In the early Nineties the gaming industry was obsessed with digitised, motion-captured graphics. Mortal Kombat was proving to be a big success and Atari wanted something that would make an equal impact in the arcades. In its infinitie wisdom, it realised a one-on-one fighter starring dinosaurs and other prehistoric beasts. This is that story.
In the early Nineties, fighting games were all the rage, and Dennis Harper, having finished Moto Frenzy, was keen to return to a “purist kind of videogame”. As a fan of putting his own twist on something that already works, his desires neatly dovetailed with Atari’s demands for a fighting game: “It was very strange. I got an idea out of the blue to do a Street Fighter-style game, but using dinosaurs, which I thought would differentiate it from all the Street Fighter clones coming out at the time.”
When Harper revealed his plans, Atari art guy Jason Leong claimed that he’d already had the idea and presented sketches of dinosaurs ripping flesh off each other. Deciding to team up, the pair and other like-minded Atari employees set about transferring their vision to the arcades. Harper was keen to give his creatures a level of detail and texture previously unheard of in videogames, but this was an era of flat-shaded polygons. “It occurred to me that using stop-motion, taking pictures of real models, would be an interesting way to go,” recalls Harper, a lifelong Ray Harryhausen fan. The idea was presented to the project team, which included Atari’s president. “They didn’t get it,” he says. “I told them: ‘Give me a month and I’ll show you.’”
Harper’s team set to work. A LaserDisc copy of The Valley Of Gwangi, a late-Sixties fantasy western where cowboys meet prehistoric creatures in the ominous-sounding Forbidden Valley, was used to capture video footage. “We found dinosaur poses we liked and cut the dinosaurs into pieces, so their parts could be separately animated,” says Harper. “We ended up with this strange piece-together stop-motion animation that was derived from a movie, but we were able to get a demo together, showing a dinosaur running around and biting another dinosaur.” The project team thought the demo was amazing, but Harper told them Atari’s game would be a hundred times better, because while the demo used footage the team had no control over, in the game they’d control everything.
One green light later, the team found itself immersed in character design. Jason Leong created numerous concepts for prehistoric beasts, each with different attributes and attacks. Harper hooked up with a local stop-motion house that introduced him to professional animator Pete Kleinow, famous for his work on The Gumby Show, The Empire Strikes Back, Gremlins and the Terminator films. He educated the Primal Rage team on the process of stop-motion before bringing on board an LA-based puppet-maker. “The model-making process was intense,” remembers Harper. “We’d create sketches and ‘architectural’ ideas of how we wanted the beasts to look, in terms of scale and proportion. The puppet-maker would then make clay models, updating them as we asked for changes.”
Each clay figure was cast in a mould, and the puppet-maker then built an intricate, detailed skeleton. The skeleton was then placed inside the mould, which was injected with foam latex that became the beast’s ‘skin’. A final process of painting and detailing resulted in a poseable Primal Rage beast, ready for filming. “Each model cost $50,000 – and that’s back in the Nineties,” laughs Harper. “My budget had certainly gone up a bit since the Toobin’ days, and project management was like, ‘This had better be good!’”
Forging ahead in breaking new ground, the team took the advice of Pete Kleinow and constructed a shooting stage, referred to as ‘the cove’. During the shoot, the team devised a patented animation technique, based around taking three shots of a model. “We lit the stage very brightly and took a photo from the front of the beast, which we called the ‘beauty shot’,” begins Harper. “We then turned off all lights bar one behind the cove and created a matte, like a silhouette, for our second shot. The third photo was lit from above, so the beast cast a shadow.” Through image-editing trickery and other processing, the team created batch commands that took the matte, cut out the beauty shot and created a composite that added the shadow.
Thousands of photos later, it was time to make the beasts interactive. A massive matrix of move transitions was created, to avoid animation ‘popping’, and the team then figured out the game’s controls. “The system we came up with is unique, but, honestly, if I had to do it over, I’d do things differently,” admits Harper, adding that pressure from Atari to differentiate Primal Rage from Street Fighter II impacted the control system. “In Street Fighter II, you move the joystick and hit a button to make a move. We reversed that. In Primal Rage, you hold buttons and move the stick. In hindsight, it’s more satisfying smacking a button to attack your foe than it is to move a joystick.”
An exception to setting apart Primal Rage from Street Fighter II was made in the key area of timing. “We thought Street Fighter II was almost a perfect game, and I say that with great respect, because whoever designed and tuned it really got it,” says Harper. “They figured out the high-speed interaction between two players and how it all comes together, and the entire game feels so good. We therefore thought, ‘Why should we do anything different?’”
The team’s cunning plan to replicate this aspect of Capcom’s classic fighter involved videotaping two seasoned players and analysing the recordings on a frame-by-frame basis. By going through the footage in painstaking detail, and often replicating the timings, Primal Rage started to feel a lot like a Street Fighter game. “Obviously, our moves are a lot different, because Primal Rage features animals with claws, jaws, tails and spitting venom, and so it was tuned to be our own game,” says Harper. “But we started from a perfect piece of art, which had a great tuning model. I think that’s one reason why Primal Rage did well – the Street Fighter II crowd came over and it gave them a break, enabling them to play something familiar but a little different, a little funnier and more unique.”