A massive meteor strike has devastated the planet Earth. Human civilization comes to an end in the ensuing cataclysms, and humanity regressed into tribes of Stone Age dwellers. Primordial rainforest cover the land, and the continental landmass has shifted into the shape of a fire-breathing dinosaur skull. The planet is now primitively referred to as "Urth" by the survivors of the cataclysms.
Seven fearsome creatures emerge from their slumber deep within the Urth's crust, and become worshiped as gods by the humans, who form segregated clans beneath the ones they follow. The beasts themselves are divided between those who wish to keep peace on Urth, and those who attempt to plunge the world into further chaos for their own benefit. These creatures have otherworldly or supernatural abilities. The Primal Rage trading cards that were distributed along with the toyline presented each creature as a god of an aspect of nature, as in life and death, fire and ice. There are four of the good Virtuous gods and three evil Destructive gods. The character Sauron, god of Hunger, is marked as a "Virtuous Beast" despite the fact that his in-game ending displays an image of him devouring humans.
Primal Rage is a traditional two-dimensional fighting game in which two players select characters to battle each other in one-on-one combat, or a single player finishes a campaign of fights against the CPU, over increasing difficulty. The final battle of the single-player game consisted of fighting all the other CPU monsters with an increased power bar, made available in a mini-game prior to the fight. A total of seven characters are available for players to select from (as listed below). Each character has his or her own specialized set of three attack moves and abilities. In the game, the object is to deplete the opposing character's health meter as fast as possible. If "Game Gore" (an option in some versions) is switched on, then a defeated character's heart will explode into a bloody mess, and their brain will dissolve to ashes.
While fighting, human tribesmen will wander nearby and worship their gods during battle. This allows for the creatures to toss them around or devour some to regain strength (eating opponents' worshipers will add a bonus to one's score, while eating one's own will penalize the player). Prior to the final battle, a mini game commences in which one is required to eat as many worshipers as possible to increase health for the endurance round. Two human-controlled characters can trigger an easter egg of human volleyball, by keeping worshipers off the ground and batting them back and forth.
Unlike most fighting games, where the special moves are performed by moving the joystick followed by pressing one or more buttons, Primal Rage features a system where the player holds down certain buttons, then performs the joystick movements. Later revisions of the arcade game added the ability to perform "special moves" in the more traditional way, with motion followed by button presses, but kept the original method as well. After the opponent is defeated, a brief moment is allowed for the player to perform a finishing move to end the match in a more dramatic fashion; these were performed in a similar manner to the special moves. Although all characters feature three finishing moves, some of them were more easter eggs than fatalities, such as Vertigo's "La Vache Qui Rit" (French for "the laughing cow"), a fatality in which Vertigo transforms her opponent into a cow, which moos and runs away.
Animator Jason Leong recounted:
Every year [Time Warner Interactive] throws a brain-storming session where everybody brings up new game ideas. A few years ago I brought up the concept of a head-to-head dinosaur fighting game, which coincidentally someone else also brought up, but their idea was just two T. Rexes fighting. My original write-up included ideas that finally appeared in the game, such as different species of quickly moving dinosaurs and the concept of the dinosaurs being gods.
The game's development began with a series of production sketches of the fighters drawn by Leong. Using these drawings as a basis, model maker Dan Platt crafted model figures of the fighters, from which were then cast flexible metal armatures. The models were airbrushed according to Leong's drawings. The animations seen in the game were then filmed using these models, through the process of stop motion animation, with about 400 frames shot for each fighter.
The Saturn version of Primal Rage was the last version to be released. Senior producer Ken Humphries explained, "To be honest, the Saturn version got lost in the shuffle. In the process of trying to get other versions done, the Saturn version was the one they ended up pulling resources from." To allow the Saturn version to run at a solid frame rate, the team used a frame replacement speed of 30 MHz instead of the usual 60 MHz. According to Humphries, it was easier to make the Saturn hardware approximate the size of the arcade version sprites than it was with other conversions of the game.
GamePro gave both the Game Boy and Game Gear versions rave reviews, particularly applauding the graphics and the large selection of easy-to-execute special moves. They added that "There haven't been Game Gear graphics like these since MK II's debut" and expressed astonishment at the absence of slowdown in the Game Boy version.
GamePro gave more mixed reviews to the Genesis and Super NES versions, criticizing that the sprites are too small and the graphics in general are unimpressive, especially in the Genesis version. The Genesis version's reviewer complained that the controls are a straight translation of the arcade version's four-button control, making special moves needlessly awkward to execute, while the Super NES version's reviewer felt the game was outshone by the Super NES version of Killer Instinct, which came out at the same time. However, they praised the combo system and character design and gave both versions an overall recommendation. A critic for Next Generation also derided the graphics in the Genesis version, saying the sprites have "that flat, fuzzy, pasted-on-the-screen look that just isn't acceptable anymore." He further argued that the actual play mechanics of Primal Rage are unexceptional, such that without the sharp graphics and sounds of the arcade version the game isn't worth playing. He gave it two out of five stars.
A Next Generation reviewer found that while the 3DO version accurately recreated the arcade version's graphics and sound, Primal Rage's graphics had become severely dated in the years since the game was first released and the gameplay was never very deep to begin with. He gave it two out of five stars. GamePro similarly said that the 3DO version had the best graphics and sounds of any home version to date, but that "it still won't convert those who never took to the arcade original.", though they had an overall more positive impression of the game.
GamePro assessed the Jaguar CD version as "one of the Jag CD's strongest titles". They criticized the smaller sprites but said the game otherwise did an exemplary job of recreating the graphics and sound of the arcade version, and that the control with the Jaguar ProController is excellent.
As with other ultraviolent fighting games of the time (most notably Mortal Kombat), Primal Rage sparked considerable controversy due to its level of violence, depicting gory fatalities and the live devouring of humans. Though it was a bloody game, Primal Rage was rated "T" for Teen by the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB). To appease the critics, the game was withdrawn, re-programmed, and re-released several times. Later arcade incarnations of "Primal Rage" included a "Gore/No Gore" toggle switch which, when flipped to the "No Gore" setting, disabled the use of Fatalities, the eating of humans, and all of the game's blood.
Ellie Rovella of Gilbert, Arizona launched a grass-roots campaign against the game after her 11-year-old son bought and played the Genesis version of Primal Rage and executed Chaos' golden shower/urination fatality. The campaign resulted in Best Buy pulling the game from 251 stores nationwide. In response, Primal Rage publisher Time Warner Interactive pointed out that Rovella never complained to Time Warner themselves, instead taking the issue directly to the media, and that the game was clearly rated "T" for Teen and so should not have been purchased by her 11-year-old son in the first place. They also resubmitted Primal Rage for evaluation by the ESRB, who determined that the game had nothing in it to merit increasing the rating to "M" for mature or "AO" for adults only, and again rated it "T". After this reevaluation, Best Buy put every version of Primal Rage back on the shelves except for the Genesis version, which they said they would only sell if it were rated "M", even though most home versions of the game contain all the same fatalities and gore as the Genesis version.
Time Warner PR director Tracy Egan said the publisher was not overly concerned about the Ellie Rovella controversy since Primal Rage, being a two-year-old arcade game, was already past its sales peak by the time Rovella started her campaign.
Primal Rage was released for most game systems of its time. It was released for both CD-ROM and cartridge-based consoles. The PlayStation port has long loading times, a 3D intro, and fewer frames of animation for each character than the arcade version. Combo names are displayed like the arcade version. The Sega Saturn port is much like the PlayStation, except the sprites are larger and have more colours. The loading times are similar. This port features 3D intros of one character with narration whenever facing them in Arcade Mode. Combo names are absent. There was an early alpha of this port released onto the Internet. The 3DO version is much like the Saturn one, except it has much smaller sprites. The Jaguar CD release is based on the 3DO version, although it has shorter loading times.
The SNES port censors Chaos' golden shower fatality. This version also doesn't shrink the evil palette swaps (i.e. Sauron – Diablo), and lacks the ending pictures shown when beating the game. This port features a few additions, such as Vertigo's fatalities each have different colored rings. The Sega Mega Drive/Genesis version was based on version 1.7, thus the new special moves and additional fatalities introduced in revision 2.3 were not present. It has more animation than the SNES version, but less vibrant colors. There is also an exclusive Easter Egg on the Cheat menu that replaces Diablo's followers with Probe Entertainment's former CEO and founder, Fergus McGovern. Based on the Mega Drive/Genesis port, the 32X version's sprites are larger and have more colours. It has rerecorded music and new voice clips. The "Okay, right?" cheat is not present in the cheat menu.
Primal Rage was also released for various computers. The DOS ports feature different sound effects, larger sprites and all the frames of animation from the arcade version. The game CD included three different editions of the game, one for systems with 4 MB RAM, another for 8 MB and one for 16 MB, each with increasing fidelity to the arcade game. The Amiga version features 8-bit characters, and smaller sprites, giving players big spaces to move around. There are also new sound effects and screen-shaking effects. Although it was marketed as an Amiga 1200 version, this version was in fact suitable for any Amiga with at least 2MB chip Ram.
Versions were released for various handheld systems. The Game Boy port removed Vertigo and the humans. Every character has two attacks, four specials, and one fatality. Chaos' Golden Shower fatality has been added back, but the urine is replaced with vomit. The music also has been cut down to three tracks – Armadon, Diablo, and Chaos' songs. The Game Gear version is the same as the Game Boy version, but with color and blood, and Chaos' golden shower is the same as the arcade.
As promotion for the home versions, in October 1995 publisher Time Warner Interactive hosted a "National Primal Rage Video Game Tournament" at Six Flags Over Texas.
By 1995, Atari had begun production of Primal Rage II. Ken Humphries, senior producer of the home versions of the original Primal Rage, said in an early 1996 interview that "Primal Rage 2 should come out in the arcades in September 1996. As soon as they finish that, we'll start working on the consumer versions." However, the game did not get very far into production before being cancelled, as Atari felt that it wouldn't generate enough sales.
The game was to feature new characters; humans called the Avatars, that were the gods' surrogates on Urth, with the first game's characters meant to make a comeback as said gods. Necrosan, a boss in the form of a living dragon skeleton, once rumored by video game magazine GamePro to be added in an updated release of the original Primal Rage, was to become the main antagonist.
The plot focused on the years after the first game's timeline. It turns out the meteor that crashed on Urth was actually an egg which hatched a being known as Necrosan. The gods fight it but their efforts end up being useless. Necrosan imprisons them in a state of semi-suspended animation, forms minions of his own and starts to wreak havoc on Urth. The gods then choose human Avatars for themselves. The Avatars fight the minions of Necrosan, release the gods from their prison and battle Necrosan himself. The warriors would be Malyssa, avatar of Vertigo; Arik, avatar of Sauron; Keena, avatar of Talon; Shank, avatar of Chaos; Sinjin, avatar of Diablo; Kaze, avatar of Blizzard; Tor, avatar of Armadon; and Xiao Ming, avatar of Slash Fang, a newly-introduced Primal God in the form of a Smilodon;
Although the game never came to be, its story was later adapted into Primal Rage: The Avatars. Also, the characters of Slash Fang and Necrosan were released with the other god characters in the short-lived Primal Rage action figure series.
A test arcade cabinet briefly appeared playable at the Golfland arcades in Milpitas, California and Sunnyvale, California, and a supposedly finished machine of this was shown at the California Extreme 2001 show. The machine had the original board and most of the original art. In subsequent years, screenshots of the incomplete game were released on the Internet. In December 2012, a YouTube user posted a video that showcased the almost never-before seen game in action, and then in June 2014, it was reported that the game was available for play at Galloping Ghost Arcade in Brookfield, Illinois. With only two boards of the game considered to be in existence, a dump from the board's game had been circulating the internet for some years, but no emulator had been able to run it, until in March 2017 it was revealed that an individual had created a modified version of MAME, named "MAME4RAGE2", making it able to emulate the game.
When Primal Rage II was cancelled, Atari allegedly felt it necessary to somehow present the story for the sequel in one form or another. Thus, in 1997, a novel called Primal Rage: The Avatars, written by John Vornholt, was published by Boulevard Books. The book tells what happened to the dinosaur gods 65 million years ago, and then moves into the main story of the gods' reign on Urth renewed, then the beast Necrosan appears. The book also focuses on fleshing out the world of Primal Rage, and does so by bringing "the Avatars" to the forefront of the story, they being the humans chosen by their respective gods to be their shamans or other titles of nobility.
A number of details to the backstory of Primal Rage are made clear in The Avatars. According to John Vornholt's novel the events in Primal Rage take place in the year 1000 AC (After Cataclysm) or about the year 3000 AD according to the Gregorian calendar. The battles of the dinosaurs are referred to as "The Primal Rage". In the novel, the spell used to imprison the dinosaur gods is called the Bonds of Forbidding. Necrosan the skeletal dragon (who is referred to as Necronus on the introductory page) reactivates the Bonds of Forbidding to entrap the gods.
Sirius Entertainment published a 4-issue comic book mini-series based on the game from 1996 to 1998. While issue #1 featured color interior art, the low-run published issues #2–4 featured black-and-white interior art.
When the Primal Rage video game was out, there were also action figures made for the creatures of Primal Rage each including their own follower.