Kingpin Life of Crime

FBT muthafukin’ muthafuks muthafukas

As an incredibly violent, graphic game, Kingpin was public enemy number one in a post-Columbine world. In an effort to placate the pitchfork waving parents, developers Xatrix released the game with a reduced violence setting and a page one warning in the manual.

That didn't help. It quickly faded into obscurity, not helped by most stores refusing to stock it out of fear. It became one of those games everyone had heard of but few had played; like Manhunt or Bully, Kingpin was the gaming industry’s version of video nasties but while those moral-panic inducing titles actually had subversive commentary on social behaviour and were not even remotely about what the moral crusaders accused them of, Kingpin had practically no redeeming features. Long forgotten, is this muthafuka really that bad?

Beaten by the Kingpin’s thugs, our nameless and featureless hero is left for dead in Skidrow and warned not to come back muthafuka. Of course, our hero has one goal in mind – come back muthafuka.

Despite being a revenge game, it’s never really explained why our hero got a kicking at the start. But then the minimalist plot and characters are kind of the point, we’re just a low-life looking to score in a lawless, morally vacant world. At one point he bums a lift of a guy then shotguns him for asking for gas money. Badass. I guess?

Kingpin isn’t really contentious, it’s embarrassing. It comes across like a mid-nineties Tarantino-worshipping student film but with Cypress Hill instead of Dusty Springfield. It misses the point of exploring a criminal underworld; Tarantino’s flicks may be profane but the characters had charm and the violence was never glorified – this was the world they lived in, and Tarantino provided a glimpse of bad guys doing everyday things like discussing Madonna or foot massages before blowing everyone away. Kingpin’s lead is an indifferent killer who can’t even find his own voice; it just lifts movie lines wholesale, and constantly spouts ‘muthafuka’ like a 14yr old on CoD Online trying to be cool.

A non-linear shooter, you skulk around open areas doing small jobs and gaining favours to get you into the next part of the city; you’re helping local hoods reclaim their territory, can pay thugs to act as your muscle and even pick ones based on their abilities like safe-cracking or being tougher. Make sure you murder your allies to reclaim their fee before leaving the area though, because you’re a badass. I’m beginning to think we caught a beating at the start because the Kingpin had enough of our shit.

It has some RPG elements to it too, like peaceful NPCs - some will turn violent if you have your weapon drawn, but others will offer tips or hints if you bribe them (then kill them to get the money back), and we visit bars or clubs to pick up quests and pawn shops to buy stuff from. Problem is though, despite all those brilliantly forward-thinking elements, Kingpin is a mess.

It’s grimy and flat to look with basic yet confusing levels, and you’re often stuck with no clear path or idea of what needs to be done - and you’re never sure you’ve accomplished what’s needed before you progress. Eventually you realise you’re not really accomplishing anything and give up wandering in favour of finding the exit. Some locations aren’t bad, there’s a great run through a train depot and occasionally we see some nice effects like Radio City’s tiled walls evoking some 1920s/Victorian tone and neon city streets but it’s just drab and we spend far too long in sewers. It looks ugly when it should be detailed, and there’s no underworld feeling – is this even the underworld?

The setting is anachronistic, a bit like that nineties film Dark City but without the dark. Or much of a city. Is this Bladerunner, are we in Escape from New York? Is the Kingpin an underworld boss like the Duke or the president? Who knows, the game doesn’t bother telling you and you get the feeling the entire Xatrix staff got together and listed all their favourite films and chucked them into the game without any of the context or understanding.

It’s also frustrating that there’s all those opportunities it creates then ignores. Why are we not building our own empire, taking over locations, becoming a rival Kingpin in our own right? All the options are right there and Kingpin could have beaten GTA III by two years – silent, psychotic hero myopically stomping through the Kingpin’s businesses looking for revenge, an unstoppable force tearing his empire down but he doesn’t actually do that either. What are we doing?!

As a shooter it’s not much. The bad guys yell ‘muthafuka’ then run at you guns blazing and while there’s some nice aspects like actually seeing the damage you cause during gunfights, and bad guys running off leaving blood trails for you to follow it just starts to feel a bit of a chore. The levels, look and fights never change so you get tired of the nothingness and it eventually gives up on the vague promise it started with.

You just follow the sounds of ‘muthafuka’ to find your way, until you’re just muttering it back at the screen. This game is a muthafuka to get through not because it’s complex, but because it’s so deathly repetitive. Only so long I can be a muthafuka before I get tired of it.

Eventually we corner the Kingpin in his ridiculously oversized mansion and get into a frustrating boss fight that reveals nothing and it all means nothing when we finally reach Kingpin status. If it’s supposed to be ironic it doesn’t work. If our hero wanted to become that particular Kingpin for his money and bitches he doesn’t seem happy about it. Was he the original Kingpin and that guy usurped us? Who knows? Who cares?

Kingpin had some fantastic ideas and its central theme of navigating the criminal underclass could have been great - it has the DNA of GTA and Far Cry, it almost has Gun's attempt at an open-world; instead, it feels grubby. It’s like an open-plan Doom-clone with a last-minute layering of swears. It’s not even gleeful about how sleezy it is; even Postal 2 did this kind of moral-free gaming better. Kingpin was attacked as a Murder Simulator, but arguably that’s exactly what it is. I always thought Kingpin never got a chance to claim the throne, but turns out it never really deserved it. Just too many muthafukas.

1999 | Developer, Xatrix Entertainment | Publisher, Interplay Entertainment

platforms; Win (Steam,