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.