Today’s article contains one (arguably) graphic GIF of Playstation 2 quality. The image is basically the point of this essay, but if you are squeamish around such a thing, please be aware of its presence beyond the “read more” link du jour. Probably nothing you haven’t seen before, but, ya know, it bothered me, which brings us to today’s topic…
Where is your videogame uncanny valley threshold?
Today’s game is Final Fight: Streetwise. As many people know, this was Final Fight’s attempt to enter the 21st Century with a Playstation 2 game that upgraded/marginally rebooted the original arcade classic. And, given Final Fight was always a handful of baseball bats away from just being The Warriors, this could have worked out well. Fight weirdos in strange costumes across a generally grungy city? Tale as old as time! And, while Final Fight: Streetwise maintained the concept of “beat ‘em all up”, it went a little off the rails when it decided to start aping the wrong crowd.
The blitheringly obvious greatest influence on Final Fight: Streetwise? Grand Theft Auto 3.
And this was not a good thing.
It is easy to see what happened here. Grand Theft Auto 3 was possibly the most popular and influential videogame of the era. And, to be clear, “influential” in this case absolutely means “there were 10,000 games all trying to get a piece of that sweet, sweet GTA3 pie”. This was the epoch when “sandbox gameplay” became a bullet point on every game cover from Final Fantasy to Hitman. Some of these copies were net goods, though. Spider-Man went from having “levels” to gaining the sprawling cities he always needed, and we likely would have never seen something like Fable without it being pitched as a “medieval GTA”. But, on the other end of the spectrum, we had any number of titles that wanted to make a claim at “gigantic, open worlds” without putting in the effort to actually design said worlds. And thus did we play through a number of games that would have been simple, progress from level to level affairs a few years earlier, but now had to have “hub cities” that were about as densely populated as Lost Springs, Wyoming (look it up!). And now you were forced to putter around for hours between missions and maybe the best you could hope for was some kind of collectible scavenger hunt. Apparently, the lesson so many game designers took from GTA3 was not that it had a fun, varied world where you were constantly learning you could do new things (God, I could write an article just about the exhilaration of finding a car jump ramp for the first time in GTA3), but simply that it was “big”, and you could walk around at your leisure. Oh, and GTA has a lot of “maturity”. Maybe we should shoehorn some cusses into our games, too…
Final Fight: Streetwise decided to chase the gameplay concepts and maturity of Grand Theft Auto 3 like a Japanophile running down a katana collection. FF:S takes place in a largeish (by PS2 standards) world with distinct neighborhoods, shops, and citizenry. There is the main plot, and a variety of “side quests” that can be distributed by assorted townsfolk/drug dealers. There are quests, both required and optional, that allow for the player to experience an escalation of regular gameplay, or more “minigame”-like fare. And, while Final Fight has always been a “street” franchise that included mature themes (the boss of Level 3 is a corrupt cop! You can eat his gum!) and roaming, malevolent gangs, the decision was clearly made at some point to make Final Fight: Streetwise feature characters that could be immediately described as “hardcore”. The central problem of this story is not a princess kidnapping, but a new drug on the streets. Our current hero is battling in an underground fight club to make ends meet, and all the previous protagonists are all suffering from various states of decay and corruption. And the new characters are all either morally compromised, or clearly too good to survive the whole of this adventure. This is a real story about real people in a real mean neighborhood.
And, unfortunately, you are not at all prepared for how this game is blitheringly, rock stupid from top to bottom.
You can read a game summary, Final Fight wiki article, or even the previous paragraph and think to yourself, “Well, that doesn’t sound so bad.” You may be like me, and imagine a game that indulges in that “grim ‘n gritty” style, but, even if it’s not your thing, it can still be good. It has happened before, right? It doesn’t have to be bad! This is a Capcom game! They know what they’re doing!
Well, bad news, folks, Final Fight: Streetwise is an aggressively stupid game. There is no other way to describe it! This is a story where the featured characters are all idiots that always choose the single stupidest move possible. “This guy tried to kill me once, but maybe if I be polite, things will be better… whoops, got tricked, now he tried to kill me again.” That’s a plot point! It is meant to be a surprise when the mafioso that initially threw the protagonist into a deadly pit fight then again tries to kill the hero through an immediate bout of arson even though he was being so polite. And, granted, “being polite” should be rewarded for Kyle Travers, as his default mode is just cursing and punching people. I am not just talking about during gameplay, either! Kyle immediately resorts to fighting literally everyone he encounters. With a deft hand, a writer could portray Kyle as a man that knows he is in a rough situation, and immediately reacts to even the slightest kindness with inversely reciprocal brutality. But this is not a story written by a deft hand. This is a story about solving every problem with punching, and being rewarded for punching as hard as possible. And this translates to the gameplay, as literally everything in this world, from the sidequests to the gyms where you can spend your rewards, exists exclusively to power Kyle’s punches. And, again, this is a videogame, that could work. But, unfortunately, it all works to make this Final Fight world seem entirely too small to support the kind of game that could be happening here. It makes every corner of Kyle’s quest feel… stupid. This is a stupid hero doing stupid things in a stupid world.
But it is still a world. And it is a world that, with its “streetwise” aesthetics, tries to be realistic. The voice acting and graphics are great (by a Playstation 2 standard), and, if you are willing to forgive a number of (stupid) limiting choices in the game, you could easily see this as more of a “real world” than the cartoon world where you frequently see a dude in a gi tossing fireballs out of his hands. The venues in Final Fight: Streetwise are like those from the original Final Fight: subways, fighting rings, and the mean streets. And, while there are a few fantastic special moves as Kyle levels up, the majority of the fighting is based on traditional punches, kicks, and grapples. It is easy to slide into the simple comfort of playing this generally mundane game, and imagine you are controlling a real character in a real world.
And then you bash a sleeping dog with a baseball bat.
I cannot recall the last time I recoiled at something “I did” in a videogame.
There are a lot of things happening here. Final Fight: Streetwise may be a wannabe GTA game, but it is also a beat ‘em up, so traditional beat ‘em up rules apply. You need to conserve health. If a threat is vulnerable, you need to take the opportunity to neutralize that threat immediately, and conserve your energy for the fights you cannot immediately neutralize. And you always want to use those beat ‘em up weapons, because you cannot conserve them in any relevant way, so you are just wasting that 2×4 if you want to pick up a sword a few metaphorical feet down the line. Final verdict: if you come upon an enemy that is apparently sleeping, yes, you absolutely should “run out” that powerup weapon, and use it to defeat your opponent before they can siphon off a chunk of your precious health.
You absolutely should beat a dog with a plank of wood until said plank breaks, and the dog is left lying there, bleeding, on the floor.
Look, I am an animal lover, so I am going to be more sensitive to dog-violence than random dudes-violence. I am also a firm believer that animals are ignorant, and thus do not know whether they have been trained to be good boys or furry members of a drug cartel. I have no problem pummeling gang members that ultimately choose to join their attendant gangs, whereas these dogs just wound up with the wrong owners. And, yes, let’s be real here: no one actually chose to be a gang member or a dog in Final Fight: Streetwise. It is a videogame! It’s not real! I did not just pummel a sleeping dog any more than “I” just saved a city from a magical drug that makes your eyeballs glow green. These are not drug-addled malevolent sleepwalkers or vicious gang members or dogs: they are just random digital approximations of adversaries. And this is not a realistic game! A “real” Kyle Travers would have died seventeen times of blunt force trauma before the end of the prelude in any sort of realistic version of this story, and no amount of hamburgers would ever heal the wounds he constantly suffered. And the very boss of the area where this dead dog appears is a friggen’ “gun-fu” fight where the whole point is that you and your opponent are trading bullets like Pokémon cards, and being pumped full of lead literally drops less health than a dog bite. Final Fight: Streetwise is a very silly game set in a silly universe where drugs can turn you into a magical zombie. It is about as realistic as raiding the Mushroom Kingdom for invincibility stars, and absolutely should be treated as such.
… But still. That poor dog, man.
The uncanny valley is supposed to describe the weird dip in perception wherein something that is known to be “fake” is just real enough to make the audience uncomfortable. You know that Mickey Mouse is a fake cartoon mouse, but transform him into something that appears to be an unholy amalgamation of fleshy human and blemished rodent, and suddenly he’s not so cuddly. And, while the uncanny valley usually just highlights noticeable graphical missteps (please see Marvel vs. Capcom Infinite for a title that tried too hard to look too real and wound up making a diseased zombie titan its prettiest character), in this case, it seems that poor Streetwise Dog is sleeping in the uncanny valley of my mind. I know that this is all fake, that this is a fifteen-year-old game that subsists on barely enough processing power to properly render a passable boxing ring. I know all of that. But I still recoiled at beating a dead dog. I was still disgusted at something I have been doing since the Ninja Gaiden days, and something that I was doing recently with the high fidelity of the Final Fantasy 7 Remake. I have murdered hundreds of digital dogs, but this one made an impact. Kyle Travers occupies that exact sweet spot in the uncanny valley to make me stand up and take notice of the real-but-not-real world of Final Fight: Streetwise. Despite every ridiculous thing in this absurd, wannabe-classic beat ‘em up, there is one moment that I’m never going to forget.
My uncanny valley apparently rests at the intersection of Final Fight, bat, and sleeping dog.
FGC #590 Final Fight: Streetwise
- System: Playstation 2 and Xbox. Do not expect this to appear on future Final Fight/Capcom compilations, though.
- Number of players: Two, but only in the wholly optional “arcade mode”. The main game is a singular experience.
- What’s this about arcade mode? It’s just an excuse to have the typical beat ‘em up gameplay of Streetwise included in a mode where you don’t have to wander around the city looking for your next mission. It is actually pretty alright! Though it does reinforce how little actual innovation there is in Streetwise beyond including swears and “open world” elements.
- Story Time: 90% of this game is based on the simple question of “where did Cody get off to?” The answer (which is only revealed in approximately the last chapter) is that Cody is addicted to drugs that were provided by an evil priest that is actually the brother of the big boss of Final Fight (1). And why is Father Bella distributing drugs that turn people into The Incredible Hulk? Why, to kick off the apocalypse of Revelations, of course! And guess who he made his Horseman of War? The dude who owns a local pornography theatre! Cody winds up ranking only marginally higher than that loser.
- What’s in a name: Oh, and speaking of which, Weasel the Whoresman of War also leads a gang called The Blueballers. This is not a subtle universe.
- Canonicity: If you are wondering about the canon of Final Fight: Streetwise, it appears that, while Streetwise flows directly from Final Fight 3 and Street Fighter Alpha 3/Ultra Street Fighter 4, Street Fighter 5 well and truly kills any kind of continuity with Streetwise. Cody is meant to be Metro City’s next mayor, not some deadbeat ex-con addicted to fantastical drugs. Though, to be clear, with the stated reason for Cody’s incarceration being that he took the fall for Guy, Streetwise does contradict the events of 2000’s Final Fight Revenge. This is just fine, though, as no one played that game. Ever.
- Say something nice: At least you respawn pretty quickly after every game over. It does raise questions about why you don’t get your health topped off after missions when a simple death seems faster than seeking random street meats, though.
- Favorite Returning Character: Cody mostly spends the game being a sad loser. Haggar apparently now lives his life at the docks being a sad loser. Guy has his own ninja syndicate at his command, but he mostly uses it to just be a sad loser. But Andore! Now there is a guy who knows what he likes! He is still a pitfighter after all these years, and he is not at all sad about it! Good job, Andore! Find your niche and stick to it!
- Living Expenses: Cody seems to have a pretty nice apartment, but Kyle lives in a dump where his mattress is just sitting on the floor.
Damn Kyle, you live like this?
- Did you know? Poison and Sodom/Katana were both supposed to appear in Streetwise, but were instead simply relegated to the promotional comic. Personally, I think it would have been pretty fun to have Cody’s younger brother dating Poison for the entirety of the adventure. It would make Cody uncomfortable to know his former enemy could be his new sister-in-law, and I am all for anything that makes Cody’s life awkward.
- Would I play again: Ugh. No. I felt like I had to see what this aborted evolutionary branch of the Final Fight franchise was, but, man, I would not want to ever experience it again. At least it isn’t a very long game…
What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Jay and Silent Bob: Mall Brawl! Snootch to various nooches and whatnot. Please look forward to it!