We open 1989 with the debut of the second third-party publisher for the Master System, in this case it’s the original licensee, Activision. Originally founded way back in 1979, Activision made a name for itself by producing some of the finest Atari 2600 titles and some good games for other consoles, and was one of the few survivors of the video game crash. In late 1988 Activison signed on to publish a few games for the SMS in the U.S., though their contributions were mainly cartridges that were brought out by Sega in other regions (which is somewhat interesting since Sega previously published two of Activision’s bigger computer titles, Ghostbusters and Shanghai). In any case Activison would bring out their first two games early in the year, with two more coming later on.
As you can tell, Activision’s first SMS contribution is a port of the 1986 Bally/Midway coin-op which was clearly inspired by the “giant monster goes on a rampage” moves of the past as you got to help a giant beast cause mayhem in a city, and up to three players could team up. Like Double Dragon, Rampage is also another rare title to appear on all three 8-bit systems; Data East published a serviceable NES conversion around the same time while Activision also produced ports for the Atari 7800 (and a surprisingly decent version for the Atari 2600). Unfortunately those who try this game out will find this is one arcade beast that hasn’t aged gracefully.
The game centers around a trio of behemoths, George the ape, Lizzie the lizard and Ralph the wolf (who was absent in the NES version but is present here), who were once three normal human scientists until a lab accident mutated them into their current forms. Apparently their minds were also corrupted as they decide to rampage across the country tearing up all the major cities in their path. When you begin you pick from one of the three monsters to unleash on the game’s 50 levels (10 cities of five levels each) and a friend can join forces with you for some simultaneous play. Your object is to bring down all the buildings in each screen by repeatedly punching them and doing enough damage to cause them to collapse, but the country’s military constantly fights back with their arsneal of tanks, bombs, and soldiers that shoot and throw things at you from windows. Not to mention other hazards populate each screen that can also do damage to you. Losing all your health will cause you to revert to human form and lose a life, while devouring the helpless humans running around will restore it, but be careful not to munch on any bad things. Once all the buildings are reduced to rubble it’s off to the next city to cause some more destructive mayhem.
For the most part Rampage on the Master System is a very faithful translation, which also works against it. The graphics do a decent job of replicating the coin-op and are certainly an improvement over the NES port, especially the monsters who boast some good details and animation. The cities themselves look okay as does the other sprites, but very few things change between each level. For whatever reason Sega added a background music track to their port (the other versions have no music) and it isn’t too bad but doesn’t really fit the atmosphere. But while the game is fun it isn’t long before the action starts feeling monotonous since you’re doing the same thing from stage to stage with almost no variation. No bonus stages or anything that changes up the gameplay are featured either, its the same thing over and over. It also doesn’t help that the controls are somewhat stiff and clumsy as getting your monster to latch onto the building is more difficult than it should be. As a result few Sega gamers will have the patience to trudge through all 50 levels hoping to see an ending, especially since there’s no way to save your progress.
So Rampage on the Master System isn’t really a bad game, in fact it’s one of the better console conversions of the arcade original and fans who enjoyed the coin-op will certainly find some enjoyment here. Plus who doesn’t relish the chance to be “the bad guy” for once. But at the same time the tedious, dated gameplay serves as another example of what worked as a nice time-killer in the arcades not always fitting in with the late 1980s console world, and gamers will soon be craving something different to do with their time. Sega’s Rampage shows off its muscles but ultimately has no bite to its bark.