In order to broach the subject of musicians appearing in video games, we're legally obligated to mention Rock Band and Guitar Hero in the first sentence, so there. Putting aside those big franchises, several other games have featured musicians in increasingly unusual capacities.
Both The Beatles and English punk act The Stranglers appeared in text-based home computer games for the ZX Spectrum in the early ''80s; Journey peddled absolutely horrid-looking 1983 arcade action game; Aerosmith were the selling point of a 1994 gun game (which also weirdly featured a riff on the Nine Inch Nails logo); and NBA Jam: Tournament Edition had the pleasuring of hosting Will Smith, Jazzy Jeff, and all three Beastie Boys.
Michael Jackson has been in at least three titles himself: Moonwalker, where he rescued kids (seriously); Space Channel 5, where he danced with Teletubby-esque aliens; and Ready 2 Rumble Boxing: Round 2, where he had the opportunity to punch Shaq in the face if he pleased. We're not even going to delve into the sundry pinball games devoted to rock bigwigs such as The Rolling Stones, The Who, Elton John, and Guns N' Roses.
In 1999, Staten Island's signature hip-hop ensemble joined this esteemed list with the release of a PlayStation fighting game called Wu-Tang: Shaolin Style. It's not a very good game--actually, it's mostly awful--but seeing as the Clan play the Grove of Anaheim tonight at 7.p.m., there's no harm in revisiting this strange curio from the band's history.
First, some backstory: Back around '98, game developer Paradox Development devoted significant time and energy to creating Thrill Kill, another PS1 fighting title whose primary selling points were 1) a four-player mode, and 2) its desire to elevate Mortal Kombat violence to the next level (meaning that allusions to orgasms and BDSM accompany the piles of excessive gore). Thrill Kill had all kinds of hype and hope driving it--this really was a controversial and ballsy approach to a fight game--but then Virgin Interactive, the game's publisher, was gobbled up by Electronic Arts. EA subsequently decided that the blood-and-blowjobs angle might tarnish its reputation, so they scrapped the title weeks before its scheduled street date. The game ended up never officially seeing daylight, but bootlegs can be found pretty easily online.
In the wake of the Thrill Kill debacle, Paradox developed Shaolin Style using the scrapped game's engine. Activision released the Wu-Tang tie-in in November '99 alongside a clunky but cool-looking controller in the shape of the group's logo.
The resulting game retained healthy doses of violence and Thrill Kill's novel four-player mode while ditching the sexual elements. It also featured some pretty odd character designs if you know what the Wu-Tang guys actually look like. Examine the official art below and try to discern which pupil-free character is supposed to represent which real-life Wu-Tang member.
You may put down your pens and close your notebooks. Here are the answers:
You got like three of those correct, right? Seriously, what was going on with this game's art? Inspectah Deck resembles Latrell Sprewell more than Inspectah Deck, Raekwon is apparently skinny as hell (The Chef is great, svelte he ain't), GZA looks like a bland, slightly modified version of Raekwon, and RZA and Masta Killa are generic ninjas on Cobra Commander's payroll. Ghostface (whose mug, by the by, looks almost exactly like Deck's) gets a decent likeliness, ODB is OK, and Method Man and U-God are probably the most accurate. These pseudo-representations of Shaolin's finest do little justice to their real-life selves.
The presentation only gets slighty better once you fire up the actual game. Certain characters come equipped with weapons (Meth uses a sledgehammer, RZA swords, GZA a chain knotted to a blade, etc.), while others such as Dirty and Raekwon have to make due with fists and feets. While some of the graphical flaws can be chalked up to the technology of the time, all the smeared textures, weirdly proportioned characters, and drab settings do little to make it stand out. The in-game CGI cinemas looked decent then; today, they resemble a gritty version of ReBoot.
Oh yeah, there's a story, too. The Clan's beloved Master Xin--the man who knows all the secrets of the Wu-Tang--has been kidnapped by the vile Mong Zhu because Zhu was apparently not aware that Wu-Tang ain't nuthin' to fuck wit. Of course, RZA and friends have to go rescue Xin. On the whole, the plot sounds like something out of the first Ninja Turtles movie. (Speaking of which, Activision should have figured out some way to get Casey Jones here.)
The actual in-game product is mediocre at best. The game's controls are slow and ultra-clunky (You lack the ability to jump, which considerably limits the range of motion), and Paradox didn't leave much room for strategic depth. Pulling off combos can be satisfying if you stick around long enough, but overall, it's difficult to create a flowing fight. (Kinda funny that a Wu-Tang game would have problems with flow of all things, but eh.)
There are a few upsides. Mashing the buttons can be fun if you don't take the game too seriously, casting the Clan as superhuman entities is a cool idea (even if it's not executed particularly well), and Shaolin Style rips the idea of Fatalities right from Mortal Kombat, which leads to some entertaining, goofy bloodshed. The video below captures all the mayhem.
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To its credit, the game does feature some great details for Wu-Tang fans. One stage features graffiti that reads "Can It All Be So Simple," RZA will let out a vigorous "Suuuuu!" during combat, and Shaolin Style's story mode asks you to fight your way through 36 chambers. Also, U-God has golden arms (like his album Golden Arms Redemption), the Jax Briggs-esque Ghostface Killah is partially made out of iron (like his album Ironman), and one GZA Fatality involves him spitting ghostly daggers at his opponent (like his album Liquid Swords, kinda). Unfortunately, the game features few actual Wu-Tang songs; "Rumble" and "Wu World Order" are used prominently, and Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) cuts appear to be totally absent.
Even if Shaolin Style wasn't a very good game, the Wu logo still has substantial dollar value, as evidenced by Alvin Blanco mentioning in his book The Wu-Tang Clan and RZA: A Trip Through Hip Hop's 36 Chambers that the game sold 600,000 fucking copies. Holy shit -- people really loved Wu-Tang. Even then, Shaolin Style never yielded a sequel. Method Man and Ghostface were lucky enough to later take part in a better fighting game series by way of the Def Jam wrestling games, but the rest of the Clan still have yet to be revisited. The Wu-Tang brand is still full of mythology and great details to draw from, so can we pretty please get a sequel that actually kicks it PLO-style?