M.U.S.C.L.E., released in 1986 for the Nintendo Entertainment System, is based on a semi-popular line of wrestling action figures (known as Kinniku Man in Japan) created by the Japanese company Bandai. The little rubber figures never really took off in the United States, but remain quite popular in the Land of the Rising Sun to this day. I’m always for the release of Japanese toys, games and anime in the U.S., but it might have been better if M.U.S.C.L.E. would have never been brought overseas.
The gameplay sounds entertaining enough: choose two out of a total of eight M.U.S.C.L.E. wrestlers and compete in a series of tag team matches to see who wins the championship belt. The problem is the game is much too simple and unresponsive for its own good. Each character only features a handful of punches, jump kicks and slams in their basic move set, so matches get old extremely quickly. About ten seconds into each fight, a glowing power-up ball is randomly released inside the ring, and the wrestler who grabs it is given a huge boost in speed and the ability to unleash devastating specials. These power-up orbs are so important that every single match hinges on where they appear and who manages to pick them up. The reason for this is because the special moves take off huge chunks of stamina, and the wrestler on the receiving end usually ends up K.O.ed after one or two attacks. Of course the computer AI always seems to know where the power-ups will enter the ring, and fairly regularly cheats its way to victory.
The controls in M.U.S.C.L.E. are a bit clunky because your character pauses after each move is performed. Even basic attacks such as a punch have an approximate one-second pause following them. So what this means is every time you attempt to strike your opponent you leave yourself wide open to a counter attack. Some might appreciate the strategy involved with a fighting system such as this, but I think it needlessly slows the pacing down and takes much of the excitement away from the matches. Even the simple act of tagging your partner is a chore, as the game seems to arbitrarily decide when you can make the tag and when you can’t. Many times you’ll be in the corner pounding the B button, but the tag never happens and the computer promptly crushes you. Other times the tag will happen right away. All this does is make each fight more frustrating than it needs to be, and some responsive controls would have went a long way in improving the fun factor of this game.
The best part of M.U.S.C.L.E.’s gameplay is the variation in ring types. Matches can be fought in a standard ring, an ice ring or an electric ring. The ice ring makes moving around and attacking more difficult because the wrestlers slide around on the slick surface. The electric ring features ropes with electricity running through them, thus causing damage to any fighter they come in contact with. It would have been nice to see more ring types, but it’s good to see Bandai add some innovation to the standard wrestling formula.
Playing with a friend is much, much better than playing against the computer as both players are on a level playing field. The arrival location of the power-up orb is a surprise for both players, so nobody feels cheated out of a victory. Of course, the same sluggish gameplay still hampers each match, but, regardless, I must emphasize that M.U.S.C.L.E. makes a much better multiplayer game than a single player one.
The game’s visuals are very basic overall. The characters are made up of large patches of solid color and sport some very simple animations. The nice thing is that the wrestlers are fairly large on-screen, so that their individual traits (such as the Blue Knightís armor and the Viking Warriorís horned helmet) can easily be distinguished. The rings themselves look decent enough, but, like the wrestlers, are a bit on the simplistic side. The crowd looks laughable bad.
The only music in the game is on the title screen, and itís completely forgettable. The sound effects are as basic as you can get without stepping back a generation into Atari. Blips and beeps compromise of 90% of M.U.S.C.L.E.ís sound bites, so do not expect to be wowed by the aural presentation.
Anyone looking for a quality wrestling game should think twice before snatching this title up, because cheap AI and unresponsive controls really limit the enjoyment of the titleís single player mode. But, for those looking for a mildly entertaining multiplayer game with some Japanese anime influence, M.U.S.C.L.E. just might be a worthy purchase (if bought for $2 or less).