GRINDHOUSE, URBAN DECAY, AND THE IMPORTANCE OF WALTER HILL

Having fully embraced my responsibilities as a parent ever since my son was born, I've watched the amount of time I spend playing videogames shrink into near-nothingness - at least, compared to what it used to be.  Which, by the way, is perfectly fine - I still take my 3DS XL with me on the road and cozy up on the couch with the Wii U Gamepad while my son is asleep some nights.  But overall, I find myself spending more time thinking about videogames rather than playing them... and sometimes those thoughts end up in odd places and strange corners of the internet.  Here's an odd thought for you to consider:  80's arcade games, specifically beat 'em-ups, are the grindhouse movies of videogames.

This thought struck me a long time ago when I was watching Hobo With a Shotgun with my wife - an excellently disgusting throwback to the Lloyd Kauffman Troma! classics of the 80s and 90s that I discussed a bit in my post on Arcade scenes popping up in movies.

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The Plague arcade game that they show in the background of this scene not only serves as foreshadowing for the duo's assault on the hospital later in the movie, but it directly reflects the spirit in which that scene is filmed.  If they had framed the action from a sideview perspective à la Oldboy, then it certainly would have been more obvious than it already is - the linear progression of violence as they tear through the hospital's corridors feels like it was ripped right out of an arcade beat 'em up.  (WARNING: This clip is just a little bit violent, FYI)

Clearly, the creator of this film has a thing for oldschool games.  Even the song that plays over this scene is reminiscent of retro games, as it should be - it's a track by Power Glove, a retro-futuristic synth duo that makes music inspired by 80s games and direct-to-VHS soundtracks.  The group might be best-known for their Far Cry:  Blood Dragon soundtrack, which even featured an alternate version of this track.  I never played it because I can't bear the thought of experiencing another FPS ever again - that is, unless it's a From Software-developed Shadow Tower sequel, of course.

 

For all the talk that goes on these days about new games being "cinematic," you rarely hear anyone talking about old games having film-inspired qualities, or even movies having game-like qualities.  New games aspire towards the lofty heights of summer blockbusters in terms of audience enjoyment, and often surpass the success of most movies these days. Game producers are trying to elevate the quality of writing and acting in games higher than they've ever been, to varying results - sometimes you get another lightly guided tour of a beautifully rendered corridor with Michael Bay set-pieces (*coughUNCHARTEDcough*), other times you get something that is more movie than game that ends up being simultaneously hated and loved, like many of David Cage's hotly debated projects.  Regardless, the repetitive and shoddily-translated Japanese beat 'em-ups of the 80s and 90s seem even more like forgotten, "direct-to-video" relics than ever before.

 

The more I thought about it, the more I wondered just how many Japanese videogames from the 80s and 90s could have been directly inspired by movies without anyone really noticing.  Hardcore Gaming 101 already has an incredible repository of key art, advertising, and in-game graphics that were directly lifted from numerous Stallone and Schwarzenegger films (as well as many other sources).  But these examples are less about inspiration, and more about exposing what essentially amounts to copyright infringement that flew under the radar.  Was there something else, some other creation that could be pointed to as a source for artistic choices and design inspiration that may have defined an entire movement within the history of videogames?

 

 

Easily one of the greatest pieces of key art every created for a videogame.

I was having one of those nights where I swore up and down that I'd be in bed by a reasonable time so I wouldn't be exhausted for work, but instead found myself reading about the human beings that were behind my favorite 80s arcade games on Wikipedia.  In particular, I was trying to remember the name of the artist who produced the majority of my favorite classic Capcom art from games like Side Arms, Final Fight, and the Street Fighter series - Akira Yasuda, aka, Akiman (if you're not familiar, look him up or search for a copy of Capcom Design Works - be prepared for some NSFW stuff if you seek him out by name online though).

From Akiman's Wikipedia Page, I ended up on the Side Arms page, and from there I ended up on Yoshiki Okamoto's page - pretty much a full night of impulse link-hopping and full-on information binging.  I wasn't familiar with this individual by name, but I did learn that not only did he collaborate frequently with Akiman on many of my favorite arcade games, but he was instrumental in both the creation and success of Final Fight and Street Fighter II.  I was already aware that Final Fight was intended as a followup to the original Street Fighter, but an interesting and unfamiliar tidbit on the Final Fight wiki caught my eye:

According to the developers, many elements from the game and its plot were inspired by the 1980s action film, Streets of Fire. Many members of the production staff are fans of the movie. One of the main characters from the game, Cody, was even inspired by the hero of the film, Tom Cody, who was played by actor Michael Paré. The story of the movie also dealt with the kidnapping of an attractive young woman by a city gang.
— http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Final_Fight


Streets of Fire:  a self-proclaimed "Rock 'n Roll Fable" that takes place in "Another time – another place."  Released in 1984, this strange, semi-musical mash-up of retro 50's imagery, quasi-futuristic dystopia, and film noir seemed like it would be a surefire winner during its production.  I was shocked that I hadn't heard of it, let alone seen it since it was supposedly such an influence on a game I wasted too many of my parents' quarters on.  Upon discovering this movie, one of the first things I noticed was that the poster looked awfully familiar, like an album cover from a group that has made a name for themselves with songs about another Capcom property... songs that sound like they belong in the soundtrack for this movie, bizarrely enough.
 

 
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I immediately looked Streets of Fire up, and was shocked at how much the whole thing seemed like every damn beat 'em up game ever made.  Sure, all beat 'em up games are pretty much rip-offs and cannibalizations of one another (even Yoshiki Okamoto admits that Final Fight was a rip off of Taito's Double Dragon II), but this movie looked like the cosmic egg of over-the-top-western culture that was constantly being filtered back to me via Japanese arcade games when I was a kid - you know, that caricature of the "strong American guy cleaning up the gritty streets to rescue his kidnapped babe" sorta thing.

 

Intro cinematic from Final Fight CD

 
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Well, I watched the movie, and while it was visually striking, it was pretty awful overall.  But charmingly awful, like a direct-to-video cult classic - except this movie reportedly cost $15 million to make and was a tremendous failure at the domestic box office.  Not even Rick Moranis could save this poorly-acted barrage of macho one-liners and dramatic turn-around-over-the-shoulder looks.  The whole thing is so hammy and ham-fisted... maybe it was intended to be that way, like a trashy pulp novel, but... it just doesn't seem to work as intended.
 

Even still, the Final Fight design team apparently loved it enough to borrow numerous elements from it for their game (including the low-quality dialogue, whose terrible nature was surely lost in translation from English to Japanese, I'm sure).

 
 
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The story of this movie and literally EVERY beat 'em up game I can think of:  Objectified woman is kidnapped by ruthless gang that runs the streets – unstoppable juggernaut of a white guy beats the shit out of every person in the city to get her back (with the the help of some pals, of course).  Let's be honest though - Diane Lane is a stone cold fox in this movie.  I'd probably murder everyone in sight and end up in a sledgehammer duel with the rival gang's boss just to get her back, too.  (Hey, those sledgehammers are totally limited-use weapon pickups!)

Not only is the Cody of Final Fight fame probably named after Streets' protagonist Tom Cody, but there are moments where the character's costume resembles Mike Haggar's, with an awkward olive pants and suspenders combo.

 
 

And Willem Dafoe?  He looks like every lanky, wild-haired, slithery popcorn enemy that hops around the stage, just waiting for a moment to sneak in as many quarter-stealing cheap shots as possible.

 
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The steamy, grimy streets and alleyways, littered with trash and saturated by flickering neon – the grinding cacophony and luminous sparks of elevated trains screeching against their iron tracks – the dystopian backdrop of seemingly-abandoned skyscrapers, jutting out of a concrete jungle like a decaying skeleton – the anachronistic graveyards of cars and motorcycles from clashing eras... all of these elements from this rock 'n roll fable are mirrored in not only Final Fight, but pretty much every beat 'em up I can think of, from Vendetta and Violent Storm, to the Streets of Rage Bare Knuckle series (hey, Streets of what, now?  Hmmmmm...).

 
 

Hell, even the backgrounds from various SNK fighting masterpieces look like they were lifted directly from this movie.

 
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Things got weirder and weirder as I picked apart this movie and considered its odd similarities with games and potential influences.  "Directed by Walter Hill, eh?" I thought.  The name sounded familiar, but I couldn't place it, so I of course went to his IMDb page, where I realized that he was not only the director of a few Charles Bronson movies (including one about a street fighter... huh...), but also The Warriors.  Surely The Warriors had influenced the beat 'em up genre - likely candidates include the Kunio-Kun Americanization, Renegade, as well as The Combatribes.  At the very least, it did spawn its own beat 'em up game developed by Rockstar, which was at the time considered to be one of the best adaptations of a film into a game (which is a strange thing when you think about it... a film inspiring a genre of games, and then a game being made about that film in the genre it inspired).

 
 

But EVEN WEIRDER, is the fact that Walter Hill was the producer of ALIEN, and the Executive Producer of ALIENS... which, as you should know by now if you've read my previous entries, or are as big of a nerd as I am - were both enormous influences on MANY Japanese videogames, especially Konami's Contra series.

I mean, come on!  If you're the type of person who considers a director of a film to be the sole visionary and singular voice of the finished product, then not only is Walter Hill bizarrely and tangentially responsible for many aspects of the visual style of one genre of games, but he's also directly related to the supreme grandaddy of the run 'n gun genre.  This one guy.  Who probably has little-to-no interest in videogames.

Fascinating.  Weird and fascinating.  And totally nonsensical, too.

It's like everything I played as a kid in the arcade - all these images of ruined cities riddled with crime and street trash - they were all Eastern consumptions of the West, inspired by our already-absurd self-portrayal in internationally-distributed blockbuster action movies.

It's funny... the cinematic elements of games and cutscenes used to be the carrot at the end of the stick – the virtual treat in the corner of the videogame skinner box that you worked tirelessly for and loved to consume (generally speaking).  Now game developers like the team that's behind The Order:  Eighteen-bloobity-blah-blah for PS4 are talking in interviews about gameplay taking a backseat to the "filmic" experience, which sounds like a terrible bore to me.  And yet – all of these older, lower-tech, skill-based experiences?  They seem to have way more cinematic influence than people seem to give them credit for nowadays, when you take a good look under the surface.

Yes, this is the part where I shake my proverbial old-man-cane and proclaim that back in my day, games were games and movies were movies.  It'll be okay.  Bayonetta 2 is almost here... and pretty much every upcoming Wii U game looks incredible, and incredibly gamey.

So to Walter Hill - wherever you are right now - thank you for inspiring Okamoto and his team - and countless others who pixellated your vision.  Do you even have any idea?  Probably not.

 

BONUS ROUND

Does this movie's influence reach beyond videogames?  Check out the Bubblegum Crisis / Streets of Fire trailer mash-up below and see for yourself.  Seems possible, doesn't it!?

For more comparisons with Final Fight, check out Ragequit 87's Final Fight Shrine here.