Gamers or even just hip hop fans from the early to mid-2000s will no doubt harbour some kind of nostalgia for the Def Jam series, the half fighting game, half wrestling game that featured many of-the-era rap artists beating the snot out of each other. Oh, and also Danny Trejo, Henry Rollins and Christopher Judge pre-Kratos playing the gangster D-Mob. It’s a weird concept, sure, but one that managed to spawn three full games and a PSP port.
Like the majority of games we feature in these retrospective articles though, Def Jam disappeared not too long after it first broke out, leading to a lot of fans begging for the series to make a comeback in some way. Today, we’re wondering if we’ll ever see a new Def Jam game, and if it’ll actually be any good.
The History of Def Jam
While we’re not going to go into the history of the actual Def Jam recording label, the background of the game series begins with the AKI Corporation in the mid to late 90s. Now known as syn Sophia, AKI were the undisputed lords of the wrestling game genre, having worked on licensed wrestling games for both WCW and WWE (then known as WWF). They were the team responsible for WWF No Mercy and WrestleMania 2000, widely regarded as the best wrestling games ever made.
While those are straightforward wrestling games, Def Jam seems to borrow a lot more from Virtual Pro Wrestling 2, a Japanese-only release that celebrated the best of Japan’s various combat promotions. While the usual suspects like New Japan and All Japan Pro Wrestling are included, VPW 2 also included MMA promotions such as Pride FC and Pancrase. It was still a wrestling game at its heart, sure, but those MMA influences blended in would ultimately come to define the gameplay style of Def Jam in the future.
But how was the Def Jam series conceived? By accident, it seems.
Back in 2001, AKI were partnered with EA to develop a new WCW wrestling game, but those plans were kiboshed when WWE purchased the rights to WCW, ending the Monday Night Wars between the two promotions “once and for all”, until WWE ran the WCW Invasion angle throughout that year, and continue to reference the situation even to this day. That’s a whole other story entirely. While the rivalry between the two companies reached a definitive conclusion, the wake of those actions left the fate of EA and AKI’s project uncertain.
When speaking to Okayplayer for an article back in 2018 (which is an incredibly interesting insight into the development of Vendetta that you should read), former EA Games producer Josh Holmes revealed that EA were left trying to come up with ideas for a new wrestling game in the wake of WCW’s purchase. He detailed how he worked with fellow developer Daryl Anselmo during the game’s early phases.
“So they pulled Daryl and me aside and they asked us to do a treatment over the course of a weekend on what we would do with a wrestling title. I spent a weekend with Daryl doing a bunch of research, drafting up a design and 20 page-treatment on how I would build an arcade wrestling title.
“About a week later I got another call into Lee’s [Paul Lee, EA exec] office and he’s like, ‘Hey, I need you to consult with this team creatively. You did great work on the brief. Can you work with them and help guide them a bit creatively?’ I said, ‘Ok, sure. I’m busy working on my title, but I’m happy to try and help a team that’s struggling a bit.’
“Then we got called into this brainstorming meeting, a bunch of marketing folks, and Lee. It was the typical brainstorming session where no idea is out of bounds, so everybody’s throwing out crazy ideas. So we were really into hip-hop and urban culture, and we just sort of threw out — what if we did something that was grounded in the world of hip-hop?”
Meanwhile, then Def Jam president Kevin Liles, an avid gamer himself, began to notice that a lot of the songs and artists he works with were being licensed out to various video games around the world. Slowly, the wheels of fate were set into motion.
“I was a big gamer, always. I grew up on everything from Atari to PlayStation to Xbox. We had a lot of Madden wars — we would call them in the office — after work. And when the gaming industry started putting music inside of games I was wondering, ‘We’re licensing all these songs to the game company — how come we’re not making games?’
“I sat down with the Electronic Arts — I didn’t go around to a lot of different people — and said, ‘Listen, let’s think of something bigger that we can do together. Why don’t we come up with something that hip-hop will be in and actually bring it to life, and not just make a small game that people will just play for a couple of minutes, but something that people could engage with and actually tell a story and go through the whole process?’”
Josh remarked that, during the brainstorming session, the idea went down a treat, even if he wasn’t so confident in it. During the meeting, Steve Schnur, EA’s head of music ran with the idea of rappers fighting each other, while Josh tried to downplay the whole idea: “I was like, ‘Whoa, okay, that was a dumb idea. No, let’s not do that, guys. Let’s keep going. Let’s come up with another idea…we should do anything but this.’”
He added: “So we left that meeting and Daryl and I was just like, ‘Holy cow, I feel so bad for that team. We just helped give this terrible idea, put it in the heads of this executive team, and now this team has marching orders to go build that game.’ Then we got a call three days later. They’re like, ‘Hey, you guys are being moved onto this project. You’re making the Def Jam game. Go figure it out, and you have eight months to get it out the door.’
Eight months isn’t a lot of time to conceptualise, develop and ship a fully-fledged game, but the framework was already there. Def Jam Vendetta built on the already established AKI Engine, meaning a lot of the framework was already in place to develop a fantastic wrestling game. The real challenge could’ve come in creating a game that felt authentic to hip hop culture and included relevant artists, but according to Holmes, that part came naturally. In fact, most rappers involved were incredibly enthusiastic about the concept.
Speaking again to Okayplayer, Holmes says: “Every time I would meet somebody, I would have to fly out with Lauren [Lauren Wirtzer-Seawood, former marketing VP for Def Jam]. Lauren would set it up, and she would bring me into the room, introduce me to whoever it was that we were meeting with that day, and I have to pitch them. ‘Hey, this is the game. This is the story. This is the role that you’re going to play in the game. This is what we need from you to make this happen.’ They would be like, ‘Ok, I’m in.’
“Then we would get a session with them in a recording studio, and I would have to go and write all the dialogue and lines and everything. Then I would present lines — whether it’s Meth, Red, or DMX — and they would tell me why my dialogue sucked and change a bunch of stuff and be like, ‘No, I would never say that shit. I’m not saying that here. We’re going to change it like this, and I’m going to do it this way.’”
Not only were the rappers involved in recording voice lines, but they also had ideas for the game itself. Method Man notes in the Okayplayer article that he received a check for giving the development team the idea of including a tutorial, while Holmes and Wirtzer-Seawood share a story about Ghostface Killah requesting his own special move where his eagle bracelet comes alive and claws the opponent’s eyes out. Obviously, that wasn’t possible on the PS2, but Ghost wasn’t hearing it:
“I’m thinking, ‘I’m never gonna have to see Ghost again. I’m good.’ And then we did the sequel and as soon as I met him he was like, ‘What the fuck happened to my eagle, man?’ He was super, super pissed. And I was like, ‘I am so sorry. We couldn’t make that happen.’”
Initially revealed as Def Jam Vendetta 2 before being rebranded to Fight For NY, the sequel aimed to improve pretty much every aspect of the game, and perhaps saw the biggest change to the AKI Engine yet. FFNY moved away from traditional ring-based wrestling to create a more underground street fight feel for up to four players, with weapons, stage interactions and more over-the-top features thrown in. You can still wrestle a dude, but the introduction of different fighting styles allowed people to play the game their way.
Def Jam: Fight For NY would be even more well received by critics when it launched in late 2004, earning an 83 on Metacritic for the PS2 version (the Xbox and GameCube versions would reach 84). Combined with the 750,000 sales of Vendetta mentioned earlier, Fight For NY allowed the series to sell 1.8 million copies by July 2006, making it a decently successful fighting game. Sure, it wasn’t quite on the same level as the likes of Tekken or Mortal Kombat, but they were decent figures nonetheless, and FFNY’s success led to a PSP prequel, The Takeover, in August 2006.
Where Are The Def Jam Games At Now?
Aside from Def Jam: Rapstar in 2010, which was essentially just a rap-themed karaoke game capitalising on the success of other games of its ilk like Singstar, the last time we saw Def Jam in the gaming space was Def Jam: Icon in 2007. While Def Jam had previously been developed by AKI and EA Vancouver, Icon was developed by the now defunct EA Chicago, with Kudo Tsunoda leading the project. Really, Kudo’s biggest claim to fame in the gaming industry came two years after Icon’s launch, showing us what the bottom of an avatar’s foot looks like.
The success of Fight Night Round 3 deemed EA Chicago worthy of the license, and to their credit, there are some cool ideas in there that could have made Icon a real contender. The main gimmick was the “buildings with bass” idea that would allow the game’s soundtrack to have a life of its own. The environment would react to the songs being played, meaning players could set up attacks using big beat drops that would cause chaos to trigger in the background, or they could man an invisible turntable and force the drop themselves.
Yeah, Icon was weird.
While the environmental changes sounded cool on paper, the gameplay itself couldn’t match up to the weight of the previous games. EA Chicago opted for a more realistic approach to combat, with more grounded looking strikes, parries and more, informed primarily by their experience working on the Fight Night series. The wrestling and the over-the-top Blazin’ moves, a series staple before Icon, were removed, and Icon suffered as a result.
Reportedly, the wrestling was removed from Icon at Kudo’s behest, as he believed that hip hop and wrestling didn’t go together. While that’s certainly a take people can argue with if they want to, having the world behind two fighters explode to the beat of E-40’s Tell Me When To Go while they’re throwing out limp punches and unimpressive combos doesn’t work well together either. The formula of fighters performing extraordinary feats had been reversed to focus on the environment instead, and the gameplay suffered as a result.
Veteran game developer Michael Mendheim spoke to Complex back in 2014, digging into the reasons why Icon might not have been the success it could have been: “The reviews were definitely mixed and I think the biggest problem with that title was that we didn’t stay true to the previous titles. We let down some of the fans of Def Jam Vendetta and Def Jam: Fight for New York.”
He adds: “Here was our problem: we tried to innovate too much. It was an existing brand with an existing fanbase that was in love with the previous games. If you look at something like Mortal Kombat, they don’t really change the mechanics of that game. They keep it the same game but change the story, add new technology and new moves, but Mortal Kombat fans know exactly what to expect when they make their purchase. Most importantly, they’re always delivered what they want.
“Unfortunately we didn’t do that on Def Jam Icon. The other problem was that while the positives with “Buildings With Bass” and art direction were very fantastic, they didn’t lend themselves well to the core gameplay mechanics. What happened is that the fighting became sluggish. When you have these super realistic characters and animations—which worked great for Fight Night as a boxing-sim—it doesn’t work for a fighting game because it isn’t fast enough. One of the biggest knocks on the product were the sluggish fighting controls. And the fans were correct.”
Unfortunately, EA Chicago wasn’t given the opportunity to improve on the Icon formula, even though they wanted to. A few years back, a beta for Def Jam Icon 2 was leaked online, which featured faster gameplay and more fluid combos, some proper grappling and more. The gameplay was still similar to the first Icon, but it appeared to be addressing the flaws outlined by players after launch, but EA Chicago would be shut down in November 2007, ending those plans and a proposed Marvel fighting game in the process. Fans have been asking for a new Def Jam ever since.
Will There Ever Be A New Def Jam Game?
Well, if there’s never a new Def Jam game, it certainly won’t be for a lack of demand, either organically or artificially drummed up by the Def Jam Recordings social media pages. It seems that whoever is operating those accounts loves the engagement that comes with teasing a new entry in the series, but they’ve been doing the same thing periodically for years and there’s still nothing to show for it. However, you’ve got rappers like Ice-T who have been asking for a Fight For NY reboot on next-gen consoles.
More recently, famed fighting game developer and Mortal Kombat creator Ed Boon issued a poll on Twitter for which fighting game fans would like to see make a comeback between Virtua Fighter, Killer Instinct, Bloody Roar and Def Jam, with Def Jam receiving the majority share of the votes at 46.5%. Between the fans and those involved, clearly there’s some interest in making a new Def Jam game.
There’s some issues to address first, though, such as who would develop this new game. Again, AKI are now going by syn Sophia, and since 2007, they’ve been primarily responsible for mobile and arcade-based rhythm games. They did develop Yakuza: Black Panther and its sequel, a spin-off series from Yakuza that launched in Japan on the PSP that utilised elements of the old AKI Engine combined with classic Yakuza elements, but that’s about it.
The problem with that is if syn Sophia aren’t willing to return to the series for a remake, reboot or even a straight up sequel, it might be hard to find a developer that can truly emulate the gameplay that the series became known for. 4 player brawlers and wrestling games are pretty commonplace, sure, but none have ever managed to scratch that itch like Def Jam or even No Mercy. Reskinning WWE 2K Battlegrounds with rappers just isn’t going to cut it.
This leads to the other issue: if this hypothetical new game was to be a reboot, then that would lead to a host of licensing issues as a lot of the artists that featured in old Def Jam games are no longer signed to the recording label. Granted, some of the artists that appeared in Def Jam games, especially Fight For New York, weren’t signed to the Def Jam label but were important to the hip-hop scene at the time, like Snoop Doog, Ice-T, Busta Rhymes and Xzibit, but it’s an added wrinkle that could prevent any new games from getting off the ground.
As for a new sequel with new artists, those currently signed to the Def Jam label might not draw the same level of attention or enthusiasm as the old school of hip-hop artists would. The idea of being able to beat up Kanye West, Justin Bieber and whoever the hell decided it would be a good idea to refer to themselves as Yung Tory is an enjoyable one, but it’s not enough to base a whole game around. Again, FFNY proved that the roster isn’t limited to only those signed to the label, but it’s not a confident foundation.
There’s potential in the idea of an “all-stars” version of Def Jam that could include artists old and new, appealing to those who are more nostalgic for the older games while giving a younger generation of talent the spotlight granted by being associated with hip-hop’s Mount Rushmore. It’d still be a licensing nightmare, but it’s perhaps the best way of rebooting the franchise beyond just remaking Fight For NY for modern consoles.
For me, the question isn’t so much about if there will ever be a new Def Jam, but whether or not we’d actually like what we get. I love the series, and put countless hours into Vendetta and FFNY as a kid, so those games exist on a pedestal for me. Anything less than those games is just not going to match up, and after nearly 15 years since Icon, it’s hard to imagine any kind of Def Jam release living up to those expectations.
I’ll take a HD port FFNY with online play, though. That’d be great.
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