Remember when people gave a shit about violent video games? Or when the general public wasn’t at a point where they couldn’t distinguish between real world and video game violence? It is crazy to think that people are so focused on the supposed impact game addiction has that it seems like child’s play compared to the “rockstar” mentality of having your game ACTUALLY be controversial. When you think of uproar and controversy in games because of violence or adult content, what games come to mind? Mortal Kombat? Of course. Grand Theft Auto? Without a doubt. And both of these games would go through an uphill, almost unwinnable fight against the video game rating organization, that is still used today known as the ESRB. The ESRB (Entertainment Software Ratings Board) are the ones who put that little logo on the bottom of your game for you to see what content the game has in it. Ratings range from E (Everyone) to AO (Adults Only). Companies that have fought them over censorship have always lost. They were unbeatable. Think of it like this – the ESRB is Apollo Creed. But there has only been one underdog that has challenged and become more popular by losing the fight than any other in the gaming world. And I present to you the “Rocky Balboa” of violent video games – THRILL KILL.
Developed and published by now-defunct “Paradox Development” and Virgin Interactive respectively, Thrill Kill was a 3D arena fighting game for the Sony PlayStation for release in October of 1998. Now before you start saying “Hey loser, I had a PlayStation in 1998 and I’ve never heard of it!”, hear me out. First off, the loser comment was unnecessary so ouch. Secondly, it was never actually released. Thrill Kill’s story was over before it even began. The game was cancelled before it was to ship to stores due in large part to the level of controversy it had accumulated. Thrill Kill had a level of violence and adult content unheard of in games at the time that would even make fans of horror movies cringe. The plot is pretty simple – damned souls that are in Hell battle it out for self-preservation. There are 10 playable characters that are physical incarnations of the evil within them and the whole point is the win the prize of reincarnation by the Goddess of Secrets, Marukka. The characters include a murderous postal worker who turned into a giant hulking monster when he was sent to Hell (it was the 90’s after all), a dominatrix maid who electrocuted herself in a bathtub with a cattle prod, and a cannibal from Kentucky. The game would have four fighters in the stage at once and although we take it for granted now, it was a breakthrough in gameplay at the time. Players would fight in the stage until they filled up their “kill meter” which would activate a move that would kill an enemy instantly in gory fashion. When there was only two left, a fighter could perform a “thrill kill” which are amplified versions of the kills done by filling your meter. The cannibal from Kentucky (Cleetus) for example would decapitate the other player, drink the blood from the severed head and, because he can, eat their arm. Sweet Jesus. That right there should tell you all you need to know about the kind of audience this game was going for. Think about seeing this game on shelves next to the likes of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. They would have been a month apart from each other and I’m pretty sure Link would have crapped his green leggings if that was the case.
The game seemed like it was on everyone’s radar leading up to release. Advertisements and gameplay previews showcased the brutal nature of the kills and the Gothic-inspired look. Magazine ads grabbed your attention with art of a demon’s head in front of fire which was also the cover of the game case. A friend of mine even raved about this game the whole year leading up to release. He was on top of every news story about it and at one point had a sticker of the cover art and put it on the top of his PlayStation. I like to imagine somewhere out there, there is an original PlayStation with the “Thrill Kill” sticker on it just waiting to be found again. And remember when I mentioned the ESRB? Well they weren’t too pleased to say the least, so they slapped it with the dubious honor of being the first game to be rated AO for violent content. For those that don’t know, that was and still is basically a black mark in the video game world – no retailer will carry any copy of your game and manufacturers will refuse to release your game on their console even today. People were scared and it seemed like Thrill Kill was gaining momentum in the gaming and non-gaming world alike now. Things were looking up for the little fighting game that could. Unfortunately the nature of the game mimicked the real-life trouble it had reaching an audience that led to its eventual cancellation. The game (like the characters themselves) went full throttle in it’s over the top violent presentation and ultimately paid the price.
Mere weeks before it was supposed to come out, Electronic Arts bought Virgin Interactive and cancelled the game. Seeing a game that would be mired in controversy and bad press, they saw no other action. This seems ironic since EA in 2019 always seems to be surrounded by dubious and questionable practices regarding their games, but I digress. Following the decision, EA also refused to sell the rights of the game to anyone else in hopes that it would send a message about these sorts of games. Thrill Kill was officially dead. But the funny thing about the demise of the game is that it lives on in other ways you probably never realized. About a year later, the engine that was used to create Thrill Kill was delivered with a fresh coat of paint and renamed “Wu Tang: Shaolin Style”. In case you didn’t remember, there was in fact a game that had rappers Wu Tang Clan fighting each other with Chinese fighting styles – don’t ask me why. While a popular game in it’s own right, it would not have existed if not for the game engine and technological breakthrough of utilizing four fighters on a screen at once. And Thrill Kill did it a whole year before Super Smash Bros. debuted. Take that, Nintendo.
Over the twenty years since it’s cancellation, the game became sort a middle finger to the rating system. No matter how the game looked over time, the developers always intended it to be THIS game. There was no compromise. Even after they got rated with an AO, they still wanted to release it. I’ll give them credit – they did not give a damn. With the impact it has made over the years, I feel Thrill Kill deserves another shot at the title. Or at least some recognition as the one game that did not compromise, regardless if you liked the content or not. Do I believe a proper release at this point by EA or anyone else would do anything for its legacy? No, but I’d like to hope that my friend’s PlayStation wasn’t “Thrill Kill”-stickered in vain.