The heated battle over downtown Phoenix gentrification has played out in both real life and social media for more than a decade. Now, it’s crossed over into the pixelated realm of video games.
RoHoEn Rumble, a recently released indie game created by local indie developer The Firebrand of Phoenix, allows players to bash real estate developers trying to take over downtown’s Japanese Friendship Garden, also known as Ro Ho En.
The two-player title, which can be played on web browsers or through the Steam gaming platform, stars Bulk and Slim, a pair of brothers and martial artists who fight off the “greedy capitalists” throughout the garden.
It’s a side-scrolling “beat ‘em up” game in the spirit of Double Dragon or Streets of Rage with 16-bit graphics, intense action, cute touches (developers explode into clouds of cash or paperwork after they're beaten), and tons of property damage (benches or koi statues can be destroyed to obtain weapons or bonus items). It's not unlike something you'd find on a site like Newgrounds. It's also a rather unique intersection of cultural preservation and game culture.
Tyler Knecht, the 33-year-old downtown resident behind The Firebrand of Phoenix, says RoHoEn Rumble was inspired by an affinity for the Japanese Friendship Garden and aversion to gentrification.
“The garden holds a special place in my heart. I spend a lot of time there and ended up getting married there, so I've got a huge fondness for it,” he says. “As for the anti-capitalist themes, I'm just fed up with all these skyrises going up where none of my friends can rent [living spaces there]. The housing prices have skyrocketed and brokerages and speculators come in and buy properties and try to flip them.”
RoHoEn Rumble is also a love letter to the garden and its “gorgeous setting.”
“I tried to capture what it's like when you enter the garden, go past the gift shop and veer off to the right to get to the first bridge,” Knecht says.
Knecht, who’s been developing games since 2013, says the project “took about a year” to create and program. He tapped the gaming/pixel artists Evil Tomato and Awacato to create the graphics and local DJ/musician Mercurius FM for RoHoEn Rumble’s synthy soundtrack.
“It was like a really small project and labor of love that we’ve put together for fun to pay tribute to the garden,” Knecht says.
The folks behind the Japanese Friendship Garden appreciate the gesture, for the most part.
Shayna Price, the garden’s cultural programs and marketing manager told Phoenix New Times in an emailed statement that they’re “very grateful” for Knecht’s love of the place and patronage over the years, but wary of the game’s violence.
“Although a premise like fighting at JFG may not be in line with the mission of the garden to be a place that promotes peace, friendship, and tranquility, we really appreciate local artists being inspired by our space and are impressed with Tyler's work,” Price wrote.
RoHoEn Rumble isn’t the first gaming project Knecht’s made that’s featured local subject matter. Last year, he released Cap Mossman and the Return of Chacon, a first-person shooter in the vein of Wolfenstein 3D inspired by Burton C. Mossman, the famed Wild West lawman and Arizona Ranger.
And then there’s LAIRD: Dook 'n' Dash, the arcade-style retro game Knecht created in 2016 that offers an extreme premise: Set at downtown Phoenix’s historic Laird apartment building, players control a maintenance man who has to catch feces being defecated out of windows by tenants after the water lines break.
“That one was pretty out there,” Knecht says, laughing. “I was living at the Laird around then, and there were problems with the maintenance where the water kept going out. I couldn't go to the bathroom, so I said, ‘Fuck it, I'm going to make a game about this.’”
“It's going to take place at the Easley's during Halloween 2014 or 2015 and you’ll roll through and fight off ghosts or demons,” Knecht says.
It’s part of his goal to preserve pieces of Phoenix culture through video games, Knecht says.
“I figured I can't possibly compete with some 1,000-person game studio, but what I can do is make something about the places and city that I love,” he says.
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