror Kaiju game.

Luckily for Kaiju fans, there are also a handful of new IPs capitalizing on our fascination with monstrous destruction. For retro gaming lovers, there’s 13AM Games’ Dawn of the Monsters, which mixes 2.5D beat ’em-up action with an original roster of unique creatures. Competitive multiplayer afficionados might prefer Passion Republic Game’s online brawler Gigabash, which has players compete to become the king of the titans in fully destructible arenas. Much like other online gaming phenomena, Gigabash has even expanded its collection of monsters to include licensed Godzilla DLC, meaning that you can have a ‘zilla knock-off fight the real thing!

With international internet culture and franchises like Universal’s Monsterverse movies re-popularizing Kaiju media in the west, it stands to reason that what was once a niche genre of gaming has become a staple of the industry. They may have began as licensed tie-ins, but it seems that Kaiju titles have finally found a dedicated audience of their own and will likely continue to allow players to wreak havoc in virtual cities far into the future.

That being said, I’m still waiting on a next-gen Ultraman game…

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