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Retro Respawn – UFC: Throwdown (Nintendo GameCube)

The Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) first hit the airwaves in November 1993 when Royce Gracie won the inaugural UFC tournament. Since then the company has been through its fair share of peaks and troughs, going from being an underground success to nearly going out of existence, to eventually becoming the mainstream sports entity that it is today. Indeed, back when UFC first began, it seemed inconceivable that it would be a company that would enjoy a sponsorship deal with a company like Reebok and that its fighters would be welcomed onto shows like ESPN First Take.

Despite the fact that the UFC didn’t always enjoy the most positive of coverage in the press, games companies still tried to cash in on the underground appeal the organisation had. In some ways it seemed like a no-brainer to try and release a game based on the sport of Mixed Martial Arts, and with UFC being the most recognisable brand to Western audiences (PRIDE Fighting Championships was the premier group over in Japan and saw its share of releases as well), it only made further sense to use it for marketing purposes.

UFC: Throwdown came out in the summer of 2002, roughly 18 months since ZUFFA first purchased the company. The company wasn’t especially hot at this time, owing mostly to the fact that they didn’t have a regular television presence, which meant it was difficult for them to make stars. Loudmouthed and charismatic Light Heavyweight Tito Ortiz was almost certainly the biggest mainstream star they had at the time, and he features prominently on the front of the box as consequence.

It is funny that UFC President Dana White recently stated in an interview for the WWE Network on a Ronda Rousey documentary that she was the first big star the UFC ever had, which totally discounts the important role Ortiz played during this comparatively dark spell for the company. Had it not been for him, then I shudder to think what fate would have befallen UFC, and it was also his feud with Ken Shamrock that really helped the company crack the mainstream in the mid 00s with their 2006 televised bout on Spike TV being a huge success arm the company needed to kick on.

I played the GameCube version of Throwdown, and from just looking at footage of the PS2 version, it looks like there are some key differences between the games, so you might want to take that into account if you’re a PS2 owner who has been thinking of giving this one a go. Throwdown in some ways actually operates more like a traditional fighting game than an MMA simulation, with the key method of victory often coming down to draining your opponent of their health bar and knocking them out as a result.

This does lead to some quite hilarious victories coming from completely innocuous punches or kicks simply because the opposing fighter’s health bar has been emptied at that exact moment. You even block by walking backwards, something that feels completely unintuitive in a game like this and was something future UFC games made by THQ and EA did away with by giving you a block button, ala Knockout Kings. It’s one thing to be able to block by walking backwards in a 2D fighter, but when you have full 3D movement and are playing what essentially amounts to a sports sim, it really doesn’t make any sense. There are certainly plenty of buttons on the GameCube controller to accommodate a block button.

Throwdown actually resembles Tekken in some ways as each face button on the GameCube controller controls one of your fighter’s limbs. Whilst fighting standing up, you can put together combos using your different punches and kicks or look to take your opponent down to the mat, where you can pummel them with more punches or even look to grab them in a submission hold. Submissions can be a much quicker way to end a fight as applying the hold will see the bout end no matter what remaining health they have. It can be incredibly frustrating to control things on the feet for large swathes of the fight, only to get caught with a flash submission, but then again, such a finish mirrors the real sport very well, so I’m actually glad of its inclusion.

My only real complaint with the submissions in the game is that it almost seems to be random whether you can pull one off or not. Once again, in the THQ and EA games, it was easy to understand what was required to get a submission or to avoid one (whether it be mashing the buttons or completing a mini-game of some sort), but that isn’t the case in Throwdown. It really just seems like if the CPU fancies tapping you out, then you’re getting tapped out, even if you fight as one of the submission specialists, such as Frank Shamrock.

There are 5 weight classes in the game in total, but the game is quite lopsided in how many fighters each division has. For instance, the Heavyweight Division comes with 10 fighters, whilst the Lightweight Division has just a paltry 3. Granted, the Heavyweights have names like Dan Severn, Bas Rutten and Josh Barnett amongst its ranks, but it still leaves the game’s roster feeling very uneven. As a result of this, when you fight to claim the UFC belts in “Champion Mode”, the game has to throw in random generic fighters to fill out the 5-match quota.

Completing Champion Mode with a fighter will see them be awarded with a silver belt, which then allows you to try and complete “Legend Mode” with them, which will see them pick up a gold belt for their efforts. The difference between Champion and Legend Modes is that you have to win 7 matches in Legend Mode, and you also don’t have an option of retrying a bout should you come up short, meaning you have to go all the way back to the start again. This is not only frustrating, but you also can’t skip the post-fight victory/defeat screen, meaning you have to sit there and watch your fighter glumly walk off into the darkness before you’re allowed to start over, which is just annoying.

Winning the gold belt with every fighter in a division will allow you to unlock a hidden character. I completed the game with all the Lightweights and was amused to see that I unlocked Dana White. Not only have the designers been somewhat generous to Dana physique-wise, but they’ve also made him one of the stronger characters in the game, which came in handy in Arcade Mode. Arcade Mode is essentially an endurance/survival game mode, which sees you trying to win as many fights in a row as possible. Some of your health regenerates after a fight but not all of it, meaning that the mode eventually becomes an exercise in trying to win fights as quickly as possible whilst sustaining as little damage as possible.

The other modes in the game are Tournament Mode (which pays homage to the earlier UFC shows by having you compete in an 8-man tournament that is open to fighters of all weight classes), Exhibition Mode (which lets you pick two fighters of your choice and go straight into battle) and Career Mode. Career Mode is by far the most disappointing mode in the game as it has no real story or cutscenes and is essentially just all about creating your own fighter and winning “sparring” fights in an empty arena to build up their stats. It’s incredibly boring, and I got tired of it very quickly.

Graphically, the game doesn’t look bad at all, especially during the entrance scenes before fights, which still look great even to a modern set of eyes. The fighters have that general “GameCube look” to them, whereby they look fine but also kind of…puffy and swollen. It’s something I used to notice when playing the wrestling and other sports games on the console as well. I don’t know what it is about the GameCube, but I can always kind of recognise GameCube graphics. They just have a certain feel and look to them. I’m not saying they look actively bad or anything, but there’s certainly a distinct lack of smoothness to the fighters when compared to the PS2 version.

Sound-wise, the game doesn’t have any commentary, and the sound is mixed pretty poorly, in that it’s very difficult to hear ring announcer Bruce Buffer over the shrieking and yelps of the live crowd. I tried toggling with the in-game sound settings, as well as the sound settings on my television, but I couldn’t seem to fix that issue. The music played during the menus is generic early 00s sports game fare, and it works fine, even if it is a bit underwhelming.

Overall, UFC: Throwdown isn’t bad at all if you think of it as a different take on a fighting game. If you go in expecting sports simulation, then you might end up being a bit disappointed as the gameplay is nowhere near as nuanced or true to the sport as modern UFC games are. I enjoyed the game for what it was, but then again, I’m much more of a casual MMA fan. If you’re a more dedicated follower of the sport, then your own personal mileage may vary.

Thanks for reading and, until next time, LET’S GET IT ON!!!

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