All screenshots from Def Jam: Fight for New York
An 8.75. On a scale from 0 to 10, some head ass at Game Informer felt all that Def Jam: Fight for New York deserved was an 8.75. He praised the game for its graphics, its gameplay, and its create-a-player tools but gave it an 8.75. One sentence stood out to me that let me know that he wasn't a part of the market for this masterpiece of creative media: The reviewer said, "I felt a bit conflicted enjoying a game that portrays hip hop culture as little more than beating up people and buying expensive jewelry." This man clearly missed the come up of every rapper between Rakim and Playboi Carti .
Before I meathug Def Jam: Fight for New York you should hear a bit about Def Jam Vendetta, the original and more cartoonish Def Jam wrestling game. It was developed by AKI, the much-heralded company behind WWF No Mercy, and many fans of wrestling and rap alike flocked to it, drawn by familiar gameplay. Hip-hop culture was all over it. You could hear it in Funkmaster Flex's homophobic and puzzled commentary when your submission move involved your nuts smothering your opponent's face. The soundtrack was laced with past, present and unheard hits, even introducing me to a rapper from my home city named Comp. As a black kid in Baltimore, it was almost overwhelming to play a video game with a majority minority cast and an all-rap soundtrack. That may mean little to the "All Lives Matter” crowd, but all of the blerds and negrotaku could tell you it means a whole lot.
When EA Games saw that they were actually profiting off of a rap wrestling game, they greenlit the sequel, Def Jam: Fight for New York. The follow-up took Def Jam Vendetta’s combination of hip-hop culture and WWF No Mercy-style grappling even further, incorporating new fighting styles and settings that went beyond the basic pro wrestling rings of the previous game. Fighters could choose up to three fighting styles out of six, which led to wrestling boxers and kickboxing jiu-jitsu specialists. The locales ranged from dirty basements to Jamaican dancehalls (they're not always the same thing, fam) to scrap yards: venues that fit the gritty street rap aesthetic that permeates the game's personality. Def Jam: FFNY wasn’t the best PS2 game ever, but it’s certainly one of of the most underrated fighting games of all time. There's no other game that had the music theme play off of the gameplay so well.
Fight for New York wasn’t just great because it had rappers in it, though—if you've lived long enough, some quick rap game cash grabs may come to mind (cough fucking Shaq Fu cough). It succeeded because it immersed you in a rap fantasy world where actual bars were replaced with muay thai clinches and uppercuts. And above all, there was the create-a-player function. Vendetta's story mode started with you choosing from four blatant losers. As the story progresses, they glow up into better fighters with cornier outfits: Think of "Love Don't Cost a Thing" featuring a scene where Nick Cannon beats up N.O.R.E.
In Fight for New York, the fighter was yours to build. After designing him through an aptly designed sketch-artist interface, you begin training with Henry fucking Rollins to take out Snoop Dogg and his gang of goonie goons. As you follow FFNY’s story mode, the glow up is your own. You progress and unlock new stores that provide you with all the jewelry, Enyce, and haircuts needed to look proper when you smash a man's face through a flood light.
The create-a-player was so refreshing when you were used to black characters only having an afro, a bald head, and a George Clooney Caesar to choose from. After every fight, I would delightfully peruse the shops, excited to see what new Phat Farm and wristbands I could buy for my character. To the say that this game didn't represent hip-hop culture properly is to like saying the Wrong Turn series didn't portray West Virginia accurately. From the machismo behind every character's entrance and victory celebration to the scantily clad hood rat that your best friend Method Man chides you for boning, AKI channeled what made rap fun into a console game.
However, that joy would not last through the PS3/Xbox 360 era. Somehow EA Chicago got their hands on it and said "we have to make this suck—not too bad, but enough to make people forget about it within a year." The game's producer Kudo Tsunoda felt like wrestling and rap didn't go together and he had a better idea: magical World Star Hip-Hop fights. The wacky finishing moves and exciting combat system was replaced with basic black guy street fighting where the music slowly destroyed your environment (don't let me get started on the visual metaphor of rap music destroying the community). The game lacked color or personality, instead giving us more realistic looking rappers and a boring story mode that played like Empire with goofy kung fu fights. With Def Jam Icon, EA Chicago successfully ruined the legacy that AKI brightened so much with Fight for New York.
We'll never see another game that blends a known gaming genre with music so well and I blame two things: Guitar Hero and mobile gaming. Guitar Hero completely changed the paradigm of music games, creating its own genre and spawning many imitators (Let’s pretend Guitar Freaks wasn’t out in Japan already). With Guitar Hero, DJ Hero, Def Jam Rapstar, and Rock Band on the market, playing music became its own genre of video game, and publishers lost interest in celebrity-based console games. Meanwhile, mobile gaming emerged as a new outlet for anyone with a fan base to make money. No venture rapitalist would choose the more expensive and still unproven consoles of today over cellphones, which are owned by damn near everyone.
With the free-to-play method, companies can generate way more income off of $1 microtransactions rather than selling a whole $60 game nowadays. As a resuly, there’s a Fetty Wap racing fame on the Android app store, and 2 Chainz made a Dabbing Santa iPhone game. Gone are the days of 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand or Wu Tang: Shaolin Style; If you want your rap gaming fix, you can probably find a Farmville-inspired Gucci Mane app. As a result, we may never get another game like Def Jam: Fight for New York. Maybe nostalgia will fuel an HD remake, or maybe not. As a wise man who makes "Damn Daniel" references two months late once said, "Niggas want my old shit, buy my old album." For the time being, I'll take his advice. Now, pardon me while I boot up the PS2 and go throw Joe Budden in front of a train several times.
UPDATE: An earlier version of this article incorrectly quoted the game's review in Game Informer. The article has been updated to reflect the correct quote and score.
Action Bastard is a writer based in Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter.