Better than Duck Hunt
Nobody buys music anymore, and nobody who works with music in any capacity can stop bringing that reality up or doomsaying about it. People are still listening to music, but nobody’s buying it. People are, however, buying video games, and I know at least a couple of music critics who have nice little side-hustles going writing about video games, which seems like money in the bank at this point. You won’t catch me writing about video games too often, though, since I’m fucking terrible at them. I’m a mess. My brother can walk into my apartment at any time and beat me senseless at a game that he’s never played before and that I’ve owned for several months. I’m just spectacularly bad, and so whenever I play video games, it’s an act of virtual masochism; I can’t stop thinking about how badly I’m doing. A little while back, I spent some of my paycheck from my Lil Mama article on a used Xbox 360, mostly because I didn’t want to be caught with outdated technology when the next Grand Theft Auto and NBA Live games come out; those games are really the only ones I stay playing with any sort of regularity. I also thought that maybe I’d finally, belatedly dive headlong into video games, playing online with my friends in Baltimore and shit like that. But over a month after buying the system, I still haven’t figured out how to hook it up to the internet, and I only own two games. And I swear I didn’t plan this out, but both of those games revolve around music: Def Jam Icon and Guitar Hero 2. Every few months, I read another article about how record labels are trying like hell to get their music placed in games, and video game soundtracks are progressively getting better; they’re maybe the single best feature of the last couple of Grand Theft Auto games. And now there seems to be a trend, however minor, toward fusing the two media. It’s not like there’s a whole lot going on today, so I thought it might be fun to look at how these two games stack up against each other.
Def Jam Icon is the third in a series of games about rappers fighting each other, and I enjoyed the hell out of the last two installments, Def Jam Vendetta and Def Jam Fight for NY, mostly because of how cartoonish they were. The idea of Keith Murray giving a piledriver to Joe Budden in an underground fighting club was just too ridiculous to not love. And the first game resurrected the fighting engine of the really, really great series of Nintendo 64 THQ pro-wrestling games, making the moves even more insane and impossible. The second game was a little more confusing, but it upped the comedy factor by including an exhaustive roster of B-list rappers and a few inexplicable non-rap celebrities (Mack 10 vs. Elephant Man! Bubba Sparxxx vs. Henry Rollins!). The new game came with a whole lot of advance hype about how all the storylines and fighting styles and environments had been totally revamped, but those changes all seem to be there to make the game less ridiculous, and ridiculousness was always this series’ biggest selling point. The idea of rappers wrestling each other is never going to be the basis for anything serious, and so Def Jam Icon is a sort of bizarre and joyless experience. It looks and sounds great, but that’s about it. I like that they included a bunch of bigger-name rappers, but I’d really like to see more has-beens in there; what’s the fun in havin E-40 fight Ghostface when you can’t also throw Bone Crusher in there? And the actual fighting moves revolve more around punching and kicking, less around gravity-defying somersault-legdrops or whatever. The biggest change to the game is in the way it incorporates music; the fight-locations actually react to the songs in there, which mostly means that stuff explodes and hurts you whenever the beat gets really loud. The first time you throw a guy into a fire hydrant and the hydrant explodes when the “One Blood” drums kick in, it’s amazing. The twenty-sixth time, not so much. On the plus-side, the song-selection in the game is pretty great, leaning heavily toward epic, operatic bangers: “What You Know,” “Ante Up,” “The Champ,” “Hate Me Now.” And there’s supposedly a way to upload your own songs to the system and fight to those, but I haven’t figured out how to do that. There’s also a story-mode where you create a character and use that character to build a rap-label empire, which somehow involves wrestling other rappers pretty often. There was one moment where I was trying to sign Ghostface and so was Mike Jones, so I had to show up at a gas station to fight against Mike Jones. I thought it was pretty funny that the least plausible part of this scenario was Mike Jones wanting to sign Ghostface to his label.
Guitar Hero 2, on the other hand, is exactly as good as millions of other people have already said. It’s hard to describe what’s quite so addictive about it, but it gets under your skin in a way that most other games don’t partly because it’s totally simple in the way that most great video games are. I’ve owned it for like five days, and two days in I’d already reached that Tetris point where when I closed my eyes I kept seeing those dots flying at me. The game has actually started to affect the way I listen to guitar-based music; I can’t hear, say, Black Mountain anymore without thinking how much fun those songs would be in the game. It certainly doesn’t hurt that most of the songs in the game are actually pretty good; only the Stone Temple Pilots and Rush songs actively annoy me, and it’s pretty funny that most of the recent songs in the game come from stoner-metal bands like Wolfmother and the Sword. When you’re doing well at the game, it feels amazing, like you’re actually accomplishing something even when you’re just pressing buttons in a way that corresponds with the “Crazy on You” riff. And when you’re doing badly, when you can’t get the riff right and all of a sudden you see the impossible solo coming toward you, the sort of panicked euphoria is the same feeling you get when you realize that all your bases are about to blow up in Missile Command or that two ghosts have just cornered you in Pac-Man. You can unlock plenty of songs in the game, but most of those songs come from jokers like Buckethead or the Amazing Royal Crowns, and it’s a lot more fun just to stick with the stuff you already know. And that’s why I’ve heard “Carry On My Wayward Son” more times this week than “We Takin’ Over” and “Party Like a Rockstar” combined. Any game that can make me do that must be a good game.