The AKI Chronicles, Part 3: Hip-Hop and Anime
I’ve known this day would come since before WrestleMania. When I delivered Part 1 for the Royal Rumble and Part 2 before ‘Mania, I set the deadline for myself to bring you the details of the legendary AKI Corp.’s “hanging-out-with-Ravi-Shankar phase” during the early-to-mid 2000s. And I’ll admit, I’ve been dreading it just a bit because I’m officially somewhat out of my element. My love of the AKI wrestling games, like most, comes from memories of the greatest and most popular games from wrestling’s most popular period of the late ‘90s. And even though the WWF would maintain its successful partnership with publisher THQ for a new generation of consoles headlined by the PlayStation 2, THQ themselves would not be utilizing AKI’s well-proven talents moving forward, instead making Yuke’s Co. the flagship developer for the WWF license after their equally admirable efforts on the Playstation’s SmackDown 2: Know Your Role.
Like a misused superstar in the Indie Darling era, AKI’s best work could have been ahead of them with plans for WWF Backlash to follow up No Mercy on the N64, though it was unsurprisingly canceled with the console coming to the end of its life, and no plans were made to continue it elsewhere with the reins being so unceremoniously stripped away from them in favor of the blue-branded series. Free to seek greener pastures, they quickly entered into a new partnership with Electronic Arts, who desperately needed a master class on wrestling games after the maligned WCW Mayhem and WCW Backstage Assault. WCW Mayhem 2 could have been the glorious follow-up to Revenge that the former Jim Crockett Promotions never got, but was, of course, killed along with the company itself when the WWF finally finished WCW off.
AKI Corp. were free agents, with some of the best-reviewed titles on the N64 under their belt and an unbeatable track record -- but as far as anyone could tell, they were a one-trick pony, in a gaming landscape where the only license left (in the US) for the one trick they could do had just slipped away from them through no fault of their own, and with any other potential partners (ROH or TNA for example) yet to even be founded, let alone relevant or profitable enough for a video game. But where the company would no longer have an American publisher to give them work from the hottest company in the hottest industry in the country, there were still ways for Japanese companies to utilize AKI Corp. and their amazing wrestling engine.
Ultimate Muscle: Legends Vs. New Generation
No really, I am definitely out of my element on this one, considering that it’s a game I’ve never actually played, based on an anime that (like most anime) I’ve never watched, but there’s no denying the classic AKI engine is in full force when you watch it in videos on YouTube. Legends Vs. New Generation for the GameCube is one of a series of games that would continue with Galactic Wrestling on the PS2, and a few more Japan-exclusive sequels for the PSP, PS2, and arcade over the next several years. Despite still being about wrestling, the Ultimate Muscle/Kinnikuman series definitely would have proved a challenge in adapting it to the AKI engine, due to its Dragon Ball-esque action and alien/superhero-laden roster that would feel restrained at the same pace of WCW/nWo Revenge and WWF No Mercy. Instead, Ultimate Muscle keeps the speed on par with a spicy cruiserweight bout, but presents it almost like an arcade fighter, with health bars to chop down and over-the-top special moves to perform. Quick and flashy camera cuts, overexcited announcers, and extended cutaways to make all those insane special moves all the more impactful are entertaining and ensure that it comes off as a true anime/manga adaptation, but at the center of it all is still a familiar wrestling engine that makes it easy to pick up and play but difficult to put down.
Def Jam Vendetta and Def Jam: Fight For NY
The deal with EA that was supposed to lead to WCW Mayhem 2 didn't seem as though it would pan out once WCW was bought out, but it didn't prevent the two companies from working together for long. In 2003, under its fondly remembered (by me, at least) EA Big brand, Electronic Arts commissioned AKI to create a new wrestling title featuring a license almost as lucrative, and no less flavorful and eccentric than that of the now-WWE: legendary hip-hop record label Def Jam Recordings. Combining the underground cutthroat brawling that Midway had attempted to recreate with Pit-Fighter in the early ‘90s with the still-evolving engine from AKI Corp., and slathering the whole experience with a gangsta rap flavor. Featuring big name Def Jam artists on both the soundtrack and the roster, even describing the games still sounds like a fever dream of a game, kind of like another wrestling game, WWE Crush Hour, where Ruthless Aggression era superstars face off in Twisted Metal style car combat, but on the foundation of a tried-and-tested rasslin’ engine, it works in a beautifully addictive way.
The gameplay in both Def Jam Vendetta and its sequel, Fight For NY has a lot in common with Ultimate Muscle and the tweaks it made to the engine, including the quicker pace, health bar for knockout finishes, and insane-looking moves, the latter of which are made all the more striking by the games’ gritty, underground, shoot fight presentation. It’s amazing, however, to notice little details and intricacies that had become familiar as AKI engine standards that are still present in games made several years later on different systems. For example, two opponents colliding with each other, only to stop dead and give each other a mirror-image, dumbfounded look was always goofy-looking when it happened between The Rock and Rikishi, but looks even sillier when it happens between DMX and Ghostface Killah in a makeshift ring underneath a bridge.
Both games in the series boast a story mode where you will unlock characters to play as and arenas to fight in, which serves players well as the main attraction, but unfortunately never comes close to the depth or variation of No Mercy on the N64. Same goes for the creation modes which are decent in both titles, but not as robust as they could be in a more proper wrestling title. Still, the Def Jam wrestling games are both easy to get into if you're open to the hip hop flavor, though pretty much anyone will agree that the bigger roster, more varied, and more balanced Fight For NY is the superior of the two (it does, however, fetch a fairly high price as a result).
The continued releases of Ultimate Muscle titles, albeit only in Japan, would keep the tradition going for a couple of years, but as of late, their work has been more than a little bit different. In 2007, the company changed its name to Syn Sophia Inc. around the same time it produced the two SimCity titles for the DS, a far cry from their legacy, but nothing to be ashamed of. Since then, though, Syn Sophia’s main focus has been the Style Savvy series on DS and 3DS, and wrestling seems to be long behind them.
The real tragedy is, of course, that while THQ had put the license for the biggest and most important wrestling federation in the world in good hands by executive decision 16 years ago. Now we’re not so lucky, even after a decent run on the Yuke’s bandwagon up through WWE ‘13. Now in 2K’s hands, it often feels as incrementally changed year after year as any other sports game in the current generation.
But while we can only hope that this year’s game won't botch a core mechanic like reversals or submissions, there's some comfort to be had in having games like No Mercy as an old standby. Either through a robust modding community or simply going to town on the Create-A-Wrestler mode and taking on the company’s strongest roster ever. Even if there isn't a chance in hell we’ll ever see another real shot from the kings of wrestling games (most of whom probably don't actually work for Syn Sophia anymore anyway), I think it's highly unlikely they'll ever be dethroned, especially not while 2K is running the show.