Back in the heyday of arcade beat ’em ups, the trend for brutal violence only seemed to intensify as the ’90s went on. Starting with Mortal Kombat, a game in which removing an opponent’s spinal column was considered par for the course, many other fighting games started to double down on their gore content. The Mortal Kombat series became more outlandish with its blood ‘n’ guts as the saga went on, and even previously child-friendly developers such as Rare had a pop with games such as Killer Instinct. However, few games were as brazenly violent as Atari’s Primal Rage.
Primal Rage was a prehistoric beast brawler released in arcades in 1994. The game featured a roster of seven fighters, each based around either dinosaurs or giant apes, fighting for control of Earth (or as it was known in the game, Urth). The story goes that human civilisation had been crushed by a meteor, and humanity reverted back to the stone age technologically. This change awakened giant creatures from beneath the planet’s crust, which were worshipped as Gods by the remaining human population. The game involved a mechanic that allowed you to kill and eat the humans in the background, and was generally well known for its violent content. One particular character, Chaos, also attacked with bodily functions (one finishing move involved dissolving an opponent in a stream of acidic urine), adding a distasteful yet humorous angle to the violence, which only fed into the controversy surrounding the game.
The title proved to be a hit in arcades, and received home console ports to all of the major systems at the time. Naturally, Atari planned an arcade sequel to the game, which was slated to release in 1997. However, Primal Rage II never actually surfaced as a released product, with Atari pulling the plug early on in the game’s development cycle.
Up until 2014, details on the cancelled sequel were thin on the ground. The main reason why anyone even realised the game existed was that Atari actually produced a few test machines and displayed them in a small number of arcades in America. Before the game was canned, one cabinet appeared briefly at Golf Land arcade in Sunnyvale California, featuring a prototype build of the game, numbered 0.36. There are also pictures of a Primal Rage II cabinet that made an appearance at the 2001 California Extreme show. Other than anecdotal sightings such as these and fuzzy screenshots, the game remained something of an urban legend for a rather lengthy period of time. However, details about the title emerged in dribs and drabs over time, either from people who claimed to have played the game, or screenshots that were released by a private collector who had one of the few known cabinets that were created. Given these pieces of information, a clearer picture of Primal Rage II began to develop.
While Primal Rage II was technically an improvement over its predecessor in terms of graphics and animation, there was to be a major change to the character roster. Previously, the playable characters had been dinosaurs and apes, which had been the game’s unique selling point and one of the reasons why Primal Rage was so distinct from its competition. However, Primal Rage II was set to include human fighters that were intended as replacements for their prehistoric counterparts. To explain this change, we need to delve into the proposed story for Primal Rage II a little bit further.
In the original game, the developers had intended to include a character named The Necrosan, a giant flying skeleton which would serve as the game’s final boss. The Necrosan was cut from the game for reasons unknown, but the development team were fond of the character enough that they wanted to include him in Primal Rage II. The story goes that The Necrosan awakens and traps all of the other virtuous and destructive beasts in suspended animation, so that he can rule Urth alone. Unable to take the fight to The Necrosan directly, the beasts choose their strongest and most devoted human worshippers, and use them as avatars. These human avatars would feature similar features to their beast counterparts (for example, Vertigo’s avatar Malyssa had a snake-like sceptre and used long-range attacks), and all appeared to wield weapons. This would change the gameplay considerably for obvious reasons, allowing the developers to explore a more traditional fighting game, albeit with weaponry in a similar fashion to the likes of Soul Edge.
Despite this change, the developers, perhaps sensing a backlash from fans of the original, did also include the old beasts in some capacity. The avatars had the ability to transform into their respective beast mid-fight, allowing them to perform some of their deadliest and most brutal combos. This meant that all the old characters from the original Primal Rage made it into the new game, even if it was more of a cameo appearance.
While the existence of Primal Rage II remained little more than a rumour for many years, it was known that a private collector owned one of only two known boards of the game. Perhaps in an effort to protect his investment, the collector refused to sell or dump the ROM right up until 2012, when a fellow enthusiast and YouTube user named raydude managed to get his hands it. After finding a version of the board in storage, he installed it in a cabinet, and released the prototype to the community shortly afterwards. However, Primal Rage II still had further secrets hidden away, some that would baffle ROM hackers for quite some time.
After the game’s files were dumped, attempts were made to get it working on arcade emulation software such as MAME, but the game wasn’t playable past the character select screen. The developers had used a strange and complex version of data encryption to prevent piracy, which has meant that all attempts to get Primal Rage II fully working have been met with failure. It took the community years to emulate the original game, and Primal Rage II looks to be even more complex than its predecessor. However, by digging into the game’s code, a secret about The Necrosan was revealed.
As mentioned earlier, The Necrosan was originally intended as a boss for the original game, but the premise of Primal Rage II hinges solely on him. Oddly enough, the 0.36 prototype version of Primal Rage II didn’t feature him at all. That is, until a member of the community found files relating to The Necrosan within the game data, suggesting that he would probably have been a playable character. They even managed to restore him to the character select screen, although the game is unplayable past this point, so it’s difficult to ascertain how much of the character was integrated in this prototype.
So, why was the game cancelled? While Atari have never released anything official about it, the reasons seem to be pretty clear. By the late ’90s, Western arcades started to hit a slump. The rise of console gaming had a huge impact on arcades, which is probably the main reason why Atari cancelled the project. Also, there were probably concerns over the game’s target audience, due to the switch between human and beast characters. It seemed that Atari wanted to hedge their bets between a serious, competitive fighter and a novelty dinosaur brawler, and instead ended up with a cross between Soul Edge and Animorphs. Plus, Atari were no longer the powerhouse that they once were, and so were probably not keen to gamble on such a title.
While all seemed lost for a playable version of the game, 2014 provided a lifeline for Primal Rage fans. Out of nowhere, a playable cabinet became available at the Galloping Ghost Arcade in Chicago, which functioned perfectly. For those who can’t afford a trip to Chicago, the owners have helpfully uploaded footage of this cabinet to YouTube – but for a comprehensive playthrough of the game, check out Primal Rage champion Pete Hahn play through the game in its entirety below:
Despite the game’s cancellation, someone must have felt that the story of Primal Rage was worth continuing. A series of comics were printed, some of which started to touch on the events of Primal Rage II before the run was eventually discontinued. Evidently, Primal Rage was set to become a franchise in its own right, but much of that has been lost to history. Still, we’ll always have The Galloping Ghost.