Enjoy This Old School Gamer Exclusive Look at a Chapter of Patrick Hickey Jr’s book, The Minds Behind Sega Genesis Games!
In the early ‘90s, fighting games took up a huge piece of real estate in arcades and home consoles. On the Sega Genesis, Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter were king, but that didn’t mean there weren’t other games that stood out of the crowd. After earning a rabid fanbase in arcades, Primal Rage took its prehistoric fighting fun to 16-bit and eventually 32-bit consoles. Developed by Probe Software, the same team responsible for porting Mortal Kombat and Mortal Kombat II to the Sega Genesis, Primal Rage continued their excellent work, this time with a much different cast of blood-thirsty characters.
Known then for his work on the Mortal Kombat series, programmer David Leitch, who’d later go on to work on games in the Tony Hawk, Lego and Medal of Honor franchises, remembers Primal Rage as a unique property that was red hot in the arcade and ready to come to consoles.
“I was a freelance programmer and I’d worked on a couple of projects for Probe Entertainment,” Leitch said. “Probe did a lot of coin-op conversions. For example, they’d produced multiple formats of Mortal Kombat I and had just done the same for Mortal Kombat II. I was the main programmer on the Sega Genesis (aka Mega Drive) version of Mortal Kombat II. So I guess when Time Warner was scouting around for a studio to work on the home console versions of Primal Rage, Probe looked like good candidates to them. And, when Probe landed the contract, I looked like a good candidate for the Genesis version.”
The reason for that was simple, Leitch did an excellent job on the Genesis port of Mortal Kombat II. While the limited color palette and sound made it lacking in comparison to the Super NES version, his work was an improvement over the first game in the series. With Sculptured Software taking over the Genesis development for the third game in the Mortal Kombat franchise, this allowed Leitch to work on something different. In the industry for quite some time in one way or another at that point in his career and responsible for the company’s last big fighting game, he was a perfect fit as the programmer of Primal Rage. Still a freelancer, he was happy to be in the industry, considering his roots as a programmer extended far deeper than when he started working professionally.
“I had some ZX Spectrum games published when I was still at school. Then I went off to university and didn’t really enjoy it as much as I’d hoped– not as much as I’d enjoyed being involved with the games industry, anyway,” Leitch said. “So I dropped out and took a job at a company called Binary Design, in Manchester. The pay was terrible but, for whatever unfathomable reason, it still seemed like the better option.
“From Binary, I went to a company in London called Sales Curve (who later became SCI), then I went freelance. My first freelance contract was with Mirrorsoft, where I got to know Tony Beckwith, one of the senior producers. A little later, Tony ended up at Probe and that was the connection that got me involved with them.”
With the job his now, Leitch was prepared to deliver once again. In the beginning, all signs pointed to success, but that changed over time. “I remember it being kind of frustrating,” Leitch said. “It had the exact same personnel as Mortal Kombat II and it was a task of similar complexity. But it didn’t work out as smoothly, or gratifyingly, as the previous project. This is just my opinion- everyone else may have had a whale of a time!”
Spending most of his career working on ports, the goal of recreating Primal Rage on the Genesis originally seemed approachable- and with the same team in place, absolutely attainable, but some obstacles were unavoidable. “The one technical novelty with Primal Rage was that the coin-op source code was written in C,” Leitch said. “I’m pretty sure everything I’d worked on before that if I had access to the original source code, it was written in some type of assembly language.
“For example, Mortal Kombat II was written in an assembly language, which was quite similar to 68000, the main processor on the Genesis. So you could almost match up the two versions line-by-line, which helped with the rewrite and with debugging. Porting from C to 68000 meant each function had to be understood and broken down into a simpler, but less concise, set of instructions.
“Working in C on the Genesis wasn’t a viable option. I can’t remember if there was even a compiler available for it and, if there were, it wouldn’t have been efficient enough for an action game like Primal Rage,” Leitch said. “This aspect wasn’t a major headache, but I guess it did add a little bit of an overhead to the day-to-day work.”
The usual variety of drawbacks of the porting process on the Genesis also played a part in how Primal Rage performed on the console as well. “The main issue was cartridge space. Cartridge space was almost always an issue with console work, but I think it had a particularly deleterious impact on Primal Rage. The best way to explain this is to harken back to Mortal Kombat II because the graphics were handled in the same way.
“Most of the Genesis artwork for that game was created directly from the original coin-op artwork by an automated conversion pipeline. For example, for each of the fighters, Terry Ford (the artist) would choose the best reduced-color palette that would work on the Genesis, then all of the frames in that set would be run through a process to convert the images into the new palette and also scale them down so they would appear at an equivalent size on the lower resolution Genesis screen. And after that, the data for each frame was compressed.
“But there were a lot of fighters with an awful lot of animation frames. Stick them all together and we had a significant overrun on the available cartridge space. So Terry’s main job with this material was figuring out how we could chop out frames, without impacting too much on the overall animation quality. Broadly speaking, the strategy was to keep everything that the player saw a lot of intact (e.g. idles and walks) and simplify some of the less common sequences (e.g. special moves and fatalities).
“It was a lot of effort, with much trial and error involved, but I think we got to a sweet spot where everything looked as good as it could, given the strict storage limit. The irony is, of course, it would have been far easier for us to reproduce everything from the coin-op perfectly.
“Primal Rage had the same target cartridge size (as Mortal Kombat). But it had fewer unique sets of fighter graphics and we decided early on that Chaos and Blizzard were going to be the same size (I’m pretty sure that on the coin-op, Chaos shared most of the Blizzard art, but shrunk a bit via hardware scaling– which we couldn’t do on the Genesis). So this was all superficially encouraging… but the size of the animation data was still significantly bigger than Mortal Kombat II.”
So despite having less content to deal with as Mortal Kombat II, a project Probe succeeded with, selling over a million copies of, Primal Rage was quickly becoming a much different type of beast.
“The main reason was, obviously, that the characters themselves were much bigger, both conceptually and in real terms– i.e. in proportion to the screen. For example, look at Sauron on the coin-op version: if you drew a box around his sprite (making sure to include his tail), most of the time it would be about one-quarter the size of the screen. This was a big step up from the sprites in Mortal Kombat II.
“The other problem was that the images didn’t compress as well as the Mortal Kombat II set because the dinosaur art was more variably patterned. And the sophistication of what we could do in terms of compression was limited, as each frame had to be individually accessible and decompressed in real-time. So after a few rounds of increasingly ruthless frame-culling by Terry and a very clear ‘No’ from the publishers when the idea of a bigger cartridge was floated, we were left with only one option. We had to shrink the dinosaurs so they were smaller than their coin-op counterparts.”
And there it is- the age-old question millions of gamers have had as to why the characters in Primal Rage are smaller on the Genesis than in other versions of the game. Although it doesn’t change the fact that the game plays incredibly similar to its arcade counterpart, it was something that Leitch feels takes away from the experience. “I found this really disheartening,” Leitch said. “I thought the huge dinosaurs were the main thing the game had going for it. Bringing them down to regular fighting game protagonist size made the end result more humdrum. We had a few passes at reducing them before everything was at a workable size. This also played some minor havoc with aspects like collision detection- which, in principle, should have just fallen into line automatically at the new scale, but I do remember having to whack several gremlins that crept out of the woodwork.”
But regardless of all of the headaches that occurred during the game’s development and Leitch’s belief that the port deserved larger sprites, “Dinosaurs are better than tinysaurs,” there were some light-hearted moments as well.
“Ken Humphries, the producer for Time Warner, was a soft-spoken, good-natured and very polite American guy. He was a proper gentleman,” Leitch said. “Probe, on the other hand, was full of potty-mouthed South London urchins and reprobates. That was just the office culture. Most of them were also very good at their job. I worked at home for 99 percent of the project, but I was at Probe occasionally for meetings when Ken was around. It was always funny watching the interaction and wondering what he made of it all.”
Post-release, Primal Rage on Genesis received solid reviews from the likes of Game Pro and Mean Machines, both of which cited that the control and animations of the Genesis version were superior to the Super Nintendo version, which was developed by Bitmasters. For Leitch, it was just a situation of doing the best he could, with the tools that he had.
“It was fine. Probe was happy with the finished product and so, I believed, were Ken and the rest of ‘em at Time Warner,” Leitch said. “However, years later, I ended up running a business with the guy who was Head of European Marketing at Warner in those days and he would gleefully insist that the collision detection never got properly fixed.”
In terms of a legacy, Leitch is proud of his work on the Genesis version but believes the game, including the coin-op original, were more timepieces than the other legendary fighters of the time that are still prevalent today. “Fighting games were very popular, dinosaurs are perennially popular and they do love a fight,” Leitch said. “It was a really cool high concept: a perfect snapshot of what was happening in games back then.”