Originally published in the Spring 2020 issue of Birth.Movies.Death magazine.
Godzilla games don’t work. There are certainly plenty of Godzilla games out there, but even those that aren’t blatant cash-ins aren’t that great. That may seem surprising, given the prevalence of giant monsters in video games, but thus far, Godzilla has worked better as an influence than as a subject.
Why doesn’t Godzilla work? Sadly, the big guy is simply not very much fun to play as, or alongside. Godzilla does one thing really well – destroy things – and it’s hard to structure a full-length game around that alone. Compared to the human characters in his films, Godzilla’s motivations are simple: he generally comes in to push out a monster encroaching upon Japan, and it’s pretty hard to design a full game’s worth of unique missions around that alone. As a result, many Godzilla games revolve around score-attack modes of play, tasking players with smashing up as many identical buildings as possible, or doing something else similarly repetitive.
The most promising Godzilla games capitalise upon another load-bearing pillar of Godzilla films: monster fights. A highlight of any given Godzilla film is the moment Godzilla lays a nuclear smackdown upon other monsters, whether through radioactive powers or through goofy, old-fashioned wrestling moves. In theory, that should make for a good fighting game, with players facing off as different kaiju in an approximation of the films’ inventive monster duels. But giant monsters and fighting games disagree in one fundamental way: giant monsters move slowly, and fighting games are designed around speed. A fighting game in which the combatants take seconds to execute their fighting moves fundamentally doesn’t work. A giant monster game where the monsters move like ninjas fundamentally doesn’t work. The genres simply don’t mix.
But Godzilla tends to be a force of nature in film, not the dramatic protagonist – so why couldn’t a game centre on a human character, either fighting or supporting a computer-controlled Godzilla? There are two problems. For one thing, such a game would likely lack for Godzilla-centric things to do; it’d be an ordinary action-adventure or shooter game where Godzilla could be substituted for nearly any giant enemy (or friend). But more crucially, when we play a Godzilla game, we want to play as Godzilla. That’s the power fantasy. But there’s limited fun in that, as established above. It’s a Catch-22: playing as Godzilla isn’t as much fun as you’d think, and playing as anyone else isn’t very Godzilla.
Godzilla can be seen in games, however, as influence and inspiration. Kaiju films have fed inspiration into many games, from arcade classic Rampage to the God of War series to Psychonauts’ fanciful kaiju freak-out inside a lungfish’s brain, but it’s in Japanese games that the influence is felt the strongest. All the games under FromSoftware’s informal “Soulsborne” design umbrella – from Demon’s Souls to Bloodborne to Elden Ring – are packed with giant monsters, ranging from oversized beastly animals to nightmarish eldritch creatures. The Metal Gear Solid series trades in monsters for military robots, but the effect is similar. Shadow of the Colossus is based entirely around fights with building-sized, differently-themed stone creatures, while its spiritual successor The Last Guardian takes a more affable approach to its central beast. Even characters from Nintendo’s core franchises, like the venerable Bowser and Donkey Kong or the various monstrous forms of Zelda antagonist Ganon, owe some debt to kaiju movies. Even if they don’t fit into the kaiju pantheon specifically, all of these games pay homage to it in some way.
Another issue in putting Godzilla into video games revolves around technical limitations. Godzilla films put city-scale destruction front and centre, depicted using either men in rubber suits wrecking intricate miniatures, or through complex CGI simulations that take hours per frame to calculate and render. Video games have to simulate their effects interactively and in real-time, grossly restricting the level of detail they can use compared to cinema. It’s possible to do simplified destruction physics, but nothing sells scale like detail, and removing detail from Godzilla’s smashing sprees makes them feel like playing with blocks. A full-scale, realistically-modeled, freely-destructible city is simply outside the realm of possibility for now.
That isn’t stopping developers from trying, though. High-budget games frequently feature sequences of dynamic interactive destruction, and engine developers constantly put out tech demos hyping the visual and physical realism afforded by new hardware and software. Games are borderline obsessed with the idea of scale – huge playable environments, sprawling virtual cities, AI-powered crowds, giant explosions, and so on – and equally obsessed with creating believable creatures. Between tech demos and actual games, the medium always feels as though it’s working towards a Godzilla game that just hasn’t yet materialised.
How, then, to make a Godzilla game that actually works – that sells the scale of Godzilla, delivers the power fantasy of playing Godzilla, and genuinely feels like a Godzilla movie? I’d pitch something along the lines of Ubisoft’s underrated Peter Jackson’s King Kong, in which the player character alternated between a human protagonist and Kong himself, each with a unique gameplay style. This game would see its human protagonist engaging in the actual storyline, and switch to “Godzilla mode” when the story called for Godzilla to do some city-wrecking or monster-fighting. The interplay between the two could make for some interesting mechanics, with human and kaiju offering different gameplay perspectives as they help or hinder one another; the pacing would be leavened by swapping between them; and perhaps most importantly, it would feel like playing a Godzilla movie – human bits and all.
Maybe one day, a Godzilla game will emerge that does Big G justice. Such a game would be expensive to produce, and probably only attract a niche audience, but with recent advances in voxel technology and materials simulation, it’s theoretically possible. As yet, though, no such game exists. We’ll have to make do with the countless games inspired by Godzilla – and honestly, given the myriad ways in which games have interpreted that influence, that’s enough for now.