In the early 2000s, Electronic Arts, a major publishing company, announced a groundbreaking concept - an arcade wrestling game featuring iconic emcees such as Method Man, DMX, Joe Budden, Sticky Fingaz, N.O.R.E., Scarface, and Redman in playable roles, back in 2002. What piqued my interest even more was the collaboration between EA's EA Sports Big and AKI Corporation, the creators of WCW vs. nWo: World Tour and WWF No Mercy.
EA Sports Big was renowned for its flashy arcade sports series like SSX and NBA Streets, and the presence of legendary beatboxer Razel in the EA Sports Big intro tag was already cool enough. When Def Jam Vendetta was finally released in 2003, it came as no surprise that it went on to sell nearly two million copies. While the gameplay of Def Jam Vendetta was similar to AKI Corporation's other wrestling games, EA Sports Big's branding added personality, particularly in its acclaimed single-player story mode.
Players could select one of four characters in their quest to climb the ranks of an underground fighting league, overseen by the main antagonist, D-Mob, voiced by Christopher Judge (known for Teal’c in Stargate SG-1 and eventually Kratos in the later God of War game series). A romantic subplot with Christina Millian was cool enough, considering the time. Def Jam Vendetta was a thrilling, campy, and over-the-top game that captivated players.
EA released a bigger sequel, Def Jam: Fight For New York, on September 21, 2004. It featured a massive roster of renowned rappers like Snoop Dogg, Flavor Flav, Method Man, Ludacris and many more, including cameos by actors Danny Trejo and Omar Epps. The sequel shifted towards environmental brawling, resulting in faster, more brutal, and visually stunning gameplay.
Def Jam: Fight For New York, shedding the EA Sports Big brand, took on a mature tone with an M rating and an uncensored soundtrack. The single-player story mode set a new standard, led by Snoop Dogg as the main villain and left D-Mob as a sympathetic mentor. Players created their protagonists using a police sketch tool, controlling their voices in gameplay and cutscenes. Earnings could be spent on brands like Jordan, Ecko, and Sean John, and romantic options expanded to include Lil’ Kim, Carmen Electra, and Kimora Lee Simmons. The T-Mobile Sidekick II offered story updates and gameplay advice.
During the 90s and 2000s, many game developers and publishers attempted to integrate hip-hop culture into video games. Titles like Rap Jam: Volume One and Wu-Tang: Shaolin Style explored this, but Def Jam: Fight For New York stood out with its unmatched authenticity. I initially rented Def Jam Vendetta, but a BET television special about it prompted me to buy Def Jam: Fight For New York.
A sequel, Def Jam: Icon, arrived in March 2007, developed by EA Chicago (known for Fight Night series). Despite a more mature story mode featuring Anthony Anderson and Kevin Liles, the fighting mechanics didn't impress, leading to a lukewarm reception. Since then, the series has remained dormant.
After the launch of Def Jam: Fight For New York, several game publishers aimed to capture the essence of hip-hop culture in video games authentically. Numerous examples abound, from 50 Cent helping develop two games to Marc Ecko's Getting Up: Contents Under Pressure featuring Talib Kweli as the protagonist's voice. Def Jam tried a different approach with Def Jam Rapstar, a karaoke game. The past three Mortal Kombat games have featured rappers heavily in the soundtrack. In 2023, the indie hit El Paso, Elsewhere, by developer Strange Scaffold's founder Xalavier Nelson Jr, incorporated a horrorcore rap soundtrack and album, earning critical acclaim.
Many gamers and rap enthusiasts have longed for a Def Jam: Fight For New York sequel. During an unused interview a few years ago at a Snoop Special Stars event in Los Angeles, Snoop Dogg, then newly announced Def Jam's Executive Creative and Strategic Consultant, expressed his fondness for the series.
“I wish I could answer that,” Snoop explained. “Cause before I got the job over there, I told them that one of the things I wanna do is bring that game back because I hear about it too much and they didn’t move on it or react to it. So I may have to create my own Death Row fighting game.”
A lot has evolved within hip hop as a culture and business alongside changes to the video game industry. Many rappers like Joe Budden and DMX himself have discussed the lack of pay they received for their work in the Def Jam games. Recently, Ice-T went on Twitter to discuss why an official sequel to Def Jam Fight: Fight For New York would be a logistical nightmare in the current climate alongside tweeting, “Yesterday’s price is not Today’s price…!”
Creating a sequel or remaster for Def Jam Vendetta or Def Jam Fight For New York involves significant economic risks. Rappers today recognize their cultural value, with Travis Scott earning $20 million for a brief Fortnite appearance and thousands of gamers paid around $20 to play as Nicki Minaj in Call of Duty, also featuring purchasable add-ons for Snoop Dogg and 21 Savage. Licensing for likenesses, music, clothing, and brands adds to costs.
Game development expenses, including coders, animators, graphic artists, and designers, are higher than ever, with titles like The Last of Us and Grand Theft Auto exceeding $100 million. Despite teasing a sequel in 2022, Def Jam or EA’s plans remain uncertain. It may be more practical to locate an older console or emulator, given the high resale value of Def Jam Fight For New York, fetching up to $200.
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