Thrill Kill could be one of the best completed games never to be published. The controversial beat em up is available to play due the ROM being released into the wild by a Paradox Development/Midway employee. Was it our interviewee or not? It’s not, but it was a joy to catch up with the game’s graphic artist Robert Hunter who’s worked on a raft of quality titles.
***After you’ve given this a read why not have a listen to our Thrill Kill podcast.***
I find the story of the unreleased and highly controversial Thrill Kill an amazing video game story. How did you first get the opportunity to work on this game and what was the mood like in your tea when you first started work on this game?
I was pretty excited about the game. It was my first time doing any 3D animation using bones. I can’t speak for the team mood in the very beginning, as I wasn’t involved in any character or game design. I came in later when it was already well into production.
I was in a junior animator role at the time, working mostly on the big kill animations for a few characters. I believe I animated some moves on Belladonna, Mammoth, and I think, Dr. Faustus.
Out of all the characters from Thrill Kill, do you have a personal favourite and if so can you explain why?
I like The Tormentor. It’s the chains man! I love characters who use chains as weapons. Spawn, Ghost Rider, Pinhead from Hellraiser, are all badass anti-heroes/villains who wield chains. Birdie in Street Fighter is one of my favourite fighting characters, again with the chains. There’s something menacing in the sound of the links clicking together.
In the early stages of development did you or your team ever fear the game may be cancelled or banned?
Nobody in the team could have seen that coming. Who knew we would witness one the earliest predatory moves, by a then young EA. Virgin was totally happy with the level of violence in the game. We thought at the time that it was shaping up to be a real 3D rival to MK, which was still 2D back then.
When did you first learn that all your hard work on this ambitious title would come to nothing, and the game would be cancelled by EA and can you reflect back on the teams mood at that time?
I can’t remember if we got any advance warning of EA buying Virgin or not. What I do remember after the news dropped is everyone wandering around in total shock, just like at the scene of a major disaster. It was that gut wrenching. When we learned that EA had just flat out cancelled something we poured our hearts and souls into for months… Well, everybody was just devastated.
Do you personally feel the decision to cancel the game was the right one, and if not, what would you have liked to see done with Thrill Kill?
Hell no! Of course not.. EA could easily have sold it to someone else, or had the violence removed, but did they even consider that? No they did not! They just wanted to make a PR statement. Oh look, we are family friendly EA. Even back then they were shafting small developers.
The game was almost 100% complete before it was cancelled, and was later leaked online, where the game has picked up quite a cult following. Do you know how the games ROMs were leaked and are you happy this game is still enjoyed today?
I personally have no idea who released the ROMs. Whether it was a rogue employee, or even company sanctioned, releasing them was the right call. That way at least people got to see something of what it could have been.
Do you feel there is ever room for Thrill Kill to be properly released either as a HD remake or a sequel, and if so, would this be a project you would be interested in?
With all the Kickstarters for indie development these days, I am surprised no one has thought to try and fund a Thrill Kill remake, or homage even. Fighting games are a technical genre though and I don’t know how big a team you would need to pull that off up to say MK X standards. Anyone attempting it would need to find out if EA still own the license.
What are your earliest and fondest memories of video games while growing up?
My earliest significant gaming memories were on the ZX Spectrum. I was a huge fan of Julian Gollop’s Chaos: Battle of the Wizards. I loved platformers like Frank N Stein, and the 3D ones from Ultimate and Ocean like Head over Heels and Knight Lore. My fondest memories were in my late teens, playing Super Sprint multiplayer on Atari ST and Amiga with my friends. There were no power ups or shells to fire at your rivals back then, but hitting a bollard or oil slick on the track could quickly turn a win into last place, and the shame of being beaten by the AI player. Literally laugh out loud good times.
How exactly did you enter the video game industry and do you remember the first video game you ever worked on?
I had been creating and learning graphics on the Spectrum and C64 since I was 14, but it was the Atari ST and Degas Elite art program that really gave me the impetus needed to seriously try computer art. I met a programmer at a Glasgow computer shop who was working on Flying Shark for Atari ST, and he let me play with arcade graphics to see how they were laid out. I tweaked them some and he liked the result and put them in the game. I was never credited, but his friend worked at Ocean software and he got me an interview, and I was hired. The first actual game I worked on was Rambo III for Atari ST and Amiga.
We are big fans of both the Rambo films and there subsequent games. What was your exact role on Rambo III and are you a fan of the Sly movies?
On Rambo III I only did some of the status panel stuff like the health readout and icons for weapons etc. In those days scrolling a whole screen with sprites running was a challenge, so the sidebar panels were massive to cover up some screen to keep FPS up. I went so over the top on the life meter which ended up looking like Sly’s flesh was melting off into a skull like the Nazi’s at the end of Raiders. Some people thought it was a bit too much and hard to see. I think I fixed the visibility but left the melting flesh effect.
I liked the original First Blood, but I felt the other movies were just too over the top. I’m not sure I’ve even seen them all the way through. I wish Stallone had stuck with deeper roles instead of going the OTT action route.
Operation Thunderbolt was a lot of fun back in the day! Again, what was your exact role on this particular title and how do you reflect back on this game?
I was the sole artist on Thunderbolt for ST/Amiga, and I’m fairly happy with my work on it for the time. The arcade graphics were huge bitmaps (the biggest sprites took up the whole screen) that the arcade machine scaled using hardware, to give the impression of 3D movement. They were very low color though, using only 4 shades for each sprite. It would have been easy to just slap in the arcade graphics without any real real art added, but since I had to scale these sprites by hand, and create ALL the frames the arcade machine did with hardware I added more colors to my versions for the Amiga.
How did you get the opportunity to work on one of the first ever Batman video games and are you a fan of the caped crusader?
I’ve worked on several Batman titles. The first was at Ocean after working on Rambo. I worked on a cathedral level and a chemical plant level. I wasn’t very happy with what I did on this game. I wasted too many tiles on creating shadows for everything when I should have been creating a darker moodier scene with only suggested shadows and a cooler palette of colours. Of course back in the day we never got any kind of reference, or saw the movie early, so we were basically winging it a lot of the time. I love Batman as a character, I didn’t love Tim Burton’s version that much though. Great style but still not my Batman. My definitive Batman is of course the Animated Series. That to me IS Batman. Period.
You continued your great work on the Batman games with The Adventures of Batman and Robin, for the Mega CD. Which of the three Batman games you worked on did you most enjoy and why do you feel this character is still so popular today?
Honestly I contributed so little to other Batman games that I don’t even consider them part of my work history. With Batman and Robin though I was responsible for all of the 3D driving and flying graphics in the Mega CD sections. I thought I did a good job of capturing the flavour and art style of the series with the Mega CD’s limited palettes.
Batman is a timeless character for several reasons. He is part vigilante, part detective. Even with a dark and tortured past he tries to be better than the criminals and in most adaptations, he will not take a life. He also has no supernatural powers, so he is immediately more relatable to readers than say your Superman type heroes with fantastical powers of a god.
Out of all the video games you have helped create graphics and animation for which games artwork are you most proud of and why?
I was very happy with my Hawaiian island for MTX: Mototrax. Not so much with the others in that game. I made some bad design choices early on and had to stick with em. Calling All Cars! for Incognito also had some graphics I’m very happy with. I did the Train level and various other props and buildings on the other levels. I’m pretty happy with some of the stuff I’ve been doing recently at Wayforward. I can’t show you any of that yet since the titles are still in development. Since Bloodstained is out now though I can probably post a few of the props I modeled for it on my portfolio site soon.
You have been involved in so many quality titles. Which is personal favourite game you have ever worked on and do you still play it today?
The reality for most of us in the video game industry is that you don’t get to work on games you would play very often. At least that’s my experience. MTX:Mototrax was great, but I’m more of a Need for Speed guy. I really loved Calling All Cars! (I also play the voice of the Irish cop) but that was PS3 and it’s kind of a party only game.
If you could step inside any of the games you have worked on and live there for a day, which game would you choose and why?
I’d love to just chill at Cafe Leblanc from Persona 5 on a rainy day. Living in SoCal, I miss the British weather a lot, especially rain. I find even the virtual rain in Persona 5 soothing, and Sojiro’s coffee is supposed to be the best.
Did you ever start work on any games that were never released and if you could release any of these game today, which would you choose and why?
As you know, many, so, many, games are finished or well into development, only to be axed at the last second by unforeseen factors (mostly money.) For your fans, most famously I worked on the fabled, cancelled X-Women game at Clockwork Tortoise. Which was to be the follow up to Batman and Robin. At Incognito I worked on a cancelled Twisted Metal game for PS3 called Harbor City. Many more so similar I’ve forgotten. I’d love to have seen X-Women make it. It had some great graphics and gameplay.
What are your personal favourite video games of all time?
Persona 5 has it’s hooks deep into me right now, so that’s got to be one. XCom 2: War of the Chosen. This would be one of my desert island picks. I go back to the XCom 2 well on a regular basis. Horizon Zero Dawn I never get bored of. Robot dinosaurs you can fight with a bow, tight combat, great plot and character development. It’s graphics are amazing. I would have killed to work on a title like this. Bayonetta may be my favourite game of all time so far. Bummed we still don’t have a PS4 port. Come on Sony! Civilization 6 is another game I have to include. It’s the perfect realization of the series goals. A masterpiece.
What projects and games are you currently involved in?
I’m afraid I cannot disclose what I am working on at Wayforward right now. Top Secret! NDA’s and all that. I did just finish working on Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night. Which was a crowdfunded, spiritual successor to Castlevania. Helmed by one of the original Castlevania producers. It just released, so I’ll see if I can post some of the stuff I did. Just some props though, nothing exciting. I mainly worked on relighting some of the levels.
Where is the best place to view more of your excellent artwork?
I have an artstation and portfolio site, but there’s not much to see but some early PBR stuff I was playing with. I’m going to overhaul my portfolio site in the coming months, but most of my old pixel art is lost to time and format changes I’m afraid. I have a few sprites from X-Women and other stuff I’ll try and get up, and link to you soon.
If you could share a few drinks with a video game character who would you choose and why?
I can’t really think of any major characters who have interested me enough that they immediately jump to mind. Since it’s consuming my thoughts right now, I’d have to go with the cast of Persona 5 again. I had a pretty rough time in my teen years too, and struggled at school because of it, so their struggles, and stories really resonate with me.