Let Them Fight! A Kaiju-Sized Retrospective Of ‘War Of The Monsters’ For Its 18th Birthday

Back in October, I rented Love and Monsters with my girlfriend. The film opens with exposition from Dylan O’Brien’s character, Joel Dawson, who explains that humanity’s collective effort to destroy an asteroid with a bunch of missiles was successful, but resulted in chemical fallout that mutated the planet’s fauna into giant monsters.

Hearing the voiceover narration, I was immediately transported back to my childhood when I would play War of the Monsters on my cousin’s PlayStation 2. You see, that video game has a similar storyline, in which humanity defeats an armada of UFOs, only to find itself under attack from colossal animals and robots mutated by the glowing green alien radiation that rains back down on Earth.

Long story short: Love and Monsters inspired me to take a look back at War of the Monsters, which celebrates its 18th anniversary today.

War of the Monsters left some interesting cultural residue. Most people don’t remember it, but those who do, really remember it,” says Kellan Hatch, who served as the title’s creative director. He eventually left the world of video games to pursue a more fulfilling career in archaeology. “I still meet people who say, ‘That was my favorite game!’ Like the graduate student I encountered a couple of years ago on an archaeological expedition on top of a mountain in Peru, who couldn’t believe he was actually talking to someone who helped make his favorite game. I guess that’s the ultimate reward of any creative endeavor.”

“I could write pages and pages about the game,” says producer Dylan Jobe with a laugh (he now serves as Director of Development at Nintendo’s Retro Studios in Texas). “I would say that it was a great example of a team being scrappy and getting it done. We had a fixed timeline, a vision, and the Twisted Metal Black codebase to work from. It was always amazing to the see the team cleverly solve the design challenges with the tools and tech at our disposal. We were a small team and made a game that was unique; we had to solve our own equally unique problems and couldn’t ‘draft’ any other game directly. It was a risky development cycle, but very rewarding.”

Developed in the early 2000s by the now-defunct Incognito Entertainment and Santa Monica Studio (both subsidiaries of Sony), the fighting title was a pastiche of 1950s and ‘60s B-movies, as well as the kaiju and mecha genres of Japanese culture. From the cheesy/Ed Wood-esque opening cinematic, to the drive-in main menu screen, to the movie poster interludes that preceded each battle, the game absolutely oozed charm and creativity. You were firmly rooted in a retro mindset long before the gameplay even started.

According to designer Eric Simonich, the “campy” aesthetic is what ultimately saved the game from being an utter failure.

“I wasn’t necessarily as sure that the ‘50s style would be as compelling to the public,” he admits. “Then 9/11 happened and so, everybody was like, ‘This feels a little weird to do a game like this right now.’ We actually had to shelve it for a while, but ultimately, I think the more campy style allowed kids to handle that kind of concept in a way that’s a little bit safer. I think it came in tonally correct [and] with that sensitivity in mind.”

Per Jobe, nailing down the appropriate tone proved to be one of the bigger obstacles. While the plan was always to draw inspiration from classic B-movies, the earlier “visual style was a bit more realistic and always felt a bit discordant,” he says.

“Over time, however, the team developed a visual style that was more strongly driven by the genre’s iconic movie posters. The bold colors and graphic treatment saturated so much of what we ultimately settled on. I remember the night we put that contact sheet of references and lighting examples together; that helped steer the team towards that final look. It was one of those ‘it just clicked’ moments when you know you are headed in the right direction.”

Choosing from a roster of 10 gargantuan abominations (such as the King Kong-inspired Congar, Godzilla-adjacent Togera, and Raydeen tribute Ultra V), players could either go head-to-head in 13 highly-destructible maps or undertake the campaign mode, which featured bosses like giant ants (a clear homage to 1954’s Them!) and the plant-based Vegon (most likely based on Biollante in Toho’s Godzilla universe).

“The teams at Incognito and at Santa Monica started by just thinking about those movies and the archetypes that were popular,” says Jobe. “We tried to have each monster reflect a classic monster…or robot! The goal was to help players feel like they were playing those classic battles; the same vintage monsters beating each other up. Once we had those, the team brainstormed their attacks and special abilities that harmonized with their B-movie personalities.”

“A number of the monsters were really no-brainers, just fill in the most expected monster slots,” says lead animator DeVore, currently Game Director at Iron Galaxy Studios. “Sony had a lot of ideas of things they wanted to try that ended up working poorly in the game and ended up getting cut. There was a 50-foot Amazon Woman that never really came together, as well as a more amorphous blob character that just didn’t read very well in combat.”

Hatch reveals that the woman was named was “Atomica,” but echoes DeVore’s sentiment that the team “just couldn’t make her work, visually. Your brain kept wanting to make her human-size, so we dropped her. I also had [the idea for] a two-headed cyclops à la [Ray] Harryhausen, but I lost the fight with the Sony people on that one.”

Having grown up in the early 1960s, Hatch was a longtime fan of Godzilla, War of the Worlds, Jason and the Argonauts, Forbidden Planet, and Journey to the Center of the Earth. “Those films were an essential part of my identity,” he continues. “I really wanted to capture the sense of awe and wonder that those movies planted in the mind of a six-year-old kid, and I think you can see that in the monster designs, color palette, and music style.”

“Some of our favorite characters were a little bit too close to actual published things,” adds Simonich. “We had movie posters from almost every movie that was monster-related from 1930 to about 1970. We looked through all of those. Harryhausen was a massive influence and [Frank] Frazetta was a massive influence as well. We were just looking for pulp. We wanted something that we could use for a more cartoon color style, like a comic book color style.”

“We had earlier versions of Togera and Congor that were absolutely IP infringements,” DeVore explains. “We iterated a couple times to be sure that we were capturing the ‘inspiration’ of those classic monsters without being too close. Ultra V was always my favorite character. To this day, I have a Raydeen Shogun Warrior from my childhood sitting on a book shelf behind me while I work.”

Aside from its diverse lineup of animals, robots, and aliens, War of the Monsters was also notable for its interactive gameplay. The collection of city and island battlegrounds allowed for a wide variety of structures to climb and weapons to use.

For instance, you could beat the ever-loving snot out of your opponent with tanks and girders, or else impale them with a nearby radio tower. Throwing your enemy into a building would cause it to break and crumble, thus resulting in even more debris to toss around. The developers even thought of minutiae, such as the ability to leave behind little blood splatters as the behemoths step on fleeing citizens.

It was nothing short of revolutionary.

“I think the game was memorable because it delivered so well on its fantasy. The monsters were cool and fun, and didn’t take them too seriously. A good balance of pure sci-fi nostalgia and really responsive and innovative gameplay,” Hatch says. “The interactive nature of the environments, and the way you used so many objects from the environment as weapons — even creating your own weapons by destroying buildings — was groundbreaking.”

“I think it’s a very pure expression of a power fantasy: giant monsters wrecking the cities that you may or may not live in is pretty huge,” echoes Simonich. “It’s a visual feast on top of the drama of how you can affect everything. I also think it was one of the first games where it wasn’t a static environment, and that’s something that even to this day, I wish saw more of. Dynamic environments that you can actually affect through gameplay and through your own actions.”

He adds that War was so successful because it had just the right amount of scale:

“I think, too, that some of the arena-based stuff and being big, but not too big so that you lose sight of your scale. Because of the cars and the people, you always had a scale reference of how massive you were. That was also something that’s missing, even now from a lot of [modern games].”

Hatch recalls that they “were offered the Godzilla license,” but decided to pass because the company (most likely Toho) “insisted that Godzilla and his pals had to be 400 feet tall. Our game was all about characters that were just big enough that a car would be the perfect pick-up-and-throw projectile, and a radio antenna was the size of a spear. Our gameplay called for buildings that you could climb on, not stomp on.”

The creative director knew they made the right decision when War of the Monsters debuted at E3 alongside the Godzilla game, which was made by a different studio. “Incidentally, that studio didn’t launch on schedule, but went back to the drawing board and ended up releasing a game that had a lot of gameplay similarities to ours, but it still didn’t have the same magic because of the scale problem,” he recalls.

“Nobody was expecting it and it just showed up quietly and ended up with a line,” Simonich says of the E3 demo. “Seeing that line was the boost for our team to finish strong.”

“The team did a fantastic job getting the kinesthetics to feel rewarding,” Jobe says. “This was everything from the combat and evolving destructible environment, to the little innovations, like fusing the split-screens into a single-screen when the monsters got close together.”

“Utilizing the environment in conjunction with the fighting game moves resulted in really fun strategies that felt unique to the game,” adds DeVore. “War of the Monsters is so memorable because we still haven’t seen another game come along to scratch that same itch. The tone and theme of the game is also light-hearted and original. It was developed before things like focus testing were super prominent. That resulted in a game that feels like it came from a unique place.”

“It was a super exciting time for in my career because I worked on a mix of creative, technical, and production stuff,” Jobe adds. “On top of that, we were making sure it matched Sony’s expectations. For all our games back then, we worked closely with the Santa Monica team. They were — and continue to be — an amazing team. It always puts a big smile on my face to see their success, even though many of us have gone our separate ways in the industry.”

War of the Monsters arrived in the United States on Jan. 14, 2003, but as mentioned earlier, the project was shelved for about two years as a direct result of the 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center.

“We were pretty concerned about knocking over buildings after 9/11. It was such a critical part of the game, that things would have been very different without it,” posits DeVore. “We had just come off of Twisted Metal: Black which had a scripted sequence of a airplane crashing into the side of a warehouse that ended up cut, so we were very aware of how sensitive the atmosphere was at the time.”

Hatch explains that 9/11 “did cause us some real concerns because our game was all about destruction and we were knocking buildings down like bowling pins. I had other worries, though, that Eric and the rest of the team weren’t privy to. I don’t think a week went by that I wasn’t called into Scott Cambpell’s office (our studio head and executive producer), and told that War of the Monsters was on the chopping block, and that I should be bracing myself for the bad news.”

To make matters worse, there was a quiet, behind-the-scenes battle as Sony executives attempted to insert their own ideas (i.e. the aforementioned Atomica and “amorphous blob”) into the game.

“One insisted that the game should be an arena fighter,” Hatch remembers. “Another was pushing for a completely different style of classic monsters, so we were getting unsolicited concept art of things like a gigantic Mummy, Bride of Frankenstein, and Creature of the Black Lagoon. Our only hope was to keep plugging along at warp speed and making the game so good, that you couldn’t make a valid case for cancelling it.”

When it came to conflicts within the team itself, debates were hard-won via monster battles. “The team played the game all the God d*** time,” says Siomonich. “I think it was our competition once we got to a stable spot. We handled debates and fights over playing the game.”

In the end, the game was released as intended with Sony’s blessing and Simonich is grateful to the company for backing up the project, “especially [so] early on in the development when it felt like we were throwing everything in the kitchen sink into the game. They supported us in simplifying that which ultimately made for better gameplay. The better gameplay ultimately made for better presentation, which ultimately made for an overall better game.”

“I will always be extremely grateful to Sony for letting it happen at all,” Hatch says. “War of the Monsters was an oddball concept and it was a gamble at a time when most games were sequels or lookalikes. I was so appreciative that they pitched in the budget to let us use a live orchestra for the music, which was so essential to the game’s style.”

It’s unclear how many units of the game were sold, but Hatch is of the opinion that the game was poorly marketed, starting with an underwhelming TV ad that did not properly represent the finished product.

“They took the least recognizable monster, Kineticlops, made him human-size and stuck him in an army barracks, getting chewed out by a drill sergeant. Kind of a ‘WTF’ moment for us,” he says. “There was also a full-page magazine add, which was great coverage, but again, it didn’t show any monsters or combat.”

The print ad showed a giant tooth lying in the middle of an intersection and while Hatch concedes that the idea was clever, it made for a “poor read” because “most people couldn’t tell what the object in the road was supposed to be. One of my regrets, when it came to marketing of any of our games, was that the creative team who came up with the ideas in the first place never had any input to how they were marketed. I’m sure people in other studios felt the same frustrations.”

“It was a tough game to market because it did not fit neatly into genre conventions,” adds DeVore. “Not a fighting game exactly [and] also not a platformer; [I] don’t think marketing knew where to find the right audience.”

Sadly, there was never any impetus for a sequel, although “there was always talk” of one, according to DeVore. “The idea of a game like War of the Monsters with today’s engine and online capabilities would be amazing,” he says when asked about what he’d like to see from a potential follow-up. “I would expect to battle it out online with large number of other monsters in an expansive environment. Unlock a huge collection of monster costumes and collectibles. Team up with other monsters for some cooperative mode play, like Godzilla and Mothra taking on King Ghidorah to protect the earth. Damn, when do I get play this game?”

Hatch states that if a sequel was approved, it probably would’ve implemented a visual gimmick in the vein of old B-movies like Robot Monster and It Came from Outer Space. “Our special effects programmer, Pierre Dufresne, came up with some amazing technology to play the game in 3-D using the old-movie-style red and blue glasses,” he says. “The sequel would have shipped with a couple of pairs of glasses and the option to play in full color or 3-D.”  

When it comes to Simonich (now Chief Creative Officer for the Ukraine-based studio, Dragon’s Lake Entertainment), the designer is ready to pitch a sequel to Sony, should the opportunity ever arise.

“I think a lot of the stuff that I’m excited about with the new consoles is what you can potentially do with explosions and color from some of the tests I’ve seen. I think those elements would be pretty great,” he declares, citing his interest in exploring “granular and strategic destruction as an element of competitive play.”

Simonich also believes that “dynamic lighting can help show the progress of destruction,” while “the notion of larger crowds” is another untapped space.

“I think to help sell the drama and help keep a really good ‘banana for scale’ sort of situation, is having panicked people around you a lot. So, having throngs of a city escaping a building as you’re destroying it and having an element with the people that affects gameplay one way or the other,” he continues. “Tying [the monsters] into the populace is another great way to do it. The other idea I had is possibly even have a side game, where you’re one of the people in the city as a real-time battle is going on.”

An HD version of the game became available for the PS4 in 2015, but many fans would love to see a full-on remaster that updates the antiquated PS2 controls.

“I’ll tell you this: every time there’s a convention and I meet somebody from Sony, especially if it’s at one of those later night events, I always end up slurring my words a little bit, being like, ‘I wanna do Monsters again!’” Simonich jokes. “But aside from that, there has been no official contact about it or any kind of reference. I hope that they do, especially with their core engine. I think you can make something really, really compelling.”

“I’d love to see it,” DeVore says of a remaster. “That is a very dusty old codebase, but I could imagine a few studios that could knock that out of the park … War of the Monsters is my favorite game that I have worked on in my career. It will always hold a very special place in my heart.”

Source: https://www.forbes.com/sites/joshweiss/2021/01/14/let-them-fight-a-kaiju-sized-retrospective-of-war-of-the-monsters-for-its-18th-birthday/