The UFC Video Game Chronicles (Part 1) – Enter the Digital Era
May 16, 2013
The Ultimate Fighting Championship video game franchise made its debut towards the end of what many of its fans now refer to as the “Dark Ages” for Mixed Martial Arts. The successful venture occurred just a few months before current owners, Zuffa LLC, purchased the MMA promotion from the near bankrupt Semaphore Entertainment Group.
During this time, the struggling MMA promotion was still sporting a black-eye from politicians and mainstream media who labeled it “human cockfighting”. This was a time before “cage fighting” was fully regulated, sanctioned, or accepted throughout the country. Due to the circumstances, not much was expected from the UFC’s initial foray into the video gaming world.
The self titled release was first made available on a console that many critics and fans now say was ahead of its time, the Sega Dreamcast. The UFC poster-boy and brand ambassador at the time, Tito Ortiz, was a no-brainer as its first cover athlete. The game was first developed by Anchor Inc. for the Dreamcast and released on August 29, 2000. A follow up release was then developed by Opus for the Sony PlayStation (PSX) on November 13, just a few months later. The game was even ported to the Game Boy Color on November 27, just weeks after the PSX release by Fluid Studios. All three versions were published by Crave Entertainment.
To the surprise of many, the game was well received by fans and critics. Popular video game outlet IGN gave it score of “9.1 – Amazing” and was awarded the “Editors Choice” tag. Metacritic, who takes the scores from all major outlets and computes an average score, scored it an 88 out of 100. The game on it’s own merit proved to be a success, but it did more than just provide good game-play to video game fans. Due to word-of-mouth and rave reviews, it served as a tool to introduce the UFC and MMA product to an untapped market. It was the first step the UFC had taken towards trickling into the mainstream, where they could reach young teens and commence the process of converting the non-MMA fan. The video-game playing teen demographic back in the early 2000′s eventually evolved into a sizable portion of what has become key to the UFC’s growth over the years, the elusive male 18-34 demographic.
Much of the success the first UFC video game obtained can be attributed to one key decision… or stroke of luck, depending on who you ask. SEG made the decision to license their product to Crave Entertainment and selected a relatively small Japanese video game development start-up, Anchor Inc.
- The Anchor Inc. Era
Anchor Inc. is a Japanese video game development & CG animation production studio, founded on October 1996. The small development group, which has employed a staff of anywhere between 25-50 throughout the years, was founded by Masahiro Onoguchi and his brother Kohichi Onoguchi. Before starting Anchor Inc, Masahiro Onoguchi worked at Namco, one of the most prestigious Japanese game development studios. While at Namco, he worked on classic fighting games such as Tekken and Soul Calibur. After leaving Namco, Onoguchi worked for a small company, DreamFactory, which was founded by some of the people from Namco and Sega. His strong relationship with the group led to providing animation and support for the Virtua Fighter game series, an original 3-D fighter title released for Sega consoles.
Anchor Inc’s first release was Fighter’s Destiny for the N64, which was produced in cooperation with Namco. Their next release would be their first full-fledged in-house release. The title of that game was “Ultimate Fighting Championship” and was set to release on the Sega Dreamcast on August 2000. Anchor Inc. would go on to release some of the best MMA & WWE games ever developed for that era, though they never made another UFC game after their initial full release.
- THQ Crosses Path With the UFC
With the amount of success and popularity the Japanese MMA promotion PRIDE had amounted in recent years, game publisher THQ decided to acquire the PRIDE video game license from Dream Stage Entertainment. The next step in THQ’s MMA venture was to find a developer to work on the game. Ironically, because of the success the first UFC title had achieved, THQ reached out to Anchor Inc. to develop their PRIDE game a few months after Ultimate Fighting Championship was released. As you can imagine, Anchor Inc was more than thrilled to take on the 2-year project, which involved creating the PRIDE video game engine from scratch.
“Yes. With UFC for the Dreamcast, Anchor was given more attention outside of Japan. When we got the Pride project, we were excited because Pride is very well known in Japan. We got the feeling that we’d be recognized as the Pride developers. UFC was a popular overseas event at the time of our developing the game, so we didn’t really know about the fighters or the skills. But Pride is held in Japan, so we know the fighters, events, etc. We’re more attached to Pride than we were to UFC.”
When “PRIDE FC: Fighting Championships” was ready to release, it had much hype from gaming and MMA enthusiasts. The game walked away with IGN’s PS2 simulation and fighting game award of E3 in 2002 and only created more hype to the much anticipated Anchor Inc follow-up. After it was released in February 2003, the game got many positive reviews but the lack of a few game-play options drew some minor critiques. IGN gave it a score of “8.0 – Great” while Metacritic scored it a 77 out of 100. In the end, the game became a classic, just like the previous Anchor Inc release.
- The Crave Entertainment Era
Crave Entertainment will forever be known as the first video game publisher to release a UFC game, but it released many games for multiple consoles for over a decade. Crave was founded in 1997 by Nima Taghavi and was based out of Newport Beach, California. After the successful release of “Ultimate Fighting Championship”, Crave quickly began to work on a sequel. Since Anchor Inc was busy working on their PRIDE FC video game, Crave partnered with another Japanese developer, DreamFactory, for the release of “UFC Tapout”. Interestingly enough, DreamFactory was the company Onoguchi worked for before founding Anchor Inc after leaving Namco.
UFC Tapout was released for the XBOX on February 2002. The game received some high scores though there were some mixed reviews from the critics. GameSpot gave Tapout a score of “8.3 – Great”, though Metacritic computed a score of 77 out of 100, which was a similar score the PRIDE FC game received one year later. The game eventually became the official Xbox Magazine 2002 Editors Choice Award winner. Though the game had some flaws from the original Dreamcast title, the release by DreamFactory was another success for Crave.
The next step for Crave was to release a PS2 version of the game, which they titled “UFC Throwdown”. This time around, Crave teamed up with Genki, Capcom Production Studio 3 for the release. The reviews were not as pleasant as previous releases and Metacritic computed a score of 68 out of 100 for the game.
After the PS2 release, Crave focused on the Tapout sequel for the XBOX.
“Tapout 2 will feature a completely overhauled core game engine. ‘With the changes in the engine, an enhanced AI, upgraded career mode, and new fighting moves, we’re practically putting the gamer right in the middle of The Octagon,’ said Rob Sandberg, senior producer at Crave Entertainment. ‘Tapout 2 will look and play noticeably different from any previous version, and I think fighting game fans will be very impressed.”
By the time “Tapout 2″ was released for the XBOX on March 2003, Crave Entertainment had lost the UFC video game license. The game ended up being published by TDK Mediactive, though it was still developed by DreamFactory. Metacritic computed a score of 66 out of 100, continuing it’s ratings slide from the first two games it had released.
Crave continued to release games for multiple gaming consoles after the partnership with the UFC ended. It was eventually acquired by Handleman Corporation in 2005 for $95M. Four years later in 2009, it was sold to Fillpoint for only $8.1M due to Handleman’s bankruptcy proceedings. As has become the fate for many video game companies that went through the recession, Crave Entertainment eventually filed for bankruptcy in 2012.
- The Post Anchor Inc Era
After Tapout 2 was released by TDK Mediactive for the XBOX in 2003, TDK did not retain the UFC video game license. This time around, UFC partnered with video game publisher Global Star and previously used development group “Opus” for the PS2 follow-up to “Throwdown”. The game once again received mixed reviews and Metacritic computed it’s lowest score to date, 54 out of 100 for a UFC game. As it turns out, this would end up being the last video game release for the UFC before going on a 6 year hiatus.
Many fans and critics pin-point losing Anchor Inc. studios to THQ and the PRIDE FC game as the culprits for the downward slide of the UFC video game franchise. As it turns out, not only was PRIDE stealing some of the UFC’s best fighters at the time, it also took an essential component of what made the UFC’s first release such a big hit, the small video game development group Anchor Inc.
Anchor Inc’s Onoguchi said the following about the UFC games that were developed after their departure:
“Not fun at all. I want to be honest. First, I don’t like the gameplay at all. And it seems that they put in more modes and features to cover up the lack of gameplay.”
Video game critics shared a similar view:
“Overall, UFC: Tapout 2 has some strengths, but they’re the same strengths that the previous Tapout game had. The game doesn’t really bring anything new to the genre, and the game’s AI flaws make it a very dull single-player experience. Even devout fans of the sport would be better off with the previous Tapout game, or, if they own a PlayStation 2, THQ’s Pride FC.”
The next UFC game would not be released until 2009, by none other than THQ… which we will continue in part 2 of this series.
Tapout (XBOX – 2002)
Throwdown (PS2, GC – 2002)
Tapout 2 (XBOX – 2003)
Sudden Impact (PS2 – 2003)
NOTE 1: Throwdown, Tapout 2, and Sudden Impact cover art features the late UFC Hall of Famer Charles Lewis, Jr., aka “The Mask” from the “TapouT” clothing brand. He is also also an unlockable fighter along with Dana White and Lorenzo Fertitta.
NOTE 2: Before there was Ronda Rousey or even Gina Carano, there was Erica Montoya. The UFC was so close to featuring Montoya as the first female fighter in the UFC, that she was put into the UFC Sudden Impact video game as a fighter, which released in 2003. In fact, the UFC was strongly considering a bout between Erica Montoya and Shelby Walker for UFC 51 in 2005, but the match never materialized.