Among some circles (squared ones), the greatest wrestling game in video game history is WWF No Mercy. That didn't make the 1001 list, but developers AKI Corporation are represented by their rap-grappler, Def Jam: Fight for NY, the sequel to the perhaps unexpected hit, Def Jam Vendetta.
Rappers - and their lifestyles - are larger than life. What better way to portray their violent, street gang upbringings than by pitting famous figures against each other in a wrestling game full of audience interaction, improvised weaponry and a story mode that actually has a story - something no WWE game seems to get right to this day?
Let's hit the streets and hope the streets don't hit us back. Keep your eyes open for anyone you may recognise along the way.
New York is a warzone for rival rap gangs looking to stake their claim on all the turf or something.. One side is headed up by the big, bald, businessman-looking fella called D-Mob, the other by the shady-looking Snoop Dogg impersonator Crow. He's not an impersonator. That's Snoop Dogg. Next to him is... Busta Rhymes. I've heard that name.
After this intro, there is a little hype reel for Fight for NY.
It does its job. I am hyped. This is a game that I've heard a bit about, and watched some, but haven't played myself. If it's a better choice on this 1001 list than WWF No Mercy, then it must have something going for it. Judging by these videos, I think that something must be a whole heap of style and aesthetics.
This is a gritty, stylish video game. Care has gone into every screen here, and it looks packed with content. There's only one menu option I want to dive into right now, though. Let's FIGHT for MONEY, power and RESPECT, while we unlock NEW FIGHTERS and VENUES in the story mode.
At the end of Def Jam Vendetta, so I'm told, D-Mob gets arrested and carted out of his no doubt illegal street fight tournament. Thrown into the back of a police car, his run has probably come to its end - whatever his run was. Someone isn't happy with that.
T-boning the car in a giant SUV, our mystery man free's D-Mob from the clutches of the law and makes off into the night, but not before being made by one of the cops. He sits down in front of a sketch artist and gets to work.
Good heavens! We've been rumbled! It's not the most in-depth character creation suite, but it must be one of the most memorable ones. Here we are then, criminal on the run Cavil. Let's get D-Mob back to his crew.
I think one of them is called Blaze. At least that's what's written on his shirt. And the other one isn't so sure about us. Are we good? We've just smashed into a police car to save his boss, so yeah, we're good. But can we fight?
After picking a fighting style, we're put in the ring against a chump to learn some moves. The square button launches a kick towards your opponent, the triangle button a punch of some sort, and the L1 button modifying both into slower, but harder-hitting attacks. While a kick-boxer doesn't do a whole lot of grabbing, every fighter in New York knows how to grab hold of their opponent with the X-button, again modifiable into a 'hard grab'. Not sure what that means...
After some blocking with the R1 button, we're introduced to the Blaze mechanic, Def Jam's answer to finishing moves.
Brutal. Over the top. Elaborate. Just like rap, and everything associated with it. Yeah, we can fight. But now we're on the run, so we need to splash the cash on some new clothes, and hide out in a new place for a while.
The city map allows us to go out and buy clothes and jewellery, as well as change our hair and get some tattoos. I don't recognise any, but these items of clothing are apparently licensed or authentic, and they can all be worn in so many different ways. One leg up? Both up? Underwear showing? If you couldn't quite customise your face to your liking, you should at least be able to find some unique clothing to help out.
But clothes don't help you fight. Well, I suppose some type of clothing is better than others, but mechanically, in Def Jam, clothes don't help you fight. Hitting the gym with Henry Rollins helps you fight.
The more development points you earn from fighting, the more you can invest in your stats and moves, becoming the kind of fighter you want. Speedy, tough, heavy-hitting? Perhaps you want to blend entire fighting styles together. Succeed on the streets, build yourself up, and anything is possible. Probably.
We ought to actually go to a few fights to see how we fare. First up, Trick.
Is this a scene or what? The first Def Jam was set in more traditional fighting environments - i.e. rings - but Fight for NY puts you in the dirty, rowdy basements and bars where anything goes. So let's get anything going.
Opening up with some strikes, I feel my way into the fight. Movement is slow and cagey, but you can feel the speed of quick strikes, and the strength of hard hits. If an attack lands, it Lands.
Unfortunately, that's true of your opponents as well. They'll hit you, and they'll wallop you. Often, they'll just block everything and hit you right back. If there's one skill I need to learn in this game, it's blocking. These fights are about being smart, as well as strong.
Being smart means using your surroundings to your advantage. Crowd members will grab opponents so that you can land a couple of unprotected hits. Exposed beams and speakers will stop someone in their tracks, especially if they're thrown face-first into them. Finally, grabbable weapons in the form of bottles and clubs are willingly held out by eager onlookers, enhancing your strikes in violently useful ways.
Lovely. Every dirty trick in the book is going to be used, if not by you, then by your opponent. Your health bar will deplete faster than you think with some attacks but can be restored if you manage to get your breath back. If it hits the red, and a danger warning starts to flash, a swift knock out might be just around the corner. If that happens, and your Blaze bar is full and ready to go, the end is nigh.
Waggling the right analogue stick triggers a primal rage within you. Enough is enough. Shit is about to go down. You were fine to have a scuffle before, but now you need to cap a fool. Is that the lingo? I'm not really sure.
Blazin' doesn't mean automatic success, however. You have a brief window of time to grab your opponent and perform a Blazin' move, hopefully knocking them out in the process. Until you grab them, they're going to want to not be seized, and kicking you in the stomach is a valid response to someone intent on murdering you.
I did manage to get the upper hand before running out of time. Here comes the knockout.
Oh. This is awkward. That didn't work. Turns out your opponents will only go down if they're in danger, so timing your Blazin' moves is just as important as varying your attacks to build up the Blazin' meter in the first place. This fight isn't over yet, then.
Now it is. We're scored and showered with development points, money and some unlocked content. This is the life, eh?
Fighting in Def Jam is a tug of war. There wasn't really ever a time where I felt I had a fight won. I was always on the edge of my seat, hoping I had a chance. Is he down? Am I safe? Should I Blaze now? Oh no! I've left it too long and haven't got the ability any more. Ah! I'm getting utterly walloped. Block! Block, damn you!
The ever so slightly stuttering emulation didn't help me out, but it was playable, and I needed to up my game if I was to get anywhere.
After an unbeaten run, we unlocked the final fight of this arena, against O.E.
When all that back and forth fighting eventually goes your way, it's great. Obviously. You won. But when you can't understand why your opponents are always able to land hits or grapple you without any problems, you start to worry.
Under what circumstances should you grab your opponent? Can you escape a grapple? Is the block good against both light and heavy attacks? Trying to learn the answers to all these questions in the middle of a fight is a bad idea, and this fight has shown me that I need to learn a bit more about the underlying system if I'm going to get anywhere.
Until then, a rematch.
Alright, now I'm mad.
Further Fun Times
Whoa. You can do Blazin' moves with some audience participation? Now, this I like. Don't actually know how I did that, but what's new there?
We've impressed our mates with that one, and our T-Mobile sidekick messaging inbox says that we have a match lined up against none other than submission specialist Ice-T.
I'm on the ropes within seconds, with the ice baby having the advantage. But once again, the fights sway back and forth, each combatant able to lay down a few quick combos or a throw to the mat.
Ice-T got the first significant advantage, Blazin' first. The only defence I had was running away. Could I survive?
I did, running down his Blazin' clock and healing as much as I could in the process - only to then lose it all and find myself in danger once more. That's not good, but it is my cue to hulk up.
Take that, T. Nice fight.
Oh, not again. This is just embarrassing now.
Ice-T began slapping on the submission moves, wearing down individual body parts, starting with my head. All I can think about now is just how am I going to overcome this challenge. I can't find an opening. I'm getting my arse kicked. I can only survive for so long.
I knew it was coming. That it took nearly 6 minutes was a surprise. Felt longer in the moment. Do I want a rematch?
Not right now, thanks.
Def Jam: Fight for NY is a smash hit for me. I don't know any of these people, really. I don't know who sings the songs. Or raps them, I suppose. I don't know what gear we're all wearing, and how big a status symbol it is. I'm sure many people are laughing at this white boy who thinks he's all that. I am, put simply, probably not the target audience for this game.
But I'm enjoying it.
It's tough. I might have to drop the difficulty for a while, or maybe even grind some fights for development points, if that's a thing. I will have to explore my move set, and actually understand how the combat system really works. You need to wear down your opponent before unleashing the rage, so timing is essential. But you also need to stay healthy yourself, so defence and counters are critical. Putting it all together is taking me a bit of time.
While I'm focused on the story mode, there seems to be an awful lot of fun to be had outside of it, especially if you just want to hammer away at someone's head for no other reason than it looks brutal. You don't get this type of wrestling in wrestling games, nor fighting in fighting games. This is a scrap. It's an often over the top, almost cartoony scrap, but it is a hard-hitting, bloody scrap nonetheless. You even chuck people out of windows and into oncoming trains.
If you immerse yourself into its world - which is easy, with the amount of attention that has gone into fleshing out this world - Def Jam: Fight for NY can and should attract players regardless of their musical tastes. You don't have to like rap. You don't have to know the rappers. It does help if you like fighting games, of course, but even if you don't, this might be one worth looking for, it's that good.
Like most fighting games, though, I need to put effort into getting the most out of it. Of all the fighting games where I need to do that, Fight for NY might leap to the top of the list because of the story mode, in that it has one. That's cool. I hope it's a good one. I'll find out someday. So should you.
The controls were simplified from the first game to welcome new players in, focusing on fun action rather than authentic simulation.
Def Jam: Fight for NY, developed by AKI Corporation, EA Canada, first released in 2004.
Version played: PlayStation 2, 2004, via emulation.