New Orleans has made countless appearances in literature and film – particularly since the post-Katrina Hollywood South boom. Most, however, overlook its inclusion in video games. The Big Easy has been the setting of many a button-masher spanning the past 25 years. Below are eight memorable titles in which the Crescent City makes an appearance.
Death Race (1990, Nintendo Entertainment System)
I can remember renting this game many a Friday afternoon as a kid. It was a lesser known title by a nobody developer, but the box told you all you needed to know: fast cars, killer robots, and guns...lots of guns. Death Race is based on the 1970s film of the same name, later remade in 2005 starring Jason Statham – telling you all you need to know about the film.
The game play has you drive an armored car excessively accessorized with firepower. You progress to the next stage by collecting a series of flags, and gain points to upgrade your vehicle by killing everything in site – and yes, pedestrians are fair game. Fans of Grand Theft Auto may be interested to learn Death Race is cited as an influence for the first in that series…the more you know.
I was pretty stoked back in the day when I got to the New Orleans stage. However, this was during the 8-bit era – every stage looked the same. It was a bit disheartening to see nothing that reminded me of home, but technical limitations aside, the game does take place in an apocalyptic future...maybe it all “ain't dere no more.”
The Adventures of Bayou Billy (1991, Nintendo Entertainment System)
Set in the swamps of Louisiana, Bayou Billy’s final stage is a showdown on Bourbon Street. New Orleans pixilated showcase first begins to take shape in this game. You can recognize Spanish architecture downtown in some of the background building designs, and in case you still question exactly where you’re at, the word “Bar” is plastered on several of the peripheral properties. Not that I can recall any of this from personal experience – this game is so mercilessly challenging I still can’t get past the first stage.
Bayou Billy’s back-story goes something like a Swamp People take on Tarzan: orphaned as a boy, Billy was raised by gators, bringing him up to be a total badass. Judging by this game’s difficulty, everyone in Louisiana is raised by gators...that, or Billy was clearly a disappointment to his amphibious foster parents.
Save yourself the frustration of seeking out and playing this blood-boiling perdition on your patience: check out the YouTube video below for your 8-bits of Bourbon Street.
James Bond: Everything or Nothing (2003, PlayStation 2)
Everything or Nothing’s plot revolves around a terrorist organization developing WMDs in the form of nano-technology. Midway into the game, an informant dies and tells you to go to a plantation in New Orleans, where you learn the evil-doers plan to release the nano-bots on the levees and flood the city. If this game was released 20 months later, I'm certain it would have been shelved. It still seems too soon revisiting it for this review in 2014.
New Orleans here comes across more like L.A. than LA, just with something that may-or-may-not be the French Market, Armstrong Park (oddly featuring a huge plantation inside of it), and St. Louis Cathedral thoughtlessly placed at random. I imagine the designers already had a stock city ready to go, later doing a cursory Google Images search for some icons to toss in and put a face on it. Also, where The Adventures of Bayou Billy displays the word "Bar" all over Bourbon Street to help orient players, Everything or Nothing slaps up "Gumbo" advertisements reminding you that this is, indeed, New Orleans (I wonder if Everything or Nothing's writers went on to script K-Ville.) The one shining exception is the Ponchartrain Bridge stage. The motorcycle chase is thrilling, and the city appears picture perfect in the distance. Bond crashes Mardi Gras at one point, but again, Mardi Gras as envisioned by someone who has never been to or remotely researched the festival—it appears more like a Latin carnival than Fat Tuesday.
Despite the eerie Katrina-esque foreshadowing and a failing grade for geographic verisimilitude, this game is solid. A strong story and engaging missions give this one good replay value. I was a bit bummed at first that it featured a third-person perspective—in contrast to the effective first-person vantage point introduced in Nintendo 64's ubiquitous first 007 game, Golden Eye—but it works, offering a game-play experience similar to PS2's more sophisticated Metal Gear Solid sequels. This game also marks the last appearance of Pierce Brosnan as James Bond, and once again features Judi Dench as M.
Tony Hawk’s Underground 2 (2004, PlayStation 2)
I was a huge fan of the Tony Hawk games up until the Underground series. I remember playing this with a friend during my college days, and it just never grabbed me. Maybe it was the introduction of a storyline – it does nothing but slow down the game when all you want to do is skate.
This second installment in the series pits Tony Hawk and his crew in a series of competitions against fellow pro-skater and Jackass star Bam Margera. The plot here is heavily based around Margera’s second MTV show, Viva La Bam, which was popular around the time of Underground 2’s release.
This game nails its depiction of the French Quarter better than any other game I’ve played. Everything from the Cathedral and the Superdome to an intermittent zydeco jingle…it's all here. The parking garages look just how they do downtown, and Bourbon St. features many of the same jernts you’d recognize if you skated (or stumbled) down there this second. You can even skate into Pat O’Brien's courtyard and go through the fountain. A carnival clown can be unlocked as a playable character, and if you pull off the right trick, he’ll offer to buy you a drink while an image of a Hurricane pops on the screen. One of the New Orleans’ missions even requires you to make “5 Girls Go Crazy,” a wink at the old Girls Gone Wild Mardi Gras videos.
Left 4 Dead 2 (2009, X-Box 360)
The Walking Dead? More like the running dead. If the zombies in AMC’s The Walking Dead limp around ATL like a tourist after one-too-many Hand Grenades, Left 4 Dead 2’s zombies race at you like sprinters on a coke-binge.
Left 4 Dead 2 is a first-person shooter that sees a group of survivors in the aftermath of the zombie apocalypse as they seek shelter, heading from Atlanta down to New Orleans. This is what I like to call a meathead game: little plot, no strategy, just lots of repetitive slaughter. But it does slaughter well – hell, it elevates it to an art form. Like gore? You’ll love Left 4 Dead 2. The entire game is like COD’s zombie mode on speed, just with progressive stages in place of level ups.
As for the New Orleans stage, I was impressed. The layout of Jackson Square is a bit off, as is its proximity to Woldenberg Park, but you are able to recognize where you are. The attention to detail here is not nearly as impressive as in Tony Hawk’s Underground 2, but it is a different type of game. The pace at which zombies attack you doesn’t really give you an opportunity to sightsee, so the developers probably didn’t see the harm in cutting a few cartographic corners.
This is by far my favorite title on this list. It is great fun running through downtown New Orleans pumping bullets into an endless army of zombies. It can get monotonous, especially if you play it by yourself. Find a friend to partner up with and you’ll wonder where the time went.
The following games I have not played, but seemed worth mentioning in this rundown:
Infamous 2 (2011, PlayStation 3)
Set in the fictional city of New Marais (based on New Orleans), you assume the role of Cole MacGrath, a man who in the series’ first installment gains the ability to harness electricity. He comes to New Marais to stop a biblical baddy known as The Beast from destroying the world.
From the start, New Marais pays ode to New Orleans with jazz musicians on its corners and locally inspired building designs. Later in the game, the city floods, becoming – unsubtly – referred to as “Flood Town.” Many critics applauded the game for its post-Katrina depiction, considering it a virtual simulator of sorts allowing players to empathize with the catastrophe. There are several tragic depictions in the game locals will find unsettlingly familiar: survivors are found scurrying for supplies in a housing project modeled after the Ninth Ward, warnings are inscribed on people’s roofs, and body count markers are etched on front doors. In addition to the acclaimed socio-political context, it’s supposed to be a lot of fun too...the true gauge of any worthwhile game.
Assassins Creed III: Liberation (2012, PlayStation Vita)
Assassins Creed is one of the best-selling series of the past several years. The recurring plot involves a syndicate of time police, called the Assassins, that travel backwards in history via a machine allowing them to inhabit the host bodies of historical figures, reliving their lives and memories. This one-off entry features the series’ first female protagonist, a Creole living in 18th Century New Orleans at the end of the French and Indian War. The game was praised for its beautiful re-imagining of 18th Century New Orleans, and its celebration of the city’s diverse cultural heritage; the game play, however, was panned.
Nancy Drew and the Legend of the Crystal Skull (2007, PC)
I know what you’re thinking – how could this one possibly have escaped me all this time?
This game caught my eye as its title is painfully similar to that of the gag-inducing fourth Indian Jones’ installment, The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, a blockbuster bowl movement the stench of which still nauseates me anytime it’s mentioned in polite conversation. I was kind of hoping the film would play into the plot of the game, as it was released around the same time. For instance, Nancy could decode for audiences why that sequel sucked so epically hard. Fortunately, Drew’s Crystal Skull keeps its distance from this cinematic disasterpiece, instead drawing its inspiration from a then 20-year old entry in her long-cherished book series, The Mardi Gras Mystery. The story follows Nancy on vacation to New Orleans, where adventure ensues.
From its previews, the game play looks like it is similar to early stop-motion CD-Rom games on the PC like The 7th Guest and The 11th Hour...think of it like a virutal "Choose Your Own Adventure" book with puzzles thrown in. Critics praised the game for its detailed graphics and puzzle difficulty. Based on the little I've seen, the depictions of New Orleans – particularly its historic cemetairies and Jackson Square – are spot on.
If I'm reincarnated in the next life as a tween girl, perhaps I'll go back and give this game a proper review.