“The most ambitious crossover event of all-time.” The claim was so ubiquitous in the marketing for Marvel’s The Avengers: Infinity War that it has since become a meme. Of course, there has always been a rich history of crossovers in the history of TV, movies, and video games, but in this new, strange, late-capitalist world where a total of three or four companies have divvied up the rights to seemingly all of our favorite pieces of entertainment, a sort of crossover arms race has developed.
From The Avengers to Suicide Squad to Super Smash Bros. to that horrific commercial where all of the other brand mascots show up to mourn the dead Peanut Man and celebrate the terrifying baby that crawled out of his corpse, huge corporations are trying to take advantage of fan loyalty by orchestrating these massive, ambitious crossover events. And why not? It’s an attractive proposition, being able to market to fans of everyone involved, instead of just one specific niche, and that’s why all these big companies are trying to one-up each other with their next huge project.
But despite their huge budgets, impressive character lineups, and beefy marketing teams, none of these crossover events, past, present, or future, will ever come close to the brilliance that was 2004’s Def Jam: Fight for NY.
Pro Wrestling, But Make It Hip-Hop
For the uninitiated, back in the early ‘00s, AKI Corporation, a company that specialized in wrestling games — and was probably best known for developing the impeccable WWF No Mercy — teamed up with Electronic Arts to release a series of fighting games based around then-contemporary hip-hop culture that would become the Def Jam series of fighting games.
The games in the series (well, up until AKI Corporation bowed out prior to 2007’s Def Jam: Icon) were wrestling-based brawlers, combining strikes and environmental hazards with AKI Corporation’s finely tuned grappling mechanics to create a combat system that was, for its time, dynamic and brutal. In true pro wrestling fashion, matches can’t just end with whittling down an opponent’s health bar either, players must perform an over-the-top finisher, land a submission move, or make use of a weapon or environmental hazard to actually knock the opponent out. The gameplay was solid, flashy, and satisfying, and if you were to go back and play Def Jam Vendetta or Def Jam: Fight for NY today, you’d be surprised by how well the mechanics hold up.
Despite its quality, however, the game isn’t remembered for its fighting system, or for its over-the-top finishers.
No, the reason Def Jam Vendetta and Def Jam: Fight for NY sold over 1.8 million copies worldwide and are fondly remembered to this day is their impressive character rosters, among the most extensive seen in gaming. For Def Jam Vendetta, the developers enlisted a group of artists, both contemporary (well, for 2003) and legendary, to appear in the game and just beat the shit out of each other. Ludacris, Joe Budden, Method Man, Redman, DMX, and other superstars signed on to be in the original game, either playing themselves, or as in the case of Method Man, playing characters that looked and sounded exactly like them but had a different name. Then things got even wilder for the sequel.
Def Jam: Fight for NY featured a cast of 45(!) real-world celebrities, compared with Vendetta’s 14. Rappers like Method Man and Redman returned, alongside tons of new artists including Ice-T, Flava Flav, Lil’ Kim, Xzibit, and Snoop Dogg, who voices the game’s main antagonist. But Def Jam: Fight for NY didn’t stop there. The game also featured Omar Epps, Carmen Electra, Danny Trejo, Black Flag’s Henry Rollins, and Jacob the Jeweler, a man who provided inspiration for Uncut Gems’ Howard Ratner.
And as impressive as that roster of characters is — seriously, look it up, it’s mind-blowing — that alone is not what makes the game so uniquely special among crossovers. No, the reason Def Jam: Fight for NY stands alone is that it is the only big-budget crossover title that doesn’t seem to have any reverence for the people that are in it.
This isn’t The Avengers, where every character that appears needs a special scene that makes them look really cool in order to sell merchandise to kids. This isn’t Super Smash Bros, a game that, thanks to a web of licensing agreements, places restrictions on what characters can and can’t say and do.
This is a game where, during the story mode, famed action movie star Danny Trejo (playing the role of “famed action movie star, Danny Trejo”) will pull a gun on the player character before challenging them to fight in a subway tunnel. During this fight, you can push famed action movie star Danny Trejo, playing himself, into the path of an oncoming subway train, killing him.
This optional choice removes Trejo from the rest of the game — the implication is that you’ve actually killed him and, subsequently, prevented the wonderful 2010 film Machete and its sequel, Machete Kills, from ever being made. This is a game where you can push Henry Rollins out of a fourth-story window over and over again for what he did to Black Flag. This is a game where, in the climactic final scene, you and Method Man watch as Snoop Dogg falls to his death.
How Late Capitalism Ruined The Crossover
Outside the realm of B-movies, no other modern crossover title has the guts to pull these over-the-top shenanigans, and that’s usually because every other modern crossover title has something to sell besides the crossover itself. The Avengers movies want to sell you merchandise and tickets to spinoffs. Super Smash Bros. wants to sell you other video games. This is why every character in every crossover title gets to wink at the camera and have a moment in the spotlight; selling character-related movies, games, or toys is what justifies the astronomical production cost of these crossovers.
In a lot of ways, these crossovers are gargantuan commercials, and are therefore subject to advertising best practices. Namely, you generally don’t want to have your spokesperson electrocuted to death after their head is bashed into a jukebox.
Now sure, Def Jam: Fight for NY probably wants to sell you a DMX album or two, but that urge never gets in the way of the mayhem. Everyone who is in this game is in it because they thought it would be cool to have a video game pro wrestling alter ego (or, admittedly, because they were paid a lot of money to appear.) And since Electronic Arts and AKI Corporation wouldn’t get any royalties from an increase in album sales, the first priority here was making a great, over-the-top brawler that would sell well enough to maybe get another sequel.
Def Jam: Fight for NY itself glorifies and drapes itself in excess. There’s a “bling” statistic that affects how quickly your character charges their super meter, complete with blindingly bright in-game sparkle effects for your iced-out watches and chains. And yet, in a hilarious bit of irony, the game itself is actually innocent of many of the entertainment business’s most grotesque, blatant excesses.
It’s Not A Good Crossover If You Can’t Kill Anyone Off
Making this even more impressive is the decades-long history of the crossover-as-commercial. Dozens of “very special” television episodes have aired over the years, from ALF appearing on Gilligan’s Island to Batman and Green Hornet teaming up, to the more recent horrible misshapen mistake of God that is the Chicago Med Fire P.D. universe. And of course, the hope is that viewers cross over as well — that fans of ALF that tuned in to watch the Gilligan’s Island crossover would become fans of that show too.
This is why it’s against the unwritten rules to kill characters off in crossover episodes as well, since you’re hurting your own bottom line. It’s why what happened in Infinity War and Endgame were so shocking: in killing off characters, or changing their identities, you may be closing doors to toys, games, movies, music, and TV.
Def Jam: Fight for NY didn’t have any of these problems because it never wanted to be anything more than what it was: a wonderfully over-the-top brawler where you could play as your favorite rapper and beat up your least favorite rapper while “Mama Said Knock You Out” plays in the background.
And because every piece of modern media needs to be something more than itself in order to be profitable, Def Jam: Fight for NY stands alone as a uniquely ambitious crossover title. Even its sequel, Def Jam Icon, had a pared-down character list in comparison. Def Jam: Fight for NY was something special, and we’ll probably never see anything like it ever again.