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Retro: Kingpin: Life Of Crime

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This article is a revised version of a retrospective written last year for PC Gamer UK.

There was nothing funny about Kingpin. It was a genuinely vicious game, with some of the most violent scenes from any shooter I can recall. Severed heads, gashed bodies, screamed obscenities: only the absolute dismemberment of Soldier of Fortune managed to outrank it in bloodiness. Presumably it was this surface gore that drew me in: the promised thrill of transgressive videogame violence. Then again, maybe it was PC Gamer’s (overzealous) review, or perhaps it was the fantasy-gangster chic, with its 1920s Bladerunner horrors. Then again, perhaps it was a hunger for something in the FPS world that did things differently. Whatever it was, something plugged me straight into its ugly wavelength. And whatever that thing was, it meant that I stayed a while.

Kingpin’s disappointing single player campaign had a swarthy charisma to it. The characters were all made of bulbous, gelatinous chunks of flesh, and the game portrayed their viscerality in the most repulsive fashion. In the aftermath of a fight your henchmen (who were some of the first NPCs to follow a player character around in a game while still being useful in combat) would be covered in great gaping red wounds. It was sickening stuff.

What was most compelling, however, was the overall construction of the world. It seemed to be set in a 1920s America, but it was filled with contemporary urban weirdness. There were visual references to classic Noir culture and gloomy Americana – such as a building that seemed to be based on an Edward Hopper painting, Nighthawks – but it wasn’t the real world. There was rap music by Cypress Hill, modern graffiti, and an almost steampunk presentation. The ugly old Quake II engine wasn’t exactly delivering Bioshock, but it was nevertheless offbeat and esoteric – a fantasy that was neither real world nor science fiction. This was a game that satisfied my tastes for something just off the norm. It offended my parents and it didn’t quite fit in normal genre brackets: all good things.

Nor was it a straightforward FPS – each level was a hub that you undertook a number of missions it. Getting local thugs to work for you was essential, and storming rat-riddled tenements with some beefy badasses was thrillingly good stuff. If it had a genre, it was something that would be self-applied by a pretentious author: Weird Noir, or Retro Gangsterism.

Influences aside, Kingpin was a major catalyst on the younger Rossignol brain for quite another reason: I purchased it at the same time I acquired a 56k modem. This had profound consequences: Internet. Before I’d even finished the single player campaign I had loaded up Gamespy and found some UK Kingpin servers. Within a week I was in a clan. Within two months I was the clan’s top player. It was incredible, like someone lifting a curtain on a totally new way of experience games. I was living it: suddenly a reluctant philosophy student had been transmuted into an obsessive FPS player, glugging down narrowband access with a game that emitted terrifying profanities. A press of a key fired off a “FUCK YOU!” The cry of the chav was hot-keyed… something like that.

Kingpin wasn’t a bad way to learn the tricks and trade-offs of deathmatch. It had a solid grenade-launcher and an outrageously good flamethrower that, frankly, puts Team Fortress 2’s pyro to shame. The finest weapon, however, was the heavy machinegun. It fired three fat slugs in quick succession (“BOMBOMBOM!”) and two of these to the head of any assailant would put him down, permanent like. Tommyguns and rusty pipes were all well and good, but this thing was The Daddy Of All The Daddies. No gun since has quite satisfied the same urges that is one instilled in me. It was a jackhammer, an triple-fisted uppercut. Kingpin, it could be said, was my primary education in online FPS gaming. And I still got a lot of love the street, ‘yo. [Insert gansta’ poses…]

Ultimately I knew Kingpin was trashy. It collapsed pretty quickly under scrutiny: terrible generic bosses, crappy, gun-driven ending and a pointless final fight that made Doom finales look like the grandest opera. Nevertheless there was something there, a whiff of something stronger and more sophisticated, but whatever it was, the game hadn’t had enough of it. This wasn’t one of the classics.

Anyway, a few years later I was to meet the Kingpin design team as they put the finishing touches to the next game: Return To Castle Wolfenstein. They caught me looking at the design docs for Kingpin that were pinned up on one of the walls of the lead designer’s gloomy office. These screenshots of large gangs and even larger ghettos didn’t look much like the game I had played. Reading my thoughts, Drew Markham, the project lead, told me that things hadn’t worked out quite how he’d intended. Kingpin should have been a game of actual gang warfare, with you staking out territory, recruiting thugs and fighting rival gangs. There should have been more to it, more life, more world. Some of these ideas had made it into the final game – as evidenced by the various sidekicks and the bars you frequented – but not enough to transform this game into one of the greats of gaming. As it happened, the Kingpin project hadn’t been deemed worthy of more time and money by Markham’s publishing bosses, and had been demoted, reduced, and rushed to meet one of Interplay’s monetary deadlines. And so it became the game we finally played: the abortive, premature Kingpin that arrived in the shops – the game I picked up and chewed on so eagerly.

Later I wondered whether this secret history had been another reason why I’d wanted to like Kingpin so much. It wasn’t that it was such a great shooter, but that it contained elements of what might have been great, given time and money. Were there some traces of the game as it was meant to be in there? Could imaginative players tune into prospects that Markham and his team had seen in the game? Like a book alluded to but never written, it was a lost world of gaming that we can never now see, or belong to. That thought alone makes Kingpin valuable, as flawed and ugly as it is, as a kind of evidence. One day, maybe, we’ll get the game we deserved.

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Jim Rossignol

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