Monday, September 10, 2012

The Curious Case Of Def Jam Vendetta

Sometimes, a game comes along that has such a peculiar concept that it warrants a second look into it's history. One such game was the first in a series of games released by Electronic Arts that featured hip hop artists in environments that had nothing to do with hip hop. The title, Def Jam Vendetta, was a wrestling game. A very good wrestling game, actually, and it received a great deal of praise from many gamers and critics who considered it one of the best wrestling games that wasn't released on a Nintendo console.

It was peculiar to some as to why the rappers and actors in the game seemed shoehorned in, but no one gave it a second thought. It wasn't until I stumbled across copies of two reviled wrestling games released a few years earlier by EA, WCW Mayhem and WCW Backstage Assault, that I realized what Def Jam Vendetta was originally supposed to be. It's a fairly short story, but an interesting one that may remind gamers of happened with Sunsoft involving their NES title, Journey To Silius (for context on the weird story behind the existense of Journey To Silius, read my post on that game here: ).

You see, once upon a time, THQ let their license to produce games featuring wrestlers from World Championship Wrestling expire to go after a possibly more lucrative World Wrestling Federation license. When this happened, Electronic Arts bought the WCW license and began making their own wrestling games. The problem was, EA's wrestling games were kinda lackluster and WCW's wrestling product was pretty bad too. after gasping for life for a few more years, WCW was purchased by the WWF in 2001 and pretty much went the way of the Dodo. This left EA in an interesting position because they were at that point working with developer AKI on a wrestling game for the Playstation 2 and Nintendo Gamecube, and without a strong license attached to the game, it would be overlooked in the marketplace.

Instead of going the route Acclaim went in with it's Legends Of Wrestling series, EA went a bit left field. The video game giant went to a place they would usually go for pieces of the soundtracks of their sports games, Def Jam Records. Since EA already had a bit of a working relationship with the label, they pitched the idea of putting rappers in a wrestling game, and the label decided this would be a great opportunity to extend it's brand. Several artists on Def Jam's roster already had music on the game's soundtrack, so it was a bit of a no-brainer that those artists would be playable characters in the game. However, they would end up being the primary characters, with a few random characters created by AKI thrown in as well.

EA published the game in 2003 under it's EA Sports Big label, which had previously seen success with arcadey titles like SSX and NBA Street, so an over the top wrestling game featuring a roster full of rappers was a perfect fit. It was also successful and spawned two sequels, one of which won a number of fighting game of the year honors in 2004 (Def Jam: Fight For New York).

The story surrounding the history of Def Jam Vendetta is proof positive that a good game can garner success, regardless of how mismatched the license attached to it may be. It also proves that had they not gone out of business, there could have been some excellent WCW games on the PS2 and Gamecube.

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