SmackDown! series (1999-2003)
Having acquired the WWF video game licence and taken over the rights from previous publisher Acclaim, THQ looked to Japanese developer Yuke’s – and their Toukon Retsuden 4: New Japan Pro Wrestling engine – as the way to bring pro wrestling video games into the 21st century. The first output of their collaboration was the first game in the original series, WWF SmackDown!, for the Sony Playstation.
While its Acclaim-published predecessors War Zone and Attitude played like sluggish fighting games of yester-year – often requiring players to memorise (or blindly stumble upon) intrinsic combinations of button presses to pull off even the most basic of maneuvres – SmackDown! brought intuitive, fast-paced gameplay to wrestling fans. By mapping the vast majority of grapples to the two-button combination of circle and a direction, the early SmackDown! games made it easy for both hardcore and casual gamers to recreate and engage in their favourite WWF matches.
Attitude may have featured a diverse array of the WWF’s trademark gimmick match types, but those paled in comparison to THQ’s offerings, which became more and more expansive with every subsequent release. From Tables, ladders and chairs to cages, hell-in-a-cells and special referees; chances are if you saw it on WWF programming you’d likely see it recreated in the SmackDown! series too.
Hardcore matches saw the use of expansive and explorable backstage areas, with it being possible to take a fight from the ring to the arena’s catering facility to the streets of New York City – all fairly seamlessly at that.
However, where the original series took strides forwards, it also took several steps back. While fairly primitive, War Zone and Attitude both featured play-by-play commentary; a feature omitted from the initial two SmackDown games, then brought back for Just Bring It! and subsequently scrapped for the rest of the original series due to its poor execution (for years I was haunted by Michael Cole’s expressionless, "The Last Riiiide, the Last Riiiide").
The season mode of the first game was also panned due to its lack of depth and coherent storylines. SmackDown! 2 improved upon this, introducing the trademark backstage cutscenes that wrestling fans are well accustomed to seeing. However, it was perhaps a case of a little too much-too soon, as its elaborate scenarios stretched the processing capabilities of the PS1 to the limit and led to infuriatingly long loading times.
2001 saw the launch of the SmackDown! series on the Playstation 2, the power of which opened up a lot of new opportunities for the developmental team. While the first two SmackDown! games featured blocky graphics that arguably were a regression from the Acclaim days, with Just Bring It! came a much more refined visual presentation overall, from the menu system to the detail of character models and arenas.
The game also improved upon the franchise’s series mode, introducing branching scenarios – with a player’s choices affecting how their storylines and potential matchups panned out – which would become a staple of the series over the next ten years.
One aspect of THQ’s WWE games series universally praised throughout the years has been its customisation options. While SmackDown! 1 actually went backwards in regards to its Create-a-Wrestler mode, subsequent games improved and expanded upon this year on year to the point where it was possible to edit almost every facet of a character’s look, moveset, and wrestling ability.
Arguably the highest point in the THQ/Yuke’s partnership came in 2003 – ironically the year after WWE had begun to lose mainstream popularity – with the release of Here Comes The Pain, its name and cover inspired by Brock Lesnar, then a rookie who had caught fire since his debut in the company the year prior. With tweaked gameplay mechanics, an engrossing season mode, and the introduction of legends to the in-game roster for the first time, Here Comes The Pain was SmackDown! at its peak. However, the top brass at THQ decided before too long that it was time for a major change.
Smackdown vs. Raw series (2004-2010)
The holiday season in 2004 ushered in a newly-rebranded WWE franchise, with a brand new philosophy. The Smackdown vs. Raw series placed a greater emphasis on presentation and production values, and while the graphical polish may have made the games sparkle, it often came at the detriment of enjoyable and engrossing gameplay. Game modes were removed year after year, much to the chagrin of long-time fans of the series; especially when they would often resurface a few sequels down the line.
That’s not to say it was all bad though. The series’ season modes – later Road to Wrestlemania – introduced full voice acting, original storylines and realistic action to the mix. As the resulting product lacked the depth WWE fans had become accustomed to – with only so many superstars being able to lend their vocal talents – later games came with the added GM mode in an attempt to fill this void.
Smackdown vs. Raw also saw the re-introduction of play-by-play and colour commentary to the series, courtesy of a combination of either Jim Ross or Michael Cole and Jerry Lawler; thankfully vastly improved from previous efforts and contributing positively to the user’s overall experience of the games. Ring entrances, voice-overs and background music were also extremely polished and true to life.
One of the main changes brought about in the Smackdown vs. Raw series was an overhaul of the basic gameplay mechanics which had been so popular in the original games; but Yuke’s attempts to freshen up the franchise felt rushed or sloppy at times, with illogical and counter-intuitive changes being made from one year to the next.
While online match-making became possible for the first time in wrestling game history from Smackdown vs. Raw onwards, it was often derided by gamers either due to the lack of options available, the lag of the servers, or simply general unreliability. Even with the release of WWE ’13, online gaming still hadn’t been perfected.
WWE Games series (2011-2013)
After Smackdown vs. Raw 2011 was released to mixed reviews, THQ felt they had to think outside the box once again for the development of WWE ’12. The first game to be released exclusively on the current generation of consoles, the developers were no longer held back by the constraints of having to produce a game that ran as well on the PS2 as it did on the Xbox 360 or Playstation 3.
The core gameplay mechanics, and the introduction of a new animation system – dubbed “predator technology” – were at the heart of the developers’ philosophy. Perhaps it was the realisation that while the Smackdown vs Raw franchise had all the high-quality production associated with WWE TV, the gameplay underneath seemed to have been denigrating in quality since the days of the graphically poor, but riotously fun, SmackDown! 1 and 2 era.
An all-new control system, unique ‘comeback’ moments for certain superstars, and extensive customisation options helped cement WWE ’12 as one of the best wrestling games in years.
Bonus downloadable content, which had been introduced quietly several years previously, was integrated effectively into the game in order to keep fans engaged with the release of new superstar and arena packs throughout the course of 2012.
The buzz generated for WWE ’13 was substantial. Attitude Era was set to replace the tired Road to Wrestlemania mode (which returned in WWE ’12 with no branching storylines whatsoever), offering players the chance to relive the golden age of professional wrestling, with an extensive roster made up of both Attitude Era and present-day superstars. A hype interview conducted by Jim Ross with Stone Cold Steve Austin and CM Punk – two of the biggest stars during their respective careers in the WWE – accumulated well over a million views on Youtube.
Building on the gameplay foundations laid down the previous year, little was changed in regards to the core mechanics of WWE ’13 save for the introduction of “Oh My God” moments and the ability to perform mid-air finisher catching maneuvres. With the ability to customise match types, attributes and gameplay speed however the player liked, the game was an extremely fun multiplayer experience; however, a lot of niggling bugs (for example, the CPU always kicking out of pinfall attempts at a one-count) let its one-player modes down somewhat.
One of the biggest disappointments in WWE ’13 was THQ’s much-touted ‘WWE Live’ system, which promised realistic crowd audio – for example, superstar-specific chants and their reactions to particular spots in matches – but managed to substantially under-deliver. Mixing levels were erratic; chants virtually inaudible.
Gamers were expecting a revolution. And although the nostalgia rush of the Attitude Era storylines was undeniably great fun, numerous glitches and poorly-executed ideas – such as Universe mode, which was riddled with bugs – took the steam out of the franchise right as it seemed to be gaining a head of steam.
With the collapse of THQ, 2013 will see the WWE brand move on to pastures new. 2K Sports, a subsidiary of Take-Two Interactive, acquired the license during bankruptcy proceedings earlier this year. While days of uncertainty followed about whether the publisher would retain the series’ developmental team or elect to start completely anew, an official press release confirmed that the saga will indeed continue with Yuke’s at the helm.
Whether you’re rejoicing or groaning at the news, depending on your perception on the direction the series has taken in recent years, WWE 2K14 – developed by the long-standing Japanese studio alongside 2K’s own Visual Concepts – is slated for release this autumn. So while the title of this article may read like an obituary, the WWE franchise is far from dead and buried.