The history of video games is littered with great ideas that were canceled before their time, drained of resources and put out to pasture because of budget or production woes. That said, there are vanishingly few games that made it all the way through the trials and tribulations of a multi-year development cycle only to have their wings clipped just before the copies flooded onto store shelves.
But that’s exactly what happened to the PlayStation game “Thrill Kill” back in 1999. Described as a passion project by some and the product of a deeply-misguided publisher by others, the four-player fighter’s BDSM-inspired aesthetic was specifically selected to sow controversy in an era where so-called edgy content was seen as highly marketable. While the studio producing the game, Paradox, savored the attention that came with the public outcry, many in the firm were devastated when the swirling strife ultimately kneecapped what they felt was a technical marvel of the era.
More broadly construed, the story of “Thrill Kill” – or “Wu-Tang: Shaolin Style,” the bizarre, hip-hop flavored kung-fu fighting game that it eventually became – is a chronicle of the unique state of the gaming industry in the late ‘90s, and how its structural shortcomings and creative excesses lead to perhaps the most notorious unreleased game in the history of the industry.
Around the year 2000, game developer Brian Gomez boarded a train bound to the Scottish Highlands when a backpacker asked him where he had gotten his hat, which was emblazoned “Thrill Kill.” Slightly startled, Gomez replied that he had helped make a video game of that title back in his home country of the United States. At that, the backpacker became excited, even giddy – he explained that “Thrill Kill” was one of his favorite games, and he couldn’t believe that he was meeting someone who worked on it.
Having worked in the industry for several years, even on a handful of lesser-known projects, like “The Incredible Crash Test Dummies,” Gomez had run into fans of his work in the past. But this was different. “I remember asking him, ‘how the hell do you even know what this is?’” recalls Gomez. “And he basically said that he had bought it at a swap meet for five quid, basically out of the back of somebody’s van. And I’m just sitting there, dumbfounded.”
Paradox Development was founded in 1994 by Christine Hsu.
As a third-party video game developer in the late 1990’s, Paradox Development survived on a business model that’s almost unrecognizable today. In this pre-indie, pre-digital distribution era – before sweeping changes came to the industry thanks to the proliferation of low or no-cost game tools in the twenty-aughts – small studios needed publishers to stock the shelves of the brick-and-mortar stores in each territory. Thus, when a publisher would demand overwhelming changes to a game in the midst of production, developers didn’t have much leverage to resist. After all, that publisher’s checks kept the lights on. Unless they were particularly successful, they’d likely be anchored to one project at a time, and without that anchor, the studio would drift into deep water very quickly.
The first game the group worked on — before it spent time making titles for Activision, EA, Interplay, Namco, and others — was an original IP meant to be developed on the PlayStation and published by Virgin Interactive. The idea was that the success of the game would formally launch the studio.
“You basically sold one game to a publisher at a time, and then R&D-ed three or four different games off that,” says Kevin Mulhall, one of the producers on the game. “You try to use the one solid thing to make the thing you actually wanted to make. And when something would fall through, you’d say, ‘Oh, is there a way we can make this into something we’d actually want to make?’ It was a very haphazard way of doing things, but it was the only way back then, at least for a studio like Paradox.”
Being spotted by a fan of “Thrill Kill” while boarding a train to the Scottish Highlands was a disorienting experience for Gomez. And for good reason, the game he was being recognized for — “Thrill Kill” — was the reason he was in Scotland in the first place. Like a lot of the staff at Paradox Development, Gomez expected that grisly game to rocket to the top of the charts, along with other brutally-violent fighters like “Mortal Kombat.” Even though “Thrill Kill was the young studio’s first game, they were confident that sequels would assuredly follow, and Paradox would eventually grow into one of the premier independent studios in the industry.
But their dreams of competing with the Capcoms and Midways of the world never materialized. Instead, thanks to a confluence of factors – some within the studio’s sphere of influence, and some without – the completed game was never released. It was overhauled, it shifted ownership from publisher to publisher, and it changed drastically over time, but it never hit store shelves. Instead, it was canned at the last possible second by mega-publisher Electronic Arts, who labeled the controversial title an embarrassment to the industry.
Disillusioned by the process, Gomez traveled to Scotland to restart his game development career, free of the failure and memories of “Thrill Kill.”
Yet, somehow, here was an anonymous Scottish backpacker saying that a famously-canceled game was one of his favorite on the PlayStation; in fact, he didn’t even seem to know it never came out.
Thoroughly confused, Gomez contacted one of the artists who worked on the game, Dana De Lalla, his best friend from high-school. “And Dana just said, ‘yeah, somebody leaked the game. It’s making a huge impact in the pirate circles. People are selling copies of it for $200,’” says Gomez. To a developer who had just uprooted his entire life in the wake of crushing disappointment, it was a bizarre development in an already-strange story.
When Gomez got a freelance writing job at Paradox – thanks mostly to a glowing recommendation from his friend De Lalla – it was to work on the project that eventually became “Thrill Kill.” But it wasn’t the blood-fueled, “Mortal Kombat”-like brawler that would eventually make headlines throughout the gaming world; in fact, it wasn’t even a fighting game. Instead, it was a fantasy sports game based on the “Mesoamerican ballgame” pok-ta-pok, a famously-brutal sport etched into the history of geographical South America that sometimes ended in ritual sacrifice – seemingly for both the winners and losers, depending on the region.
“It eventually got to the point when rival players could practically disembowel each other”
According to multiple sources, the game shared its title “Earth Monsters” with a corresponding comic book in production at Malibu Comics, a publisher with close ties to Paradox. (No comic by that name was ever released by Malibu, so it was likely canceled as the game transmogrified into a completely different concept.) Players controlled burly Aztec warriors with exaggerated physiques that fought and scrapped to throw a ball into a hoop to score points. Unlike most sports games, there were no fouls here – contestants could punch and kick each other with impunity at close range, which made for chaotic gameplay.
While Paradox’s contracted publisher, Virgin Interactive, was initially receptive to the “fantastical bloodsport” concept, over time they implored the developer to increase the violence more and more, shifting the locus of play away from the ball. It eventually got to the point when rival players could practically disembowel each other on the court. Eventually, the publisher told them to throw out the hoop entirely. “They basically told us, ‘you know, the sports thing is cool, but do you know what makes this game fun? The fighting,’” recalls De Lalla. “At that point, we started making a fighting game.”
Though fighting games had arguably begun their long fall from an early ‘90s heyday by this point, the sheer novelty of a three-dimensional take on the genre made the concept highly marketable. For example, 1997’s “Tekken 3” would eventually become one of the PlayStation’s best-selling games. Unlike “Tekken” or “Virtua Fighter,” however, the game that would become “Thrill Kill” had one distinct advantage: its engine was specifically designed to accommodate up to four players, a feat that no 3D game had yet managed to pull off. (The likes of “Power Stone” and the now-mammoth “Super Smash Bros.” would eventually popularize this concept.) It might seem quaint in this cordless era, but this was due in part to the original PlayStation not accommodating four players out of the box; fans of party games had to purchase a “multitap” peripheral to complete their four-player dreams.
According to multiple sources, Virgin Interactive knew that a substantial portion of the PlayStation One’s userbase had purchased multitaps to play their favorite sports games, and they were willing to bet those players wanted another game to validate their purchase decision.
A cardboard box of German porn and BDSM DVDs became the new art direction.
As Paradox moved in the direction of creating a pure “fight-game,” the patina of the vague Mesoamerican theme remained, but their publisher – and particularly Harvard Bonin, the producer that Virgin assigned to the project – continued to urge Paradox to push the game in a more sensationalized direction. Despite that, several members of the team recall their surprise when Bonin brought down fraught news from their overlords: per focus testing, Virgin wanted them to dump the pseudo-Azetc aesthetic entirely, in favor of something far edgier.
“When we first started, they were more superhero types,” Gomez recalls. “But then we’d hear from Harvard, and he’d say, ‘let’s play up the characters. The punching and kicking is cool, but I want to rip guys’ heads off.’ They wanted the female characters sexier, make the breasts bigger, make the costumes smaller. So I knew we were on that kind of trajectory. But still, I’ll never forget when we had that meeting – and this is a story I often tell people – when Harvard walked into the office with a big stack of fetish magazines, some German, like “Skin Two,” a big cardboard box of some DVDs of like BDSM stuff, and he said, ‘Boys, here’s your new art direction.’ It was a massive pivot, maybe the biggest I’ve ever seen in a games project.”
While some sources recall one or two members of the dozen or so-strong development team initially objecting to the deliberately-risque, controversy-courting nature of this new approach, Virgin eventually managed to convince them that this the best way to get the game noticed in a crowded marketplace. That absolute certainty in the eventual success of this sadomasochistic vision might have won the team over, but it was about all the publisher had to offer to the team – the rest was up to them. Or, as Gomez puts it: “They wanted all this crazy, over-the-top violence between guys in gimp suits and bondage gear, but they gave us zero context for the killing, why these people are ripping each other apart, why they might be doing this. And that’s where I came in.”
Gomez might have been listed on the Paradox payroll as an assistant producer, but, according to both he and De Lalla, he was actually hired because the studio desperately needed some sort of writer to add texture to their games. As an avid fan of Clive Barker’s work, particularly “Hellraiser,” Gomez leaned into his preferred horror milieu to write a two-page treatment of the game’s basic scenario. From the straitjacketed Oddball to the librarian-turned-dominatrix Belladonna, each character was sentenced to hell for their earthly crimes against humanity; however, once a generation, a demoness named Marukka allows the damned denizens to fight it out for another chance at life.
While it’s a bit silly, it’s a functional enough story for a game about strange supernatural characters murdering each other in a bathroom, but it shares undeniable similarities with the setup to another ultra-violent fighting game, “Eternal Champions: Challenge from the Dark Side.” (In “Champions,” the contestants are failed heroes instead of tormented villains.) While Gomez admits the basic situation is essentially the same, the unlikely inspiration for “Thrill Kill’s” story wasn’t a fellow blood-and-guts fighter – instead, it was the musical “Cats,” where the titular felines converge in order to nominate a single one of their kind to come back to life. Since this was the era of early CGI in video gaming, Gomez was also tasked with scribing short video vignettes to reward the player for completing modes. “They basically put it on me to explain everything,” he says. “Why is this guy in a straitjacket? Why is this dwarf on stilts, in a leather-daddy costume? It was a lot to deal with.”
Heading into E3 1998 in Atlanta, the biggest trade show for video gaming, now held in Los Angeles, Virgin’s Bischoffian “controversy creates cash” approach seemed to be paying dividends. As Gomez recalls, the spokesmodels that Virgin hired to represent the game – or, to use the offensive industry parlance of the era, “booth babes” – never actually showed up. This lead several members of the team to hire local Atlanta exotic dancers to portray two of the women characters in the game, which helped further the “adults-only” approach. (“That’s the one thing people seem to remember about the game. Those models,” he says. “Somebody even asked me about it last week.”) Early press clocked in as mostly positive, and the game’s bizarre premise seemed to hook people. The August 1998 issue of GamePro notes that the game “drew huge crowds to the Virgin booth.”
Sex or Violence
As the targeted release date of summer 1998 approached, Paradox staffers began to hear rumors that publisher Virgin Interactive was going under. All the while, De Lalla and others were ping-ponging back and forth with the Entertainment Software Rating Board about the content of the game. Better known as the ESRB, the Board is the self-regulatory organ of the games industry that affixes age warnings to video games, in the style of “Tipper” Gore-esque “parental advisories.” As De Lalla recalls, all throughout development, Bonin and Virgin told Paradox that hitting the maximum rating that the ESRB allowed, “AO” (for “adults-only”), would be a sort of badge of pride for the studio; near release, however, Virgin changed its tune, advising Paradox to tone down the game’s content enough to secure a more marketable “M” (for “mature”) rating. (The game ended up receiving one of the very first “AO” ratings, shortly before its cancellation.)
“It was just ridiculous,” De Lalla recalls. “We were going back and forth over the tiniest things. Some of it made sense. Belladonna had a kill move where we made it seem like she was giving the victim oral sex before killing them. Well, we changed that to her just tickling them. We had her moan as she killed people. Well, that wasn’t cool, so we made her only moan at the beginning of a match. Initially, everyone in the game wore thongs, just because we thought that’s what they wanted. But the ESRB said, ‘you can’t show that much ass.’ So we gave them panty-lines. ‘Is this enough butt-cheek covered?’ I couldn’t believe what we were doing.”
De Lalla managed to sneak a covert dig at Paradox’s paymasters under their noses. According to both he and Gomez, the dwarf “leather-daddy” on stilts, Imp, was modeled after their somewhat-overbearing producer Bonin, at least as much as the low-poly counts of the era would allow. While both of them liked Bonin personally – and they believed the over-the-top approach he championed would lead to results at the till – there were still some in the studio who resented the aesthetic about-turn, and De Lalla felt a bit of gentle ribbing was warranted.
When the news came down from on high that major publisher Electronic Arts had acquired Virgin Interactive’s US operations just a few weeks prior to “Thrill Kill’s” hotly-anticipated launch, sources describe the mood within Paradox as cautiously optimistic. “At first we thought that EA handling the game would be a good thing,” says David Ollman, lead programmer at the studio. “A few of the more experienced members of the team considered it an upgrade. Of course, that changed very quickly.”
Soon enough, EA publicly announced that they were essentially killing the game at the eleventh hour, citing its level of violence as incompatible with their corporate image. For Paradox employees, it was a devastating blow, made all the worse by the manner in which they received it – sources remember learning of the game’s cancellation through the games media, not EA themselves. “We read it on the internet,” says Mulhall. “It’s not a case of six guys in suits coming down from EA to let us down softly. They didn’t even give enough of a shit to tell us in person.”
With their contracted publisher refusing to publish the game, Paradox received a multitude of competitive offers from EA’s rivals, such as Eidos Interactive (today a part of Square Enix), all hoping to elbow-in to capitalize on the infamy. Much to Paradox’s dismay, however, EA refused to sell the publishing rights. As far as the company was concerned, in the words of Ollman, “Thrill Kill” would stay “on the highest, darkest shelf, never to be let down.” While it might seem unthinkable for a multinational corporation to sit on a hot-ticket item, several sources point to the growing political concerns over violence in games in the U.S. as a possible motive for the game’s cancellation. “I mean, this was the era of [Senator Joe] Lieberman and [First Lady] Hillary Clinton talking about the effects of violent games on the kids,” says Mulhall. “It was everywhere, and we all felt like execs at EA were close to that sort of crowd, and it would be hard for them to publish a game like ‘Thrill Kill.’ So they canned it.”
With the effort of three years of development circling the drain and no publisher around to pay the bills, Paradox was left with one asset that no other studio could boast: a game engine that allowed for simultaneous four-player fighting. As such, the desperate staff immediately started working on a prototype for a reimagining of “Thrill Kill,” titled “FUBAR.” Described by De Lalla as a futuristic bloodsport similar to the film “Running Man,” the team decided to abandon the sexualized content that had caused so many headaches with “Thrill Kill” in order to focus on more visceral violence.
While trying to pitch this concept to other publishers, they heard from a producer at Activision that the publisher was trying to green-light a game based on the beloved rap collective known as the Wu-Tang Clan. But that wasn’t the only connection to the hip-hop world knocking on their door; according to Gomez, the studio at one point considered leveraging the engine to create a “PaRappa the Rapper”-esque dancing game starring Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs. Faced with the prospect of building a whole new style of game, the studio ultimately decided to forego the rhythm game and stick to the fighting genre, taking on the strange mythology of the Wu in a game that would become known as “Wu-Tang: Shaolin Style.”
Though the team was glad that Activision pulled them out of these dire straits, the mantle of a kung-fu game based on the music of a Staten Island hip-hop group rested uneasily on the heads of these California game developers. Sources recall only one or two members of Paradox staff even enjoying the nine-member collective’s tunes in the first place. “If they had approached me about a Depeche Mode fighting game, I would’ve been a lot more excited,” jokes Mulhall. Still, a job was a job, and they knew the Wu-Tang Clan was famous for sampling classic martial arts movies in their songs, so the skeptics at Paradox were eventually convinced that the endeavor wasn’t entirely doomed.
To hear Mulhall tell it, however, Activision didn’t exactly make their lives easier. While the publisher seemed happy with the builds of the game Paradox delivered, access to the members of the Wu was limited only to the publisher-side producer. According to De Lalla, when it came to representing the more obscure members of the collective, Paradox was left in the lurch. “We ended up giving U-God a sort of boxing style, with his golden arms,” he says. “And Masta Killa was basically just a ninja. It’s like, what do we actually know about U-God? A little bit of feedback on that would have gone a long way.”
For Paradox producer Mulhall, it was only after he left Paradox to work on Neversoft’s mega-successful “Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater” franchise that he realized just how striking the Wu’s lack of involvement in the project was. “We got some notes back on the art direction, but when I worked on some of the THPS games, I was amazed just how often I would interact with Tony or other pro skaters,” says Mulhall. “They wanted to make sure the game was true to what they wanted to see in a skateboarding game.”
According to Ollman, obvious similarities aside, “Thrill Kill” and “Shaolin Style” don’t just share an engine – though the latter has a very different set of models and textures, he estimates that the games are roughly 70% identical on a technical level. Despite their shared DNA, De Lalla recalls pulling some of the most brutal work-weeks of his career in order to forge the hundred-plus animations required for each of the game’s characters. He says he ended up “breaking himself” during the production of the game.
“Because of engine constraints, we had to have the exact same number of animations from ‘Thrill Kill,’” he says. “During the process of making that game and ‘FUBAR,’ we had ample time to work on the animations.” But thanks to Activision’s ambitious deadline of late 1999, that wasn’t the case with “Shaolin Style.” De Lalla explains: “I wasn’t even really an animator, I was more of a character guy, but here I was, watching old kung-fu movies 24/7, finding the coolest moves, talking to the designers. I was sleeping under my desk, working just a truly insane number of hours a week. I was having panic attacks. I was in the office on Christmas Day 1998. Of course, I didn’t have anywhere else to go, but it was absolutely a difficult time in my career.”
When “Shaolin Style” finally emerged in November 1999, it was a moderate success by every metric, selling several hundred thousand copies, earning praise from some gaming outlets and a more muted response from others. By that point, according to sources, Paradox was already aware that Activision had shifted the game’s marketing budget to focus on the smash hit of the late summer, the original “Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater.” Mulhall left Paradox shortly after the game’s release to work in a similar role at Neversoft, while De Lalla would follow his lead later in the 2000’s. Ollman stayed with Paradox, weathering its acquisition by “Mortal Kombat” originators Midway in 2004, a partnership that eventually resulted in “Mortal Kombat: Shaolin Monks,” perhaps the studio’s most well-known game, besides the one that never graced store shelves.
All-in-all, when it comes to the “Thrill Kill” saga, each source has a different takeaway from the experience. One thing is clear: even in the lurid era of the late ‘90s, an expression of female sexuality was far more controversial than a decapitated corpse. “It really was the bad old days,” says Gomez. “There were almost no women in the industry then. Paradox was at least somewhat better than the norm because it was run by a woman, Christine Hsu. When I worked at Disney, all the designers I worked with were women, except for one. Today, I don’t think a character like Belladonna would make it into a game, and I think that’s a good thing for everyone…In terms of my career, ’Thrill Kill’ getting canceled was one of the best things that ever happened to me. I think people let me interview at their companies just so they could hear the story of just what the hell happened with it.”
While De Lalla says that he still hasn’t gotten over EA’s wholesale slaughter of “Thrill Kill,” in terms of the legacy of the game, he thinks the cancellation was probably for the best. EA didn’t know it at the time, but they transfixed in amber an artifact of “Blade”-tinged late-’90s grimdarkery, perhaps saving it from the snide remarks of podcast hosts and media critics alike – the ultimate fate of all instantly-dated kitsch art.
“When ‘Wu-Tang’ came out, it was a much better game than ‘Thrill Kill,” he says. “It might as well have been ‘Thrill Kill 2,’ which we were already planning when the game got canned. If it had come out, it would’ve gotten a lot of press because of the controversy, but it wasn’t the best playing game. Now, it’ll always be remembered as this weird thing that didn’t come out. An unrealized dream.”