The arcades of my youth were filled with fighting games and beat ‘em ups that devoured quarters. Street Fighter II, Mortal Kombat, Tekken; these were the games that I could win by mashing buttons, stumbling on special moves, and accidentally chaining together combos. Fighting games quickly became my favourite genre, as my then undiagnosed ADHD could handle playing speedy matches over the slog of replaying the same levels in a platformer every time I died. In 2004, I stumbled upon the game I still tout as the single greatest fighting game of all time – Def Jam: Fight for NY. Now hear me out…
Def Jam: Fight for NY is bonkers; there’s no doubt about it. An entire game filled to the brim with a who’s-who list of actual rappers, actors, and icons surrounding the hip-hop pantheon. Every fighter is essentially a stylised version of their rap persona. It was my first real taste of hip-hop culture as a nerdy white kid from the American suburbs – one who was a fan of bands They Might Be Giants, Beck, and Ben Folds Five. Its soundtrack with cuts from Method Man, Public Enemy, and LL Cool J opened up a world of stellar beats and slick verses that would stick with me for the rest of my life.
Fight for NY is a sequel to Def Jam Vendetta, a game not even Electronic Arts expected to be a knockout. Due to that popularity, developer AKI Corp. knew they had to pull out all the stops to continue the franchise. They ended up with the most significant crossover in fighting games at the time, featuring a roster almost three times the number of characters in Super Smash Bros. Melee. 44 of them were stars, while several actors and celebrities from the time rounded out the remaining characters, with 23 of them being created for the game by the developers.
Imagine pitting rap legends Ice-T and Slick Rick against Warren G and Flavor Flav – decked out in a top hat and his signature clock around his neck – in a 4-on-4 clash. You can finally settle those hypothetical bets of who would win in a fight: actor Danny Trejo or MC Busta Rhymes. Enter the 36 Chambers with Wu-Tang members Method Man and Ghostface Killah. Redman, Ludacris, Bubba Sparxxx, the list goes on and on.
The environments are full of surprises and vital to an unexpected knockout. From basement fight clubs to fancy nightclubs, most arenas offer hazards you can use to your advantage. The crowd around you can hand you weapons or hold your opponent in place. Grab Elephant Man and smash his head into a speaker, smash Omar Epps’s body into a neon sign, or even throw Mack 10 in front of a moving train down in the subway. Fight for NY is best at its most brutal, and surprises in the environments are key to throwing off your opponent.
My PS2 has seen better days. I could hear it struggling as I booted the game up – for research purposes – for the first time in about five years. Fight for NY is the only reason I keep the little guy, and I’m thankful the little fan inside is still buzzing as fast as it can. The graphics weren’t made for modern widescreen HD TVs but 2004 was a different time and back then? The game was stunning.
Honestly, it doesn’t matter what it looks like. There’s some nostalgia, sure, but absolutely zero pretension. This isn’t a guilty pleasure for me. I can’t let go of the first fighting game I’ve played that truly makes you feel a punch when it connects. These warriors hit, and that hit HARD, like the sensational superhero versions they imagine themselves to be when they spit bar after bar. The controller vibrates as you snap vertebrae in Fat Joe’s back or crack the bones in legendary B-Boy Crazy Legs, well, legs. That light bit of haptic feedback, backed with the slow-motion knockouts, perpetuates how each rapper’s strength is dialed up to eleven.
The game is sometimes so over the top that it’s easy to lose track of it has anything to do with music, but the music is the centre of it all. Themes of loyalty and trust are nestled between the flashy clothes and beef between crews. These influential artists were assembled for this incredible game, each with skills beyond belief. You may never see them pick up a mic, but every aspect of this game comes from the inner workings of the rap game.
Def Jam: Fight for NY’s most enthralling feature is its narrative story mode. You create a character with a decent set of physical attributes – height, weight, body type, etc. – none of which make the rough and tumble street brawler you expect him to be, but more customization opens as the story moves along. You join the crew of the final boss from Vendetta, D-Mob (voiced by actor Christopher Judge), and work to earn their trust by battling your way through the local circuit. Outfit your fighter with expensive outfits and bling to make him stronger, the rap dream writ large, albeit with more punching.
Along the way, you pick a girlfriend from the likes of Lil’ Kim and Carmen Elektra, then halfway through the game, you are forced to join the opposing crew and betray your old friends before recovering those alliances and challenging Crow, the completely pimped-out final boss portrayed by Snoop Dogg. The story is challenging, and it isn’t brief, but it’s a saga that makes more cohesive sense than what you might play in a modern game like Mortal Kombat 11.
Keeping up with his acting appearances in the weirdest stuff, Henry Rollins plays your personal trainer, ready to level up your skills and teach you different fighting styles: kickboxing, street fighting, submissions, wrestling, and martial arts. His appearance was an unexpected gift in an already batshit crazy video game.
The game dates itself several times. The most noticeable is the over-the-top depiction of rap culture from the early 00s, and indeed the part where you pick your love interest from people like Lil’ Kim and Carmen Elektra. But it’s also distinctly of a time when rap culture had problematic elements and as the game is a super-sized version of that culture turned into a fighting game, those elements have persisted. In addition, when the plot is advanced by getting text messages on your T-Mobile Sidekick, it marks itself in the weird mid-2000s time period when it was okay to like Pimp My Ride and Heelies.
Fight for NY was followed by a prequel to the series for the PSP called The Takeover, which featured most of the same elements and characters from its predecessor. Def Jam: Icon leaped next-gen consoles in 2007, and while it looked fantastic, it lacked much of the charm that made Fight for NY fun. Def Jam’s final foray into video games came in the form of Def Jam Rapstar, a Guitar Hero-style game that puts a mic in your fist and ditches the fighting entirely.
Due to contracts, copyrights, and licensing, among other factors, we’ll most likely never see a remastered or remixed version of Fight for NY hit current-gen consoles. It was indeed an anomaly, a shooting star passing in the night that would be impossible to recreate. Fight for NY has a cult following in the fighting game circuit, and I would be remiss not to mention that. The audience is there, but all we can do is hope for a day when Def Jam gives video games another go.
A spiritual successor to Fight for NY with current MCs and other legends would be incredible with current-gen graphics. Imagine Childish Gambino, shirtless with a beard like in the ‘This Is America’ video, slamming the frantic Danny Brown into a DJ booth. In an ADIDAS tracksuit, Missy Elliott winding up to give Kendrick Lamar a sucker punch to the jaw. Andre 3000 and Big Boi in a tag-team fight against Killer Mike and El-P of Run the Jewels. The late, great MF DOOM absolutely destroying Open Mike Eagle as only The Villain can. The chances we will ever see matches like these in our living rooms are slim to none, but a fan can dream, can’t he?
The Def Jam Vendetta series is available now, if you can find a copy and the machine to run it on