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Dinosaurs threaten our brave band of adventurers Image: Ubisoft Pictures/Ubisoft

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Peter Jackson’s King Kong was the most innovative game of its console generation

A forgotten classic deserves another chance

One of the most influential, enjoyable, and important games of the seventh console generation is a licensed adaptation of Peter Jackson’s version of King Kong, designed by the creator of Rayman.

That sequence of words is an absurd mess. It sounds like a phrase from a gaming-themed Mad Lib, or something written by a particularly verbose Twitter bot. Nonetheless, it’s true.

Ubisoft released Peter Jackson’s King Kong: The Official Game of the Movie as part of the Xbox 360 launch slate while simultaneously delivering versions of the game for Game Boy Advance, GameCube, Windows PC, PlayStation 2, Xbox, Nintendo DS, and PlayStation Portable. We’ll be focusing on the backwards compatible Xbox 360 version.

A man holding a spear hunts another man in the mists of a jungle Image: Ubisoft Pictures/Ubisoft

It’s one of the few games from that period that still feels like it came from the future. King Kong’s combination of cinematic stylings, rudimentary but working ecosystems, improvisational combat, a minimal HUD that forces information to be shared through more clever means than numbers on a screen, muddy textures striving for realism, and focus on player freedom within tightly-scripted encounters, functions as a prophetic statement of intent for the generation that would come.

King Kong had the iconic Elder Scrolls 4: Oblivion camera zoom-in before Oblivion. Widespread use of fire propagation before Far Cry 2. King Kong himself was a swinging parkour master before Assassin’s Creed was even a spot on the horizon.

The seventh generation console games from this time tended to swerve between trends. There were the open-world maps crowded with icons, and a small army of gritty third-person shooters that followed in the wake of Gears of War. If you wondered why a disc-only King Kong tie-in was included in the last wave of backwards compatible games made backwards compatible for Xbox One, it’s because, like the beast that shares its name, Peter Jackson’s King Kong stands alone.

A woman stands at the entrance of a cave on a dangerous island Image: Ubisoft Pictures/Ubisoft

Ubisoft was a very different company in those days. If you have an idle moment available, scroll through Ubisoft’s catalog as charted by Wikipedia. Ubisoft’s various branches did a little of everything before it became the monolithic creator of open-world titles and dancing games that we know today.

The licensing machine (and how Kong transcended it)

For every classic title like Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time or Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell, there was a Hooters: Road Trip, Dukes of Hazzard, or Chessmaster in Ubisoft’s catalog. Ubisoft handled licensed material in a variety of forms before King Kong, filling different roles in localization, distribution, and publishing, as well as direct development. For the adaptation of King Kong, they assigned Michel Ancel, the creative lead behind Rayman and Beyond Good and Evil, as the lead designer. Obviously, they were bringing out the big guns.

The cast of the movie reprise their roles in Peter Jackson’s King Kong as well, the main character played by Adrian Brody breathlessly keeping track of how many magazines I have for my gun as I pump bullets into giant scorpion beasts.

“Five magazines left,” he tells me, counting down “Four magazines left.” “Three magazines left.” The minimal UI used by the game makes this information essential. If Jack didn’t tell me how much ammunition I had left, I would be completely in the dark. The game’s screen is completely devoid of numbers or information of this type.

For Ubisoft, and seemingly the creative team of the 2005 King Kong movie itself, this wasn’t another Hooters. The effort, money, and trust invested in everyone involved, despite the enormous corporate concerns at stake, was impressive. It’s a rare situation, based on the negative reports of other developers who have developed games based on licensed IP.

With this context in place, it’s no longer a surprise that Peter Jackson’s King Kong isn’t presented as the ancillary promotional product it could have been. It projects the confidence and self-determination of original IP, because, in some ways, it is. This is our introduction to the world of the movie, released before the movie itself. This is, definitively, King Kong.

King Kong is first seen abducting the young actress Image: Ubisoft Pictures/Ubisoft

A hero and a monster

For most of the game, I play in first-person as Adrien Brody’s character, Jack. Walking up a slope, my camera drifts upward, forcing me to move it back down to compensate for gravity and my own upward motion. When I reach a summit, this interaction imitates the sensation of cresting a rise.

Jack moves fast, occasionally breathing heavily from exertion as I bob and run across uneven terrain. Jack keeps track of how many bullets I have left in my current weapon and I can get him to share that information by tapping the “B” button. From the heights of “I’ve got enough magazines,” to the dread of “I’m dry!” as I attempt to fire at the beast swooping towards me from above, this method of tracking ammo increases the tension in the game. The combination of heaving voice work and decisions like excising a non-diegetic sprint button result in a sense of first-person embodiment that has rarely been improved upon.

Crashing onto Skull Island in the introduction of Peter Jackson’s King Kong, I quickly learn why you never intentionally go to a place called Skull Island. Flesh-eating spiders, writhing centipedes, and actual dinosaurs are common, deadly sights. The only tools available to me are ones I find in the environment, like spears made of bone, or rare firepower dropped by plane from sailors we hope to rejoin as we escape.

The island has a basic ecosystem that isn’t just centered on my actions. The same monsters hunting me will gladly tear each other apart, as well as feed on the harmless “bait” creatures I occasionally find hiding in the world. Each Jack level functions as a self-contained, urgent adventure that also remixes the common building blocks of the entire game.

I sprint between enclosed ruins in one section, luring the raptors chasing me into traps of scrub grass I set alight with a flaming bone spear. In another section, I ride down a waterway throwing spears at centipedes as they attack the fragile rafts of my group and attract the attention of far larger, more dangerous predators.

The mechanical verbs I’m using (shoot, swap, throw, bait, etc.) are consistent, as are many of the assets I encounter. I can picture a reused sheltering ruin with my eyes closed, down to the number of trailing vines inside. The intriguing dance of the team behind Peter Jackson’s King Kong, is to then constantly re-contextualize and repurpose these universal pieces to create memorable scenarios, all within the frantic context of sheer survival.

The pace is so breathless that, when I have a moment to breathe, or view the island with a perspective I didn’t have time to consider before, it creates a sensation of awe for the polygonal world that is as genuine as it is surprising. The visuals are better designed and executed than they have any right to be in a licensed product from 2005.

Dinosaurs walk through the mist of the mysterious island Image: Ubisoft Pictures/Ubisoft

Quiet moments don’t just take the form of set pieces — they’re impressions of evocative design that my brain clings to between the gunfire and screaming. AI characters drag each other out of danger, and centipedes continue to lash out at everything in sight while pinned to the wall after I throw a spear through them. During one scene, while running for my digital life, I glance to the side, and notice that our director Carl Denham is taking time to film the dinosaur we’re running from. It’s a true-to-character aside in the middle of madness, scripted and animated by the developers despite there being a very high chance that players would miss it while racing for their lives.

Lost on the island Image: Ubisoft Pictures/Ubisoft

The levels in which I play as King Kong are in third-person. I parkour through levels with animations that would be familiar in rhythm to players of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. Then I punch dinosaurs in the face.

Verbs and environmental assets (like climbable wall textures or rocky outcroppings I can swing on) remain consistent with the other portions of the game but are used in novel ways that ensure seamless progression. This might not be a stunning claim in an era where many open worlds now do the same thing, but most blockbuster open-world franchises didn’t even exist when Peter Jackson’s King Kong was released. These details felt like a message from the future when the game was originally released.

My experience as King Kong usually revolves around protecting Ann, the actress he’s fallen in love with. I set her aside, pick up a nearby tree trunk, and swing for both of our lives against threats Jack couldn’t hope to face. The lack of UI and HUD elements throughout the game becomes genuinely uncomfortable in these sequences.

I tap B — the grab button — and suddenly I’m lifting a T-Rex over Kong’s head. Presumably so I can initiate a follow-up action; one I actually don’t know how to perform. I muddle through, ultimately snapping the T-Rex’s spine, and continue to bash our way to some hope of safety. It’s a guided experience, but I also feel like I’m figuring things out as I go.

The levels are over quickly enough for me to never feel like more than a flailing alien in Kong’s scarred skin. My overwhelming impression is one of desperation. In fact, that’s a sense the entire game reeks of. In Jack’s portions, desperation is born of the familiar, typical FPS flow encountering the unknown aggression of Skull Island, and finding itself overwhelmed. In Kong’s portions, that desperation is born of being the unknown. You have all the power in the world, but you still can’t guarantee that you’ll be able to protect a single soul.

Kong roars, and the screen blurs, and I realize that the fear is the point. Sometimes raw power isn’t enough.

King Kong roars at a prehistoric enemy Image: Ubisoft Pictures/Ubisoft

I’m young enough to have played Peter Jackson’s King Kong as a kid. My chief memory was of a game that hated me; a game where survival was decided by spears that broke in your hands.

Now, with context and development experience under my belt, I believe I see Peter Jackson’s King Kong for what it is: a rabbit hole of endless detail, care, and weirdness that miraculously culminates in a coherent whole of survival and desperate, ongoing fear.

King Kong’s developers didn’t just do things first, they did them so well that it would take an entire generation for the games industry at large to rediscover principles that existed with grace in a movie tie-in. I find myself at the end of this piece with at least five major things I still want to talk about, from the game’s aesthetic to its handling of the indigenous population of the island.

Complex statistical and legal reasons aside, I’m firmly convinced that Peter Jackson’s King Kong was in the final wave of backwards compatible titles because it represents the ideal of the program. These are games connected to their time, but that also surpass it. This version of King Kong feels like a retro experience that somehow came from the future, and if you can manage to track down a physical copy, it’s still worth playing today.

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