Def Jam: Fight for NY was an ode to hip-hop as violent soap opera

There is no love in this world more pure than the affection I have for Henry Rollins in 2004’s Def Jam: Fight for NY.

He leaves me threatening in-game voicemails so I go to the gym and train using my unspent skill points. He texts me tutorials so I can check how to counter throws when I come back to this game in two weeks, because I’m a grown-ass adult in 2019, and I have to work for a living, and the world is on fire, and I forget things.

These texts break the fourth wall, but that’s OK. Henry Rollins is the man holding up the walls. We’re in good hands.

Rollins knows at least five major forms of combat, and demonstrates every single one in hazy prerendered videos where he uses over-the-top moves to break every bone in his opponent’s body. Near the end of the game, Henry Rollins uses these moves against me, creating an eternal saga of friendship in which Henry Rollins has trained me to defeat Henry Rollins, so he can congratulate me for defeating Henry Rollins. Then, he tells me to get my ass to the gym — because there’s always room for improvement. Henry Rollins is my very best friend, and if he reads this article, I will disavow any knowledge of writing it.

You see, Def Jam: Fight for NY is a game about fantasies — hyper-specific fantasies that, taken to their limit, make for one of the most memorable licensed games of all time.

Too real for wrestling

Def Jam: Fight for NY was developed by AKI Corp., now known as Syn Sophia. Before it started the wildly successful Style Savvy series, Syn Sophia, as AKI, was known for making damn good wrestling games.

Its first collaboration with Electronic Arts and Def Jam, 2003’s Def Jam Vendetta, was an unexpected commercial hit. Vendetta transplants the culture of hip-hop into a gonzo alternate reality where beatdowns, not the beats themselves, decide success. Real-life rappers, musicians, and celebrities take on new roles within an underground universe of brutal fights, usually playing a stylized version of themselves. Two famous people enter a ring, and one of them leaves after being horribly mangled in very entertaining ways.

AKI expanded this foundation in almost every way possible for the sequel. From a licensed offshoot of its Virtual Pro Wrestling series, the studio built a world.

In Def Jam: Fight for NY, fights take place in interactive environments instead of standard rings, making the entire arena both hazard and weapon. You can slam your opponent into a light fixture, and they can in turn grab a pool cue from the crowd and snap it over your neck. Skill points would no longer be assigned in a generic screen between matches, but from within a gym guarded by the inspiring presence of Henry Rollins himself, a presence known more from the hardcore and punk communities than hip-hop.

Players create their own character, choosing their fighting style from a set of five: submissions, street fighting, martial arts, wrestling, and kickboxing. Outfits also change over the course of the campaign, because every piece of bling you buy — purchased from real-life jeweler Jacob Arabo — makes you more powerful. The more expensive the clothes, the faster you power up.

It’s a treadmill of escalating rewards and cost that leaves my character looking like a million dollars despite having less than 10 in their bank account. This helps them fight. And they fight very, very well.

Fans of the fight, not the fighters

Each arena is filled not just with environmental hazards I can use to menace my opponent, but fans. And it’s important to remember that the fans hate both of us. They exist to hate. They bring broken beer bottles and cable cutters; pool cues and spiked two-by-fours.

They grab at anyone who strays too close to the edge of an arena, holding them tight for a cheap shot from the opposing fighter, or outright beating them with the weapon in their own hands. They don’t seem to care about any of the personalities or recognizable stars involved. They just want to see human bodies torn apart.

I can use the crowd in Def Jam: Fight for NY, but they’re also among the most dangerous elements within Def Jam’s combat model. It feels like negotiating a river of the damned. The noise of the braying audience and the lights — always too bright — can be overwhelming. The game is violent and lurid, with a pace that also veers between extremes.

One moment, my opponent and I plod toward each other, trading heavy shots to the temple and gut. The next moment, we’re taking turns brutalizing each other with contextual attacks against the jukebox, in search of an instant knockout.

Fights can only end definitively. I have to transform my mindset from running down a health bar to putting someone down. Snapping their spine or cold-cocking them into the numbness of brain damage with a running knockout punch are both valid strategies. While video games usually abstract violence by necessity, the matches here feel much more personal and immediate.

Each act has weight and consequence, and it’s built around a trifecta of controls based on grabbing, kicking, and punching. I struggle with move lists and frame advantages in other fighting games, but I can accurately track the course of a win or a loss in every match of Def Jam.

Sometimes I do so just by watching the blooming patterns of blood and glass spattered across the floor. The average wrestling title feels fiddly and mannered in comparison. While competing wrestling games seem obsessed with looping minigames, Fight for NY just wants to answer a simple question: What can a fluorescent light do to a face?

I am me, and I desire the fight

Many games exist to impart a single, broad fantasy: embodying the ultimate killing machine in Doom, or becoming a Jedi in Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order. The fantasies of Def Jam: Fight for NY, in comparison, are hyper-specific and varied. They aren’t as common as being a wizard or swordsman, but within the fantasy world Def Jam presents, they somehow become just as compelling.

I’m slamming noted lovely man Danny Trejo into a jukebox. I’m betraying my friends to save the woman I love, reversing progress I’ve made over 10 hours of gameplay at the command of Snoop Dogg, who is holding her hostage. Grim resolve is etched into my character’s face as I occupy the “wrong” side of the screen and become the villain of the piece. Again, I’m best friends with Henry Rollins (please do not let Henry Rollins read this).

This is a game that lets me play as a female character exactly once, for a singular purpose. I can either kick the ass of my ex for the right to escort myself from the room, or beat the living shit out of Carmen Electra for trying to take my man, who is also me. It’s Dolly Parton’s “Jolene,” except with broken bottles and diamond crosses.

Over-the-top storytelling in hip-hop has been criticized for its excess, for violence, for sexism … the list goes on. If there’s a vice to be attached to minority media, hip-hop has been slammed with it at one point or another.

These criticisms are often valid, but applying them to Def Jam: Fight for NY wholesale misses the crucial balancing factor of the developer perspective represented in the game. Def Jam: Fight for NY isn’t a tragedy — it’s a soap opera. Hip-hop is nothing if not showmanship, and particularly within the time of the game’s release, the genre had reached untold levels of self-parody.

The official music video for 50 Cent’s 2003 hit “In Da club” presents the rapper as a cybernetically engineered rapping machine created by Dr. Dre and Eminem who must live out a Truman Show-style existence of parties and groupies to produce the songs needed to keep the industrial complex at bay, lest they lock him in a rap vault for extraction. None of this makes sense, nor does anyone care.

All it took for Def Jam: Fight for NY to become a full fantasy was to treat the gonzo, WWF-style storytelling of gangster rap with utter dramatic sincerity. If I had been told that I had to fight my evil rapping clone in an illegal medical facility run by a turncoat Method Man, I wouldn’t have questioned it. As I write this sentence, I wish that had actually happened.

Def Jam: Fight for NY commits to its subject material to such a degree that it not only accepts weirdness, it demands weirdness. Absurdist details contribute to the greater whole. Diamond jewelry has physical points of light that glint in the camera at every possible opportunity. I use a T-Mobile Sidekick to receive the messages of friends and foes. Flavor Flav bounces across a concrete pit in our fight, taunting just out of reach, before rushing over to slice my face against a steel girder. This, in fact, happens four times in less than a minute.

There’s a special cutscene you get to see if you make sure Danny Trejo gets run over by a train, and it’s one of the most jarring stage endings I’ve ever seen in a fighting game. I bankrupt myself to look like a rich, successful, and happy person, even as a turn of the narrative makes my character a traitor to everything they stand for.

Brutal violence, emotional sincerity, and the practiced economy of developers working just shy of a AAA budget … these are the pillars Def Jam: Fight for NY seems to be built upon, and they resonate to this day.

Abandoned, but not forgotten

It’s surprising that a project so potent (Def Jam: Fight for NY produced a thriving competitive scene long after its release!) is now part of a dormant series. After the mixed reception to sequel Def Jam: Icon, which was developed by an internal team at Electronic Arts with a large change in creative direction, the only indication of Def Jam games coming back is a few tweets from the Def Jam Twitter account.

With even a slim prospect of another Def Jam game in the next generation, it’s worth asking why we miss the franchise. What do I want from a Def Jam game in 2020? I want another game that looks at the ridiculous, melodramatic world of rap, and treats it as the valuable art that it is.

I’d also settle for more Henry Rollins.

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