Fans of classic wrestling games know the Aki Corporation quite well, as it has developed some of the most time-tested and enjoyable wrestling games ever. Though most revered for its work on the Nintendo 64, Aki has seen a kind of rebirth in 2003--it has released not one, but two major entries into the wrestling market. The first, Def Jam Vendetta, disregarded standard wrestling licenses and featured a roster of Def Jam recording artists engaging in back-alley street fights. The latest game in Aki's legacy is Ultimate Muscle: Legends vs. New Generation, a game based on the popular Ultimate Muscle cartoon series currently airing on the Fox network. Published by Bandai, Ultimate Muscle is a departure of sorts for Aki, since sim-based gameplay mechanics are nowhere to be found in the game and have been replaced by a blistering pace and frenzied style of action that make for a crazy, yet enjoyable, gameplay experience.
If you're unfamiliar with the premise of the Ultimate Muscle cartoon series, it essentially follows the adventures of a group of superhero wrestlers who fight supervillain wrestlers in a series of battles within an intergalactic wrestling federation called the Muscle League. Imagine, if you will, Vince McMahon taking control of the Dragon Ball Z universe, and you've got the gist of what Ultimate Muscle is all about. Ultimate Muscle: Legends vs. New Generation combines 20 characters from both the new and legend generations of the Muscle League, including such mainstays as Kid Muscle, Terry Kenyon, Wally Tusket, Checkmate, Dik Dik Van Dik, Kevin Mask, Jeager, King Muscle, Sunshine, Ramenman, Buffaloman, Terryman, Brocken Jr., and Robin Mask. There are actually 30 playable characters in Ultimate Muscle, though the remaining 10 are made up of fictional recruit characters that aren't actually on the show.
Ultimate Muscle controls very similarly to other Aki games, but, since the majority of standard wrestling mechanics simply don't apply in this game, there are some key differences. You'll still have the normal weak and strong striking and grappling buttons, but you'll perform maneuvers such as throws to the ropes and top-rope moves in a completely different way. Throwing an opponent off the ropes now requires you to press both the grapple and striking buttons simultaneously, which will cause your character to drop-kick or head-butt your opponent off the ropes. Additionally, a jump button has been implemented to replace top-rope maneuvers. Jump attacks can be performed in a number of ways. For instance, simply jumping up and pressing the analog stick in the direction of your opponent, while pressing a strike or grapple button, will make you perform a simple aerial version of the respective move. However, you can also jump onto the ring ropes to gain more altitude and cover a greater distance across the ring. Pressing the jump button in conjunction with the grapple button sends your adversary helplessly into the air, allowing you to jump up and attack him on the way down.
Special moves and power-ups are also a key factor in Ultimate Muscle's gameplay. Each character in the game has a range of special moves that can be executed as you fill your special meter. Special meters will fill bit by bit as matches progress, either because of moves you perform or because of attacks performed against you. To perform special attacks, hold down the L and/or R trigger while pressing the required button for the level of attack your special meter is at. There are three levels of special attack: Level-one attacks are strong strikes, level-two attacks are powerful grappling attacks, and level-three attacks are ultimate attacks that are so crazy and ludicrous they warrant their own anime-inspired cutscenes, which really are an absolute riot to watch. There are also a number of unique power-ups that can be acquired during a match. These power-ups come from either your tag-team partner or ring second (essentially, your manager), and they can vary from life bar and special meter boosts, to traps for your opponents that either slow them down greatly or injure them. Both the special moves and power-ups are very cool and provide some variety to the otherwise straightforward gameplay.
The most notable and surprising difference in Ultimate Muscle's gameplay, however, is its difficulty. Ultimate Muscle is, at its core, an arcade fighting game, and it maintains an extremely brisk pace. This speed, coupled with some extremely tough opponent AI, will require you to pay rapt attention at all times, because, quite simply, your opponent will absolutely destroy you if you aren't constantly one step ahead. Timing is also a huge factor in mastering Ultimate Muscle, since mistiming your attacks by even the slightest margin can easily lead to lengthy barrages from your opponents.
There are a few different gameplay modes in Ultimate Muscle, including versus mode, tournament mode, and story mode. Versus battles are for one to four players and include a variety of match types, ranging from single matches (with or without a ring second), to tag brawls, to three- and four-player battle royals. Tournaments can be single or tag, with up to 16 characters available in each version. These two modes don't hold a lot of weight when played alone, but when played with a friend or a group of friends, they are really quite a lot of fun.
The game's story mode is set up in such a way as to provide a unique storyline for each character. Once you've chosen your wrestler, your story begins with a narrated introduction by Meat, the head trainer of the Muscle League. Once Meat has explained your wrestler's plot setup, you're taken to a screen where your character does all of his interacting with other wrestlers in the Muscle League. Interactions are essentially done by having your wrestler stand in front of a background image of one of the game's arenas as he talks trash back and forth with other characters that trade in and out as the story unfolds. The progressions of all of the wrestlers' storylines are almost identical--every single time you'll be given the same basic setup, with two single matches, a tag match, a sub-boss battle, and then a boss battle. Additionally, having to go through the story mode as many times as you do can begin to wear thin, since the stories rarely stray from the same basic premises, and the action itself gets a bit repetitive. Still, the story mode does manage to stay true to the themes of the show, and there are lots of amusing bits of dialogue to keep you entertained and lots of unlockable characters to be found.
Ultimate Muscle also has a couple of nongameplay modes, including a create-a-wrestler feature and a toy mode. The create-a-wrestler function is rather simplistic when compared with other wrestling games, but it does have some decent variety to it. Editable features include character profile, which lets you edit the name, personality type, and wrestler class; appearance functions, such as head, torso, arm, and leg parts, as well as different color schemes for all of them; and techniques, where you can edit both what your wrestler's level-three special attack is and also its name. The toy mode is essentially a collection mode where you can purchase Ultimate Muscle action figures. Currency for these figures comes in the form of KIN medals, which are won throughout the game. There are 434 in all to collect, and as you collect more and more of them you'll also unlock new characters in the game.
Probably the most striking aspect of Ultimate Muscle is its cel-shaded graphical style. Though cel shading has almost become a flavor-of-last-month kind of technology, Ultimate Muscle still looks unique even compared with other similarly designed games. Everything in the game is extremely vibrant looking, both in color scheme and texturing. All of the game's characters are highly unique in design and animate extremely well considering the game's quick pacing. Rarely will you see a frame rate hitch or hiccup, regardless of what's happening onscreen. Though the game's arenas are all similar looking, they're also quite well done, with some entirely decent looking animated crowd graphics and a nice overall look.
Ultimate Muscle also sounds great. Most impressive is the game's use of voice work. All of the voice actors from the American version of the Ultimate Muscle cartoon provide the dialogue for their respective characters, and they do an excellent job with the scripts they're given, which, as said before, are definitely amusing, if a bit lacking in variety. In-game effects are appropriately cartoony, with lots of exaggerated slams, groans, battle cries, and the like. There are only a few different pieces of music that play during the game and over the assorted menu screens, but each one does the trick and is produced well enough that it never becomes annoyingly repetitive.
It's true that Ultimate Muscle isn't for everyone. Wrestling purists looking for another round of Aki-styled simulation wrestling are just going to have to look elsewhere, because this game contains very little of that. Furthermore, the game's high focus on timing and speed, coupled with its brutal AI, may prove to be a little too difficult for more-casual fans of the cartoon. However, anyone looking for an entertaining arcade-style wrestling experience will find plenty to like about Ultimate Muscle: Legends vs. New Generation and should absolutely check this game out.