A little more than one year ago, Bandai teamed up for the first time with longtime wrestling game gurus, the Aki Corporation, to bring out a game based upon the popular Ultimate Muscle Saturday morning anime wrestling series. Titled Ultimate Muscle: Legends vs. New Generation and released exclusively on the GameCube, the offering was something of a surprise in that it managed to blend together Aki's style of wrestling gameplay with the wild and frenetic themes of the cartoon shockingly well, thus making for a wholly unique wrestling experience. Now, the effective follow-up to Legends vs. New Generation is here in the form of Galactic Wrestling: Featuring Ultimate Muscle for the PlayStation 2. Galactic Wrestling isn't so much a sequel to its GameCube predecessor, but, rather, it almost feels as though Bandai simply wanted to start anew for the franchise's debut on the PS2, stripping out the GameCube game's storyline and signature graphical style in favor of a more multiplayer-focused experience. On its own merits, Galactic Wrestling is a solid grappler. But anyone hoping for a real step forward from the first Ultimate Muscle game is going to be a bit disappointed.
If you missed out on Legends vs. New Generation for the GameCube and have never played an Aki wrestling game in your life, the basic gameplay mechanics featured in Galactic Wrestling may take a bit of getting used to. Your wrestler has basic strike and grapple attacks, as well as the ability to jump around and perform dodge moves to get away in a pinch. When striking an opponent, you have the option of either performing a weak strike by tapping the button or performing a stronger one by holding it down. Grapple moves are performed using the grapple button and holding a specific direction on either the left analog stick or the D pad to specify a certain maneuver. You can perform submissions by grappling an opponent while he's laid out on the mat, and you can execute varying levels of special, signature moves for each wrestler by building up a meter near your wrestler's health meter. Throw in a highly brisk pacing and a sometimes arduous reliance on timing your attacks, and that's essentially Galactic Wrestling's gameplay in a nutshell. It's a fun system, but if you happen to have played last year's Ultimate Muscle game, this might all seem just a bit too familiar to you.
That's because almost nothing at all has changed gameplay-wise from last year's Ultimate Muscle game. Aside from the addition of a few more moves per character and a more merciful overall difficulty level, playing Galactic Wrestling is extremely familiar territory for those who played Ultimate Muscle on the GameCube. Of course, that doesn't make the game any less fun, and if it makes any difference, Aki has never been known for making huge leaps and bounds between gameplay designs from year to year in its games. However, even by comparison, Galactic Wrestling almost feels just a bit too steadfastly rooted in its predecessor's gameplay design--especially when you consider that there isn't quite as much to do in this game as there was in the previous game.
While Ultimate Muscle on the GameCube was a more story mode-focused game, Galactic Wrestling doesn't have a story mode at all. The only story bits you'll find in the game come from matches between specific wrestlers who have had major rivalries on the TV show. During the game's introduction, they'll spout off a few lines to one another, giving you a smidgen of background as to why they don't especially like one another, and that's pretty much it. While this likely doesn't mean much to a casual player just looking for a unique wrestling game, fans of the show will likely be disheartened by how little service the game pays the show's colorful storylines.
The game's included modes are a basic versus mode, a tournament mode, a team battle mode, and a survival mode. The team battle mode is essentially just a five-on-five series of single matches, where the last team with remaining wrestlers is the winner. Survival mode has two distinct versions--single and two-versus-two. Single is pretty self-explanatory in that you just pick a wrestler and go through as many continuous opponents as possible. The two-versus-two mode is more novel in that you can only choose two specific characters--the team of Neptuneman and Big Budo--and your goal is to take down the many masked wrestlers of the game and commandeer their masks in the process. This is certainly an interesting mode, especially since the rest of the game is so blatantly straightforward. Aside from this mode, there's really not much lasting single-player value to be had in Galactic Wrestling once you've unlocked all of the hidden characters and the bevy of M.U.S.C.L.E. action figures featured in the game's toy collection mode (which, incidentally, doesn't really take all that long). However, this is not to say that all is lost, because, from a multiplayer standpoint, the game is fun enough and features just enough variety to keep you and your friends playing after you've unlocked everything.
The biggest addition to Galactic Wrestling over last year's title is an effectively doubled wrestler roster. More than 40 characters are included in the game, ranging from such familiar faces as Kid Muscle, Terry Kenyon, King Muscle, Robin Mask, and Sunshine, to faces new to this year's game, such as Lord Muscle, Grandpa, Manitoban, Specialman, and Beetlebomb. Every character is just as bizarre and kooky-looking as ever. However, there is one key difference between Galactic Wrestling's character style and its predecessor's. Last year's game featured a fully cel-shaded look that actually managed to stand out amid an onslaught of cel-shaded titles released around the same time frame. Galactic Wrestling is devoid of cel-shading altogether and instead sports a more generic polygonal look for its wrestlers. The wrestlers certainly don't look bad because of this, and the outlandish designs of the characters themselves still provide the game with an almost singular visual aesthetic. But, on the whole, the game just seems rather dumbed down, visually, when compared to last year's GameCube title.
Technically speaking, Galactic Wrestling's visuals aren't a leap forward or backward; they're more just kind of a nonstep. Nearly all of the game's move animations are recycled from previous Aki games, and while they're all still just fine, there aren't quite as many new moves as one might have hoped. The game's bizarre array of special moves is still really impressive though, even if quite a few of these moves are pure holdovers from the GameCube title. The game is not devoid of the typical wrestling game issues, such as the always-glaring clipping issues. Though the clipping isn't worse than anything wrestling game fans have seen before, due to the dramatic scaling differences between some of the characters, this issue can get quite bad during certain move animations. Galactic Wrestling also suffers from some rather dreadful loading times between matches and upon startup of the game. You'll also notice a bit of a loading hitch when the game tries to load up special-move cutscenes. While these issues don't kill the game or anything, they're certainly annoying. On the positive side of things, the in-game action manages to move at an expedient pace without a hint of slowdown or frame-rate hitching, and the animation holds solid no matter what--without any glitches to speak of.
Audio is perhaps Galactic Wrestling's least remarkable category, though it's basically on the same level as other aspects of the game. While Legends vs. New Generation featured quite a hefty amount of dialogue from the voice actors of the Ultimate Muscle cartoon, Galactic Wrestling, while still containing some, lacks in this area. Aside from the aforementioned interludes before a match, where rival characters jaw at one another, you never really hear from any of the wrestlers, save for their occasional gruntings during a match and their callings out of special move names as they perform them. The in-game commentary by Mac Metaphor and Doc Nakano has been almost completely lifted from last year's game, and the few snippets of new commentary don't really do anything to offset the repetitiousness of their dialogue. During the game, the sound effects and complementary soundtrack are just fine for what they need to be, and the random bits of menu music are also pretty good. Ultimately, while there may be nothing particularly striking about the game's audio, it's perfectly serviceable.
Galactic Wrestling: Featuring Ultimate Muscle definitely has its good qualities--more wrestlers, more multiplayer modes, and more unlockables certainly would seem to provide the makings of a good wrestling sequel. However, the game's less-than-distinctive visual style and lack of a captivating single-player experience are definitely noticeable hindrances that summarily quantify Galactic Wrestling as a less impressive effort than last year's Ultimate Muscle title. If you're a big fan of the show who doesn't own a GameCube, or you're just a PS2 owner looking for a unique wrestler on its own merits, then Galactic Wrestling is certainly a good title. But any Ultimate Muscle fans who did experience last year's game should taper their expectations a bit by perhaps giving Galactic Wrestling a rent before committing to a full purchase.