Some games have a concept so good that the execution doesn’t really matter. Tokyo Jungle is about animals — exotic zoo animals, household pets, farm stock, and forest wildlife — fighting for survival and dominance in an overgrown, post-apocalyptic Tokyo, long after the complete disappearance of humankind. That is one of the greatest gaming elevator pitches of the 21st century, no question.
The PlayStation 3 game that sprang from this idea in 2012 is exactly as harsh, comical, and strange as it should be (and it’s now available to stream with PlayStation Plus Premium). It is not, by any stretch, a masterpiece of game design or technology. But it is a brilliant idea that has been realized in a completely unfiltered way, which makes it, if anything, even more precious.
Tokyo Jungle was made by Crispy’s!, an inexperienced indie studio, under the wing of Sony’s Japan Studio and PlayStation Studios’ then-president, Shuhei Yoshida. It’s a weird mixture of slick, corporate production and naive outsider art, with endearingly clashing aesthetics. The flashy, score attack-style interface and insistent background techno music seem to hail from an early 2000s fighting game. Meanwhile, the crudely textured models seem to be going for a blurry, bleached, primitive sort of realism.
Structurally, in the main Survival mode, Tokyo Jungle plays like a kind of arcade roguelike invented by someone who’d never heard of roguelikes. You choose your animal — at first, only yappy little Pomeranian dogs and fragile sika deer are available — and begin the hunt for food while avoiding bigger predators. Time races by at terrifying speed; a year passes every few minutes and your hunger gauge is constantly plummeting. Death is always near, and it spells game over.
So, it’s crucial to keep moving. Tokyo is divided into small districts, and if you can “mark” a territory as yours, you can find a mate and breed there, whereupon you’re reborn as a new generation. This comes with a stat boost and a pack of siblings who follow you around, essentially as extra lives. But with that, it’s time to press on into new, more dangerous territory, because no breeding nest can ever be used twice. (Nests are also the only place you can save your game, which is perhaps Tokyo Jungle’s cruelest feature and most frustrating flaw.)
If you’ve chosen a carnivorous predator — and yes, the ridiculous little Pomeranian counts as a predator — the focus of your game will be on basic, frantic, and surprisingly savage combat. If you play as a grazer, it’s easier to breed — but there’ll be more stealth as you attempt to sneak up to edible plants undetected by predators. Each of the game’s large suite of animals comes with a bespoke list of challenges, which unlocks new animals, and these challenges too have time limits. The pressure is relentless.
Tokyo Jungle is funny, both in its intentionally surreal, video-gamey touches — Dinosaurs! Giant bunnies! Unlockable outfits! — and in the deadpan juxtapositions of a world where beagles, chickens, and tigers fight to the death in ruined shopping centers. But it also bears the uncompromising, sex-and-death brutality of a particularly unsentimental nature documentary. Its message: Time is running out, eat or be eaten, leave a legacy quickly before you die.
In this way, it’s a less sophisticated, but more accessible and arguably more fun version of an even stranger experiment in playable Darwinism from 10 years prior: the GameCube’s Cubivore. That’s another game that would be great to rediscover in the weeds of some future subscription catalog. Until then, Tokyo Jungle remains the alpha of blunt video game animalism, red in tooth and claw.