Def Jam Vendetta should have been an absolutely terrible game.
The pitch for the game most likely went something like: "Hey, so let’s take our upcoming wrestling game sequel and re-skin the entire thing with rappers, hip-hop music, and corporate product placement. Kids will love it, fuck them."
Turns out that decision was a winning move.
Developed by AKI and published by EA Sports Big, Vendetta ended up being both critically and commercially successful going on to sell over a million copies.
Fans of hip-hop bought the game because before WorldStar, this was the only way to watch your favorite hip-hop artists commit felonies against one other. Fans of video games bought it because of the inspired gameplay mechanics and sheer reckless fun.
Score one for the marketers.
What some may not know is that developer AKI is basically the wrestling-game developer G.O.A.T., being largely responsible for every successful wrestling game of the late 90s and early 2000s. Players of Vendetta could feel intuitively that it was the spiritual successor to a slew of beloved wrestling games that go as far back as WCW vs nWo: World Tour, its sequel Revenge, as well as WWF No Mercy for the Nintendo 64.
The mechanics that fans had become used to were all there, including an updated reversal system that made player vs. player matches challenging. It also saw the return of the proprietary momentum system, here re-dubbed as “Blazin’”mode. When players had completed enough successful moves or reversals it filled their “Blazin’” meter so they could perform a “Blazin’” finisher special move.
How "Blazin’" is that? Sorry.
It even featured DMX, who was reportedly sore about the $25,000 signing bonus and $.02 cents per copy sold, which over the course of the game’s lifetime probably amounted to somewhere around $25,000 extra, all for X contributing a few songs and doing some minor voicework (mostly growling, barking, and making dog-related puns). Too bad his “Blazin” special wasn’t driving a Ventador through a wall while coked-up as fuck, pretending to be a cop.
The way Vendetta incorporates its cast of characters into a well-crafted story is also a key part of the title's charm.
Essentially, you play as one of four fighters seeking to get to the top of an urban underground fighting league in order to defeat Suge Knight, excuse me, I mean D-Mob, in order to win back some trifling female that left you. You can choose to play as Briggs, a dishonorably discharged soldier, Proof (not the Detroit rapper) an ex-superbike racer, Tank a huge Japanese fighter, or Spider the DJ.
You start by covering a fight for a friend named Manny and eventually work your way into the fighting scene by beating your favorite rappers until you draw the attention of D-Mob, who was voiced by the giant lightskin dude from Stargate SG1.
Along the way you earn new moves, girlfriends, and gear. All the while battling A-list hip-hop stars for the titles, respect, and goodies that come with being a rising superstar. Notable stuff like Ludacris’ club (Club Luda), and a tag team match against Redman and Method Man are the icing on the cake.
In the end, the success of Def Jam Vendetta lead to two sequels of varying quality. Its immediate sequel Fight for NYwas perhaps the best of the series, while the third title Def Jam Icon was a commercial and critical failure due most likely to its emphasis on realism and an abandonment of the series cartoonish and frenetic wrestling-inspired roots.
It’s a gem for fans of hip-hop and gaming alike and although no future titles in the series have been announced, Vendettaholds up well to this day, still offering up inspired gameplay with a healthy dose of hip-hop bravado. Maybe we’ll see a re-release on Playstation Now?