It was a game about nothing.
Now it's a movie about even less. Certainly the filmmakers behind the new Dwayne Johnson explosion fiesta "Rampage" might disagree: "Rampage," they might contend, tells the story of what happens when mankind tinkers with nature; in grand B-movie tradition, hubris breeds monsters, and the emerging field of genetic editing generates large mutated animals that tear apart Chicago; only the military and a compassionate, poacher-fighting primatologist played by The Rock can help, lending additional themes of self-sacrifice and loyalty, wildlife conservation and the exploitation of natural resources.
Blah, blah, blah.
When Brian Colin and Jeff Nauman created the Bally/Midway arcade classic "Rampage" in 1985, in a Franklin Park office building, their themes were reductive:
It's fun to break stuff.
For only a quarter, "Rampage," the game, allowed players to become a giant ape, lizard or wolf and smash tanks, eat police, level skyscrapers. And that's it. Get hit with one too many bullets and tank shells and your game was over -- but you shrugged off a lot of bullets and tank shells. It was tough to "lose" at "Rampage." The goal was -- well, there was no goal, Colin admits. He was never good at video games, and he hated competing for high scores. "I imagined a game in which there was no wrong way to play. You want to be competitive, fine. You don't -- fine. Everyone referred to game characters 'dying' when they lost, and I had a 2-year-old son and a 2-month-old daughter at the time, I was a fan of Bugs Bunny violence, I never liked the idea of game characters who died."
"The point was fun -- whatever fun meant to you," Nauman said. "I hated games that forced you to play the way that the programmer insisted the game should be played."
Which was, you know, every video game.
So, to reiterate: Colin and Nauman wanted to create a game with no point, no serious competition for a high score, no way to die, no obvious direction -- and they wanted it to be pretty easy. Smash a city into rubble, then you moved on to another city -- and so on.
Certainly there must have been some driving principle behind "Rampage"?
Colin sat in his basement in Homewood, surrounded by a small fortune in tiki-bar kitsch -- a Darth Vader figure offering a toast, stained glass and wicker furniture, Blues Brothers figurines -- and thought a moment, then said: As a student at Southern Illinois University in the 1970s he fell in love with the Shawnee National Forest, so perhaps because of his interest in the environmental movement, toxic monsters smashing cityscapes seemed inevitable?
Or maybe it was Reagan-era concerns of urban blight?
He paused: No, he said, the means were the reward.
As video games go -- then and now -- it's a radical idea. If not Dada-esque, certainly Bugs Bunny-esque. Moreover, the coin-operated amusements industry (particularly the pinball business) had been based in the Chicago area since the 1920s, though by 1985, the video game arcade business had peaked. The game developers who remained in Chicago imagined a future of immersive, demanding plot-driven spectacles -- the game of 2018 would look, well, more like the movie "Rampage" than the game "Rampage."
Still, Colin sent a memo to Bally/Midway brass in 1985. He still has a copy, which reads across the top: "The Psycology (sic) of Rampage! (or why this is next year's #1 game)." He promised a game centered on the "adolescent fantasy" of being gigantic; but at the bottom he noted that "a more serious player" might seek a "less haphazard" experience.
That serious, more rigorous-minded gamer would be the future of the video game industry, and "Rampage," released in 1986, was a digital squish toy, a cathartic goof. It didn't draw you into characters or plot. It was not immersive, or offering any mythology. You couldn't even play it long without becoming bored. It offered mostly comfort, familiarity. Yet it was in a small way, an evolutionary step toward the "Minecraft" and "Grand Theft Auto" open-world, anything-goes video games of the 21st century.
"'Rampage' was brilliant," said Eugene Jarvis, the game developer who created "Defender" and Smash TV" and many other arcade classics (and remains in the business, as owner of the Skokie-based arcade game company Raw Thrills). "Those guys created their own genre -- you kind of just explored the screen and ate people and toilets, and though the industry trope was the player should always be a hero, they made you a villain. It was ironic and funny -- it was, in many ways, this deeply Midwestern video game."
"Rampage," the game, begins in Peoria.
If you destroy Peoria, you move on to Chicago, and though eventually you are offered a taste of Los Angeles and New York and San Francisco, you smash your way back to Illinois. Should you play through all 126 cities, you did not find yourself at the top of the Empire State Building. You found yourself in Milwaukee, then Homewood, then Aurora, and, for the grand finale, Plano, Ill. -- that level had only two buildings, because, of course, Plano is small. Players grew to enormous size after eating rancid hot dogs and falling into toxic lakes. In the Chicago levels, players -- the game allowed up to as many as three at once -- had an option of playing pingpong with a CTA train.
"When people are mad at a game, they don't put in another quarter," Colin said. "But if they are mad at themselves, or you get them to laugh, then you do get another quarter."
Unlikely as it sounded, "Rampage" became a hit, one of the last big successes for the struggling Bally/Midway, and one of the last great video games of the arcade era.
But Brian Colin and Jeff Nauman were not gamers. They were, Jarvis recalls, a curious pair: "Jeff being the introverted Steve Wozniak to Colin's Steve Jobs." Even after "Rampage" was a hit and they were sought-after developers, they rarely visited arcades. Nauman, the game's programmer, studied probability and statistics at Northern Illinois University, graduating from Aurora University with a degree in computer science. He landed a job at Bally/Midway through someone on his softball team. Colin, the game's designer, studied film at SIU. He had answered an ad in 1982 for a Bally/Midway game designer, which he assumed meant painting pinball cabinets. The company was known historically for pinball, but had vast success licensing "Space Invaders" and "Pac-Man" for the United States; by 1982, it was developing its own arcade games.
What this looked like, Colin remembers, was a small team of young developers huddled around graph paper, "literally coloring in the dots on the paper," simulating video pixels. "We had a stack of game ideas to flip through, but it was a limited stack. It was no one's idea incredibly to come up with game ideas, because, in management's eyes, we were 'all designers' -- they did not want to give any individual designer credit for anything."
A successful designer might get stolen by another company.
Or worse, ask for royalties.
Colin spent a few years working on many arcade favorites, including "Discs of Tron" and "SpyHunter," before he met Nauman. "Rampage," they say, was born of practicality: They were frustrated by the limits of crude 16-bit animation, and being told they could only move a rectangle in their backgrounds. So, Colin suggested collapsing a skyscraper. "The rest was really born of the restrictions of that era," Nauman said. He added clouds of dust at the bottom of collapsing buildings to cover up glitchy animation. They created three monsters -- an ape named George, a lizard named Lizzie and a wolf named Ralph -- but basically swapped colors and heads on one body.
"Because we didn't have the technology to make any of the cities all that different, we thought naming them would be this incredible marketing opportunity," Colin said. He wrote up a press release, on Bally/Midway stationery, without company approval, and mailed it to local media in each of the 128 cities name-checked in the game. It began: "Your readers might be interested to learn that (insert city here) is slated for destruction."
Games in 1985 were designed by relatively small teams: "Rampage" was made by Colin and Nauman, with help from artist Sharon Perry and game-tester Jim Belt and music from Mark Bartlow. And that was it. Though Nauman doesn't remember Bally/Midway trying to squash "Rampage," Colin said that for months the game was deemed too unconventional to be an obvious smash -- never mind their concerns about asking players to be a bad guy. But after the company landed new management, "Rampage" was fast-tracked, arriving in arcades, convenience stores and pizza parlors in 1986. It was an immediate hit. So much so that Nauman was forced to add new levels after the game's first week, to make it a little harder. So much so that when Chicago-based game developer Williams Electronics acquired Bally/Midway in 1988, the only two game designers it didn't fire were Colin and Nauman.
They had a signature -- their games were funny, colorful. A monster in "Rampage" who was defeated by the military would shrink back to human size (werewolf-style) and tiptoe off-screen, wearing only a towel. Their basketball classic, "Arch Rivals," allowed players to pants opponents; their football game, "Pigskin 621 A.D.," came with a "bad attitude" opinion, that basically let a player just start fights.
By 1992, Colin and Nauman had left Bally/Midway to start their own company, Game Refuge in Downers Grove; they had hits with the satiric war game "General Chaos" and "Rampage World Tour," a 1997 sequel. But the arcade business was in steep decline. Nauman left, Colin moved the company to Homewood, and "Rampage," an artifact from another era, became a faintly remembered novelty.
Today, "Rampage" is a fond memory for gamers of a certain age. But if it never enjoyed the household-name recognition of '80s arcade standards like "Frogger" and "Donkey Kong," said Nick Thorpe, a writer at the UK-based Retro Gamer magazine, "that's partially because there weren't any sequels until after the arcade's peak popularity, and partially because it was hard to elaborate on the concept -- there are only so many ways for a giant lizard to destroy a building, after all."
These days, Colin, 61, and Nauman, 59, are still in the business. Colin runs a smaller Game Refuge from his home; and Nauman, a senior designer at Chicago-based WMS Gaming (the former Williams), designs video slot machines. The games of their heyday, however, still haunt the Galloping Ghost in Brookfield, a kind of playable museum of the golden age of arcades. Doc Mack, the owner, even devoted a section to Colin and Nauman's work: "Because to me, those guys are movie stars who never got recognition. They were artists, with a point of view, who found a way to turn limitations into something smart. The funny thing, after 32 years, there's nothing quite like 'Rampage.' At least once a week I come across a parent sharing it with their kids, and we have other games where you destroy cities, but nothing gets the same smiles."
"Rampage" director Brad Peyton is a fan.
And so is the movie's star, Dwayne Johnson -- both spoke often during production about afternoons wasted on "Rampage." Colin and Nauman receive no royalties now from the original "Rampage" and will receive no money from the film. But last spring, when the movie came to Chicago for a couple of weeks (the story is set in Illinois, but was mostly filmed in Atlanta), Colin was invited to the set. He was asked to be an extra. And so he became, essentially, perversely, a Chicagoan running scared through the streets, from his own inventions.
Nauman wasn't invited at all.
He was just the programmer. But he left his home in Yorkville and strolled onto the set anyway. Someone asked him what he was doing. He said he made the game "Rampage." So they let him stay awhile. He watched fake Army guys running through the city, and real helicopters swooping into fake action. Then, after an hour and a half, he just smiled to himself and took the train back home.
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