Mohawks, Motorcycles and Mecha-Mayhem


Kung Fu poster by BIll Wood.

Rain-soaked gutters reflect the garish hue of innumerable neon signs in both Japanese and English. Hopeless, huddled masses scour the city streets looking to avoid the downpour while corporate suits bare impossibly white teeth from impossibly tall skyscrapers. Connecting everything is an unholy wedding of flying cars, moving billboards and payphone booths.


A recent playthrough of CD Projekt Red’s outstanding Cyberpunk 2077 on PS5 got me reminiscing about the classic era of cyberpunk fiction, namely the ‘80s and ‘90s. For me, the genre's edgy combination of sound and vision has massive appeal. What follows is a list of recommendations for those who are looking to delve further into this uniquely dystopian medium.


Before we get started: As an aural and visual style, “cyberpunk” has grown and evolved over the years, to the point where the genre itself is no longer conveniently classifiable.  For this article, I’m holding the term to its base definition, which essentially equals “high-tech/low-life.” It’s direct and easily defined.


Album: "Pretty Hate Machine," Nine Inch Nails

Trent Reznor’s connection to cyberpunk seems tenuous, especially when you consider how much his music has evolved over the years. But circa 1989, NIN’s Pretty Hate Machine was very much a cyberpunk experience. With his debut album, Reznor harnessed the techno-industrial fury of bands such as Skinny Puppy and Ministry into a palatable pop format, introducing a legion of audiophiles to the irresistible combination of hard-edged synth, electronic noise and visceral punk aggression that the genre would eventually become famous for. And if that's not enough, well, just look at that cover.


If you want to dig deeper, there are plenty of artists (Lounge Gizzard and Astrea Invade to name a couple) who are closer aligned to the cyberpunk aesthetic. The Cyberpunk 2077 original soundtrack is a sure bet as well. But if you’re entirely new to the genre and haven’t listened to Pretty Hate Machine, it’s as good a place to start as any.


Movie: Blade Runner

Set in the far distant future of 2019 (!), Ridley Scott’s 1982 sci-fi epic is an absolute no-brainer for dedicated enthusiasts. This stylish tech-noir thriller singlehandedly introduced legions of fans to the concept of cyberpunk, not to mention that it is still an immensely enjoyable movie in its own right and perhaps the single most important touchstone in the history of the genre.


Aside from Blade Runner, the ‘80s were an amazing time for cyberpunk movies in general. If you include Robocop, Escape From New York, They Live and the original Terminator, you can definitely make a case for it being the best decade for cyberpunk cinema by a wide margin. Looking for something a bit more obscure? Check out a flick from 1989 called Tetsuo: The Iron Man.


Anime/Manga: Akira

There is so much great cyberpunk anime and manga from the ‘80s and ‘90s that it’s impossible for me to contain it all within a single article. The combination of weaponized technology, cutting-edge fashion and futuristic cityscapes painstakingly composed via hand-drawn animation makes anime arguably the most vital medium for the genre, which flourished in its boom period from 1985 to 1995.


If you’re going to pick just one anime to watch, I’m nominating Akira for its memorable cast of characters, jaw-dropping technological marvel and unrivaled animation. You’ll likely be scratching your head on the first viewing as the story is way too dense and complicated for its two-hour running time, but the good news is that it does improve with repeated viewings, and the manga expands and explains the Akira mythos even further if you want to go there.


Honorable mention: Bubblegum Crisis, Ghost In The Shell, Cowboy Bebop, Megazone 23, Cyber City Oedo 808, Genocyber, and at least a dozen others that I’m forgetting at the moment. As you can see, it’s easy to lose yourself in the world of vintage cyberpunk anime.


Novel: Neuromancer

Even though it’s been in publication since 1984 and is perhaps the most influential cyberpunk novel ever written, William Gibson’s novel came out of nowhere recently and hit me like a ton of bricks. Filled with bleak prose depicting a world of dehumanized souls absorbed in the technology that permeates daily life (in many ways foreshadowing our modern preoccupation with the internet), Neuromancer is an absolute must-read for cyberpunk and sci-fi fans in general. My recommended format is the digital audiobook narrated by Arthur Addison, ripped from an ’80s cassette tape with plenty of noise and squeal (yes, it does exist!).


Honorable mention: Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the landmark novel which Blade Runner is based upon. Like Akira, it’s a completely different beast than its popular cinematic counterpart yet every bit as essential.


Video Game: Cyberpunk 2077

It’s right there in the title, not to mention the reason you probably found this article in the first place. Like Blade Runner in the '80s, this 2020 video game is the first true cyberpunk experience for many. If you’re a gamer and somehow haven’t found time to delve into the techno-obsessed wasteland that is Night City, you’re missing out… big time. My only issue is with the lowbrow humor, which tries a bit too hard to capitalize on ‘80s hedonism. But it’s a minor complaint. Unlike anything else mentioned in this article, Cyberpunk 2077 does an amazing job of placing you inside a bleak and futuristic metropolis and letting you navigate through it on your own terms.


Honorable mention goes to the classic arcade beat-em-ups of yesteryear, which featured plenty of hard-hitting cyberpunk fighting action. If you're looking for a quick one-hour diversion and not a 40-hour timesink, these games may be the better option. Titles include Captain Commando, Battle Circuit, Two Crude Dudes, and yes, Ninja Baseball Bat Man. - BW


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Kung Fu poster by BIll Wood.
Kung Fu poster by BIll Wood.
The Cramps poster art by Bill Wood.