Imagine creating one of the biggest franchises in gaming history, then adapting a game based on a cult-classic 70s film. It’s near unimaginable in these days of multimillion-dollar adaptions of already massive film franchises, but Rockstar did just this in 2005. That game was a Beat ’em up called The Warriors. I’m going to take you through the origins, production and reception of one of the best examples of an adaptation that has gained cult status in its own right.
Spoilers for both the movie and game follow; read at your discretion.
Art Imitating Life
In the late sixties/early seventies, New York was in what many considered a terminal decline. The city was bankrupt, and the boughs were dealing with the insipid Heroin epidemic that turned many neighbourhoods into crime-infested no-go areas. Perhaps the worst affected area was the Bronx which was often likened to a war zone. Constant strikes led to power outages that blanketed parts of the city in pitch dark, allowing looters to run ramped. The Mafia was at their zenith in the 70s, ruling the streets with fear and violence.
It was a bleak time, one we would find hard to recognise today. But if those problems weren’t enough to contend with, there was the army of gangs that prowled the streets. Sporting colourful names like the Savage Skulls and Black Spades, these street soldiers took advantage of the decay in a bid to control their turfs. Not all these gangs were criminal in intent. Still, with the lucrative drug trade and plentiful access to weaponry, areas like the Bronx were soon awash in crime. With little to no help from the city or federal government and a corrupt police force, the good people of these deprived areas were left to make the best of a bad hand.
The seventies was also a period of Bohemianism in the New York art and acting scene. Actors we’ve come to idolise homed their craft in the cafes and dive theatres of The Big Apple. Al Pacino made his name in the 1972 classic The Godfather but would capture the corrupt and schizophrenic nature of the decade in Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon. As the decade came to a close, a far less critically acclaimed film released. That film was called The Warriors, and it caused quite a stir.
By 1979 Walter Hill had only directed two movies. He had a project that would appeal to Paramount Studios, who were interested in making a movie that would connect with the period’s disenfranchised youth. Someone had passed Hill a copy of The Warriors, a 1965 book by Sol Yurick. After promising to make the film on the cheap, Paramount agreed to fund the project. Though the film makes some cosmetic changes to the book’s narrative, its substance stays the same. The Destroyers were now The Warriors, which tied the book with the movie and, in retrospect, makes far more sense as a title. The plot is loosely based on the ancient tale of Xenophon and the march of his ten thousand mercenaries but retrofitted around the flourishing gang culture of the time.
On a moonlight night in New York, the city’s most powerful gang leader calls a summit. Representatives from over a hundred gangs descend on Van Cortlandt park to hear from Cyrus, a leader with a vision of taking over the city. A gunman shoots Cyrus and blames a member of a small Coney Island set called The Warriors. Gangs aren’t known for their empathy, and violence soon erupts, causing the remaining Warriors to fight their way back to Coney Island through a city out for their blood. Ultimately, the movie was a success, making good on its $4 million budget. On the other hand, Cinemas weren’t as thrilled about the film as paramount’s finance team may have.
When released on February 6th, 1979, several acts of violence were blamed on the film’s stylised depiction of gang life. Three murders (Two in Southern California: one in Massachusetts) also took place, committed by and to people on route to the film theatre. In reaction, Paramount removed all advertising for the film and were liable for damages from the vandalism and violence that the film inspired. Critics were merciless, with famed critic Roger Egbert calling it “a ballet of stylised male violence”. The movie soon faded into the background, while Hill moved onto other projects, namely Southern Comfort and 48 Hours. As the years went by, some critics and viewers began re-examining The Warriors until, in 2003, The New York Times placed it on the 1,000 best films ever made.
Uncovering & Reimagining
Video games were still in their infancy when The Warriors was initially released. Yet, over the convening decades, that had changed. As we all welcomed a new millennium, a small Scottish developer was working on a game that would forever change the industry’s landscape. Grand Theft Auto 3 is often thought to be the originator of the Open-World genre, but this isn’t the case. However, there’s no doubt the game popularised the genre more than any other before it. The game’s unmitigated success led to two anthological prequels that rocketed Rockstar to stardom. The idea of adapting The Warriors cropped-up not long after GTA 3 but wouldn’t see the light of day until late 2005.
Early issues presented themselves quickly. How were they going to take a movie with a run-time of 1h 34m and create a full player experience that people would be willing to drop $60? The answer was obvious – backstory. Instead of padding out the movie’s thin plot, Rockstar would create an origin for the gang to fill a significant plot hole. Chiefly, why are all the gangs in New York so willing to hunt down the falsely-accused gang members in the first place? We get to know the crew from their earliest years through eighteen missions until the final five comprise the original plot. This backstory established on-going animosities between other gangs and tees up concluding missions nicely. Without spoiling too much, here’s a quick rundown of the narrative.
Like so many gangs, The Warriors was born out of a larger gang called The Destroyers. Betrayed by their brothers, Cleon and Vernon form a new organisation. Teaming up with other disillusioned gang members, they form The Warriors. The crew begin to make their presence known throughout the city, making enemies out of most other gangs in one way or another. When falsely accused of Cyrus’s murder, they must survive the night and get back to Coney Island. The game isn’t open-world and instead uses hub worlds that allows each location to stand out. Each hub is backed by an enemy set that is immediately hostile to your presence. Rockstar does an excellent job of letting you know that you’re in enemy territory by connecting the world around you with the enemy group that controls the area.
Gangs Of New York
Writing in retrospect allows me to reexamine the game without the sheen of nostalgia. Naturally, the gameplay and Graphical fidelity are archaic – it’s a sixteen-year-old game, after all. The main characters have a bit more polish, buffed out to resemble the original actors. Bit characters don’t come off as well, however. A gang member’s life isn’t easy, but these bundles of polygons have had a difficult life! Everything looks rough, but in a way that plays to the seventies setting. As a reflection of the sixth-generation consoles’ minuscule power, The Warriors is firmly in the ugly but fun genre.
The mission structure doesn’t benefit from Grand Theft Auto‘s open-ended approach to mission choice. Instead, each level tells its own self-contained story. These origin missions slowly build up the animosities between the Coney Island crew and other New York gangs. An early example sees three Warriors caught up in a blackout. Looting soon ensues, and the police come down hard. After evading arrest, the three cut across a baseball pitch only to be accosted by The Baseball Furies. Outnumbered, there’s no choice but to run through the dimly lit alleyways back to the safety of the train. The use of light and dark is impressive for a game of this age and adds a sense of trepidation to an otherwise straightforward mission.
The simplistic gameplay doesn’t win any awards but does the basics adequately without being annoying. Rockstar was never one for fixing what isn’t broken. Instead, they stick to their strengths – story and world-building. I’d argue that no developer handles these elements with such aplomb. Recent examples (Cyberpunk 2077) show that it takes more than hype to make a game work. The seventies was a time of social and economic upheaval. I don’t think the time-period the game eventually released in was pure kismet. As an example of pent-up youth angst and anger towards an uncaring world, I’d say its rather timely for a game released in 2005.
Sixteen years is a long time. The game would likely have been resigned to the backlog of history if it wasn’t for its developer. Such a fate would’ve been a tragedy because I genuinely believe it to be one of the best beat ’em ups of the early 2000s. Perhaps it lacks Bully’s staying power, but in the pantheon of Rockstar’s library, The Warriors has earned its place amongst the best of them. Thankfully, you can still enjoy the game on modern consoles and PC, so please play it if you have the time and patience to handle sixteen-year-old gameplay.