Knives, Alien Guns and Tentacle Bats: What Made the Saints Row Series Great

My first experience with the Saints Row series was the fourth installment that I found in a Walmart during the summer of my year of freshman year of college) That was a game that had a former gang leader become the president not only freeing themselves and their staff from nightmare simulations but also avenging the Earth after it was blown up in an alien invasion. But not before getting trapped in a simulation themselves and getting superpowers.  While the batty premise caught my eye as a teenager(I was still 17 at this point), it was the prospect of being able to have superpowers that drew me in and convinced me to buy it. As a lifelong comic book fan and a superpower loving fangirl, I could deny myself to give my self the chance to have powers on my own. At this point, I was adamantly against getting DC Universe Online(which was the only other game that let you create your own character with powers that I was aware of at that time) because the only way to get the cooler powers was to pay for them. Plus you got to be the president during the game. I was none the wise to the fact that I used to be a gang leader beforehand. So I managed to get the game thinking that I was going on some superhero adventure busting some alien cheeks. What I got was a GTA-style sandbox game that involved superpowers, tons of pop culture references(there was a level literally was based on the movie They Live) and so many tongue-in-cheek remarks about being in a video game. It threw me off. It was glorious.  I beat the game at least ten times before school started. That was my downward spiral into becoming a fan of the game: becoming involved with the lore and looking for the other games, getting my hands on the third one and finally downloading the second one on my PS3 after being taunted by an Xbox 360 copy for years. There are others who fell for the game for one reason or another and love this series for its zany, fun gameplay and classic story. Now there is a divide between the fans  over the game of theme/feeling of the series from realistic GTA style sandbox from the first two game to GTA-Style sanbox that flips madness on its head in the last two games. But that is for another day. I would like to take the time to talk about what made it so great. 

Let’s look at what inspired the history of the series and what inspired it. 

Hip-hop hurray!: Beginnings

Now the first Saints Row game came out in 2006. During the mid 90s to the late 2000s, gang and hip hop culture was all the rage back then. Hell, it still has a large following now but back then it was the big people. Kids and adults alike had their favorite songs on repeat, they dressed like their favorite rapper, bought their merchandise and basically worshiped them. These fans often fantasized and idolized the gang culture that was rapped about, often without realizing or even worse misinterpreting the real struggles behind those stories. Regardless there was money to made off of the genre in most if not all avenues. Even in video games, where rappers referenced video game culture like Notorious B.I.G referencing the SNES in his juicy to rapping being a major game mechanic in a game(i.e. Parappa in 1996) hip hop stars staring in video game such as Rap Jam in 1995(it’s an NBA Jam style game and looks like its the first hip hop based game), Wu-Tang Shaolin Style in 1999 and Def Jam Fight for NY in 2003.

As a result of this other games capitalized on this but the major gang culture based game was the Saints Row series. It was realistic referencing racial issues, death, and betrayals, But what made it stand out was its use of humor to address these topics and that caused it to sell over hundreds of thousands of copies and become a renown game. This in turn kick start the series and lead to the sequel in 2008. The sequel kept what made the first game great while improving the aspects the first game fell short. It sold over 2 million copies in 2008 and became a beloved cult classic that solidified the series. However, using the gang culture approach had its issues despite its success. I think the opening cutscene sets up what made the game great in the first place

First and foremost it got stagnant quickly. By the end of the late 2000s hip hop was not was it used to be. It wasn’t as genuine as it used to be. Newer rappers began to sound like autotune sellouts that appealed more to the suburban kids. At that point, it had lost a lot of its soul. It made rap seem more like a fad that a genre which made it fall out of favor with gamers. Secondly, the first two games were as compared to GTA constantly by gamer and critic alike. While both games had similar mechanics, the feeling both games had were different. GTA was more serious and gritty with its storytelling while Saints Row was serious but fun. Regardless it became frustrating for fans and developers. They needed a change. 

From grounded gang simulator….

From hardcore to hardcore fun

This is where Saints Row the Third came in. Inspired by humor that made fun of pop culture, the game came out in 2011 and changed a lot about the game. It changed the art style of the game, it changed the setting and most importantly, it changed the tone of the game. It amped up the humor to over the top ridiculous and got rid of the more serious tones of the game. It was fun. It was what gamers wanted. It let you beat up people with a dildo affectionately called “The Penetrator”(no I’m not joking, look it up) wrestling moves straight out of the WWE It sold well and skyrocked the game’s popularity. It also caused a rift in the fanbase. Some felt like the game sold its soul to be mainstream while other felt it was a step in the right direction. This rift grew even bigger when Saint Row IV came out. It took a hard look at logic and threw it out the window and had the player beating up aliens and AIs with tentacle bats(yes, tentacle bats…take that as you will) and laser guns instead of fighting the usual gangs and police of the previous games with guns and grenades. Newcomers were overjoyed that the wacky humor stayed. Veterans were incensed that their beloved franchise became noting more that wacky stories and out of control toilet humor. But it still gave the series even more life…and it wrote itself into a corner having the earth blow up. Where could the series go from that?

And this. A bit of a jump if you ask me.

So what now?

Well, as we find out later could go to even more insane DLC involving Santa and BDSM (not together gratefully) and could hip-hop have an extra game about going to hell. But it was not enough to fix that mistake. The series hip-hop as an Overwatch style game called Agents of Mayhem and while it seems fun it’s not the same. Veteran and newcomer alike could find something they agreed on: They hated this game. Thus leading to poor sales and an uncertian future for the company

Which is sad because what  made the series great from the start was its sense of humor. From the normal but crude to the outlandishly insane it’s what made it stand out from the crowd. Other games try to emulate it but it’s not the same. At least we can still play the games and enjoy what made it so great. 

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