“A beaten dog may fear you, but the second you turn your back he’s gonna strike. Real power comes from respect. That’s what our code is all about.”
-Chris Judge as D-Mob
A particular Music Monday from a few week’s back inspired me to play Def Jam: Fight for NY again. I remember getting it for Christmas over a decade ago when my love for hip-hop was as strong as my love for fighting games. I played it intensely over and over again so getting back into it was easy. It may not have set the world on fire but playing it now, it certainly influenced how combat mechanics and visuals are utilized today and proved that fighting games could bring drama to their story modes too.
In the early 2000s wrestling games, specifically the WWF Smack Down! series by THQ were huge. EA Sports began to take notice and collaborated with legendary music label Def Jam to create their own wrestling game with rap superstars such as DMX, Method Man, Redman and Ludacris. Released in 2003 Def Jam: Vendetta received praise for the weight and momentum of the four player fighting system, the large 3D fighting arenas like Smackdown! and the bone crunching finishing moves that made you wince and laugh at the same time. The soundtrack featured contributions from all the artists so it worked as a platform for their talent too. The game was well received and a sequel was green lit.
Still essentially a wrestling game, producer Josh Holmes made Def Jam: Fight for NY more of a brawling simulator and the grittiness was increased ten fold. Clubs, rooftops and subway stations were the new arenas. Instead of ring ropes you had blood thirsty spectators who would hold your opponent as you beat him down. The different fighting techniques let you chose how exactly you wanted to cripple your challenger and even let you mix two particular styles together. Environmental attacks were revamped so instead of bouncing him off the ring ropes you could smash your foe’s face into a JCB or slam his head in a car door. Weapons like cue sticks, bottles, drain pipes, crowbars and more were introduced. This is indeed a violent game but it’s seriously engrossing. Fight for NY gave us a different level of interactive carnage; toned way down from Mortal Kombat but way up from Street Fighter. Vicious, bare knuckle, black-eyed, blood and splinters kind of fighting. A modern comparison could be 2012’s Sleeping Dogs only with less blood spattering and more ball busting.
“F**k the code. D-Mob was always talking that old school “loyalty” bullsh*t. You from the streets. You know there’s only one code out here that matters. Ride or get rolled on!” -Snoop Dogg as Crow
The story mode is excellent and the themes of loyalty, betrayal, greed and street justice are told just as well here as in any hip-hop song. After creating your hero, you are inducted by local hood D-Mob into his crew to help save his reputation. Rival gangster Crow plans a hostile take over and will stop at nothing to either recruit you or defeat you. Chris Judge from Stargate plays D-Mob and does an amazing job. His deep, smooth voice has an air of menace which exudes authority. The supporting cast are again mainly played by hip-hop superstars and are all excellent. Snoop Dogg‘s natural charisma add a mean, almost satanic streak to the villainous Crow while Method Man‘s playfulness make him perfect for the role of the hero’s best friend Blaze. As things get worse for our hero you really begi to empathise and want to continute playing to see what happens next, a sensation previously unheard of in a game like this. If the disgrace of Soul Calibur V still leaves you cold, be thankful that even as far back as 2004 there were fighting games which actually gave a crap about the story.
Def Jam: Fight for NY got good reviews and sold well. Why then has it not gotten the re-release it so richly deserves? Yes, the frame rate drops a little but as a retro gamer I barely notice and it’s nothing compared to the lag you get with online fighting games. The learning curve is certainly steep and you will lose to Fat Joe frequently but it’s not impossible. I am also aware that not everyone likes hip-hop music but that shouldn’t matter. A good game is a good game. (Not all the famous people in this game are rap stars anyway. So if you hate hip-hop and want to vent your frustration at the shallow and repugnant culture, you can select Danny Trejo and merrily smash Xzibit‘s face into a jukebox or have Henry Rollins throw Ice-T into the path of a speeding subway). Sexual attitudes in the game are sadly a dated spillover from the 90’s lad mag culture. One hilariously boyish moment involves Busta Rhymes picking a fight with the hero over your hot girlfriend Carmen Electra as she leans over a big truck. It’s laughable sure but that’s really only as far as it goes and never reaches GTA V levels of crassness.
The failure of Def Jam Icon, the third game in the series is probably the main reason Def Jam Fight for NY has not gotten a decent rerelease and the lack of a franchise attachment means it probably never will. This is why I implore any fighting fan who has kept their Xbox, PS2 or GameCube to find a copy of this riveting game. It perfectly mixes the speed and technique of a 2D fighter with the strategy and 4 player fun of your favourite WWF title. If you want a break from Street Fighter, I suggest you play something that actually takes the fighting to the streets.