With WWE being far and away the number one professional wrestling company for so many years, grappling fans aren’t exactly spoiled for choice in terms of video games. Thankfully, 2K’s recent blockbuster release WWE 2K14 is a more-than-adequate fix for those wishing to relive their favourite moments from the 30-year history of Wrestlemania and put together their own dream matches.
In spite of the lack of competition in modern times, wrestling and video games have a rich history, dating back to 1983’s Tag Team Wrestling, an admittedly woeful arcade title. To mark 30 years since this landmark release, the Power Up Gaming team take a look at a selection of five of the best wrestling games in history.
WCW/nWo Revenge (1998, N64)
During the height of the Monday Night Wars between the WWF and WCW in the late ’90s, there was no better time for video game publishers to cash in on the mainstream popularity of pro wrestling. The nWo was running roughshod over WCW, and Stone Cold Steve Austin, The Rock and Mankind were beginning to hit their peak in the WWF. But who would win the war in the video gaming world?
One thing is for sure, WWF diehards were soon to be disappointed, as the victor certainly wasn’t the Acclaim-published WWF Warzone. Featuring a shallow – not to mention outdated – roster and overly-complicated gameplay mechanics, the PS1 and N64 title was a poor representation of the workings of pro wrestling and was widely panned by critics and fans alike.
Japanese developer AKI, best known at that point for creating Virtual Pro-Wrestling for the PS1, was tasked by WCW license-holder THQ with substantially expanding and improving on its pro wresting game engine for inclusion in a series of Nintendo 64 titles. The second game in this series, WCW Revenge, like its predecessor World Tour, features arcade-style gameplay which allows players to pull of moves and counters far more quickly than its Acclaim counterparts, and is far more intuitive and easy for casual gamers to pick up and play.
While it doesn’t quite hold up so well today, WCW/nWo Revenge featured production values far surpassing anything seen at that point in wrestling video games: including instant replays, polished entrances and themed arenas that mirrored their real life counterparts.
A deep roster of over 60 wrestlers is featured in Revenge, including all of the major WCW stars at the time: Hulk Hogan, Kevin Nash, Sting, Goldberg, Bret Hart, Scott Hall and DDP are all present; with Ric Flair being the only glaring omission. Each wrestler features a unique moveset, including taunts and finishers – the former of which can also be stolen by a player’s opponent.
WWE Day of Reckoning 2 (2005, Gamecube)
Often overlooked in favour of its sister Smackdown series on the PS2, the short-lived Day of Reckoning franchise on the Nintendo Gamecube brought wrestling fans an interesting and effective alternative recreation of WWE programming. While developed by Yuke’s, the game’s programmers were clearly inspired by AKI’s classic engine, with counters and strategic gameplay being featured prominently in contrast to Smackdown’s fast-paced arcade style.
An emphasis on momentum and stamina means players must make intelligent decisions during the course of a match with regards to balancing out their offense; reflecting the ring psychology of real-life pro wrestling.
A more linear season mode allows for a greater emphasis on effective storytelling, with players being able to take their created character from the bottom of the roster all the way to the WWE title at Wrestlemania; not without plenty of trademark WWE plot twists, alliances and betrayals along the way, of course.
Crisp, colourful graphics and a substantial roster certainly enhance the Day of Reckoning experience, with certain gameplay physics including the interaction and use of weapons such as steel chairs, tables and ladders being unparalleled even today.
WWE SmackDown! Heres Comes The Pain (2003, PS2)
Having acquired the WWF video game license 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 Playstation 1.
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 – the SmackDown! series 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.
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.
Perfecting the action-style experience found in its predecessors by including more strategic (but not overly-complicated) gameplay mechanics, Here Comes The Pain still holds up today even if its graphics are beginning to look increasingly dated.
With the inclusion of a plethora of match types (including, for the first time, the elimination chamber), an engrossing season mode containing over 200 branching storylines, and the introduction of legends to the in-game roster for the first time, Here Comes The Pain was SmackDown! at its peak.
Fire Pro Wrestling Returns (2007, PS2)
While on the surface it may appear to be far less polished than other games in this feature, Japanese developer Spike’s Fire Pro Wrestling Returns is more than worthy of its place. The series’ 2D sprite-based graphics and beat ’em up-style gameplay are more reminiscent of a 16-bit fighting game rather than a PS2 brawler, but that absolutely proves to work in its favour.
With less focus on the game’s graphics, Spike were free to work diligently on Fire Pro Wrestling Returns’ gameplay and customisation options. Although almost completely unlicensed outside of Japanese stars, the game’s roster is monstrous (327 base fighters, with room for an additional 500) and fully customisable, with most attires and recognisable faces for the most popular professional wrestlers worldwide being featured in the game’s creation suite.
With over a thousand moves and dozens of match types at the disposal of players, the sheer depth of FPWR is staggering and puts that of the Smackdown series to shame. Featuring a more simulation-based grappling style than fans may be accustomed to, the game has a punishing and often frustrating difficulty curve: but stick with it and explore the numerous customisation options and you’ll be rewarded.
WWF No Mercy (2000, N64)
With THQ picking up the WWF video games license in 1999, the WCW rights were sold to EA. It wasn’t to be the end of the publisher’s partnership with AKI, however, with the engine developed for use in its WCW games being given a facelift for the company’s N64 WWF titles.
The sequel to the hugely-popular WWF Wrestlemania 2000, WWF No Mercy was highly anticipated and definitely managed to live up to the hype. Setting it apart from its predecessors, No Mercy features an engaging season mode with branching storylines; an authentic reproduction of the glitz, glamour and drama that went into WWF Attitude Era programming, and the likes of which had never seen before in a pro wrestling game.
Outside of the main story, a variety of different match types are included to keep players interested: such as ladder, cage and special referee matches, as well as hardcore brawls in a number of backstage areas. As with the AKI games that came before it, timing is key to pulling off and reversing maneuvres in No Mercy, with the gameplay situated in an effective medium between arcade and simulation styles.
With a roster of over 60 superstars, a deep customisation mode and polished visual presentation (Titantron videos aside), No Mercy proves – even in 2013 – to be an authentic representation of the art form fans know and love.