What is a hero? A hero is someone who captures our imagination; someone we identify with; someone who we aspire to be and most importantly we adore from the bottom of our hearts. When our hero falls, we cry. When our hero triumphs, we jump in elation. As kids, we stick out tongues while driving to the hoop to be like Mike or wear number seven to honor "The Mick." As adults our adolescent fantasies are more tempered with our physical realities (beer gut, wife, job), but heroes never really die (or at least they shouldn't).
Kazushi Sakuraba is my hero and I have two of his T-shirts to prove it. At the height of his mixed marital arts (MMA) career, Sakuraba was not only considered an unparalleled striking and grappling maestro who conducted his art in the ring, but he had also single-handedly dethroned the Brazilian Gracie-Jujitsu family dynasty by besting five of their top fighters including the legendary Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) king, Royce Gracie. I'll admit what made me a Sakuraba fan wasn't just his remarkable record. It was also because of his race: Asian, or more specifically Japanese. He may not have been Chinese, but in today's international landscape, that was close enough for me. His unremarkable physique and seemingly ordinary appearance, but whimsical personality only made him more unique and endearing.
So it was devastating to my psyche when on August 20, 2003 at the Pride FC: Total Elimination Tournament, Sakuraba, in an instant, was brutally KOed by another Brazilian-born fighter, Vanderlei Silva, there by losing to Silva not once, but for the third time in the conclusion of their epic MMA trilogy. There would be no redemption and I was saddened at how the once unstoppable warrior had tragically fallen from grace. As much as I tried to emotionally distance myself from the fight, it didn't matter. I subconsciously cared too much and I needed serious therapy to figure out why a fight between two people that I have never met in person meant everything to me.
Here's my conclusion. No matter how evolved we are as a civilization, finding out who the "baddest" man on the planet still matters to the thousands of people like me who are willing to pay $500 to be ring-side or $30 to watch on pay-per-view cable television. We root for those who represent us either in ethnicity or in spirit because if they win, we win. If they can write a storybook ending to their careers then maybe so can we in our lives. It's just as much about individual "hope" as it is about national "pride" whether the arena is MMA, football (both kinds), basketball, baseball or life. That's what Pride FC is all about.
The videogame version of Pride FC for the PlayStation 2 doesn't over emphasize this theme, but it's inherently there simply because it is an amazingly accurate recreation of the burgeoning sport that is mildly popular in the U.S., but wildly popular in Japan. Made by the same capable and experienced developers responsible for the groundbreaking UFC game, which first appeared on the defunct Sega Dreamcast several years ago, Pride FC is an effective evolution of the niche sub-genre of two-player versus-style fighting games.
The most impressive and unique highlight of Pride FC is its international cast of playable fighters. Unlike UFC, which only has a handful for foreign-bred entrants, Pride's line-up consists of a wide-range of fighters with different fighting styles from around the world. In addition to the aforementioned Japanese Sakuraba and Brazilian Silva and Gracie, there're also the likes of Greco-Roman wrestler Dan Henderson from the U.S., kick-boxer Gilbert Yvel from Holland, Sambo practitioner Igor Vovchanchyn from Russia, and Jujitsu stylist Carlos Newton from Canada just to name several of the 25 warriors. Pride FC's roster is as close to an essential list of old MMA legends (Royce Gracie, Ken Shamrock, Don Frye) and the new elite in their prime (Vanderlei Silva, Kazushi Sakuraba, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira) as one can assemble.
It isn't the most visually arresting hand-to-hand combat game around (that distinction goes to Soul Calibur II), but it manages to hold its own and can still be considered next-generation worthy. The aesthetic differences between the Japanese-based event, which is held in a traditional boxing ring as opposed to the UFC's octagonal cage, does help to give the game a more distinct ambiance. The physical animation and gestures still holds an impressive vitality that triggers raw emotion when someone is struck or put in bone-crunching hold. The intuitive 4-button control scheme representing the left and right arms and legs are also retained.
What separate MMA games from other fighting games are the elaborate ground grappling/combat techniques. Where as most games only allow combatants to fight standing, in MMA games, fighters can tackle or trip their opponents to the ground and continue to punish them with hand and knee strikes or work towards a submission and/or choke hold to force the other player to "tapout." Pride FC elaborates on the system by introducing the stand and down/up positions (imagine one person standing while his opponent sits on his butt) and the boxing-like clinch. Attacks also change depending on the location of the ring or the state of the opponent. This element puts greater emphasis on positioning and timing.
While these adjustments may not sound like much, it adds much more dimension and variation of techniques to the previous standing, mounted and guard positions. Depending on individual style and proficiency of the fighters (human or computer controlled), matches can look and feel dramatically diverse and unique from one other. Fights can end in the blink of an eye from a well-time right hook or a stealthy toehold. They can be furiously paced chess-like contests of submissions and reversals or they can drag on to marathon-like stalemates of attrition that lead to the inevitable judges' decision. Mastery over techniques and victory is rarely achieved easily and that makes achieving such all the more rewarding.
The only area that Pride FC is seriously lacking is in content. While there's a nice attempt at a Create-A-Fighter mode that ultimately comes up short due to the lack of being able to customize more advance techniques, the game has no unlockable content and comes with only the bare essentials for play modes that consists of a tournament, versus and survival variety. This problem unfortunately will detract greatly from those who have no prior experience or negative impressions of MMA. Appreciating the often violent and intricate art of the sport does not come easily or naturally and the Pride FC videogame—outside of basic gameplay tutorial and some of the best video editing ever seen in a videogame of highlights from the actual event—does little to attract and educate newcomers.
Pride FC is excellent for what it is: a simple yet stunning tribute to its sport and its fighters. I can't convince anyone that Pride FC is vital to our society and that everyone should be a card-carrying member of the MMA club. I can only give some perspective on what Pride FC means to me and why the videogame is so effective. Heroes exist because we create them in our own image. By the same token, legendary games achieve such distinction where people are willing to see great things in them.