Over the years there have been plenty of licensed and unlicensed wrestling games, both good and bad. In the early days of video games, grappling games were straight out button bashers; more recently they’ve morphed into a sports simulation; with counter moves, reversals, taunts in keeping with the real life product.
I’ve been a fan of professional wrestling for almost as long as I’ve been gaming. I’ve always watched World Wrestling Federation / Entertainment, but when I felt the product got stale, I would veer away to the competition – World Championship Wrestling and Extreme Championship Wrestling in the mid-late nineties and Total Non-stop Action in the naughties. It’s only been during the last year that I’ve re-embraced the current WWE product, and thought I’d share my gaming experiences with wrestling games and their evolution.
Before I delve too deeply into games I have played, I’d like to touch on a sub-genre that I’ve given a wide berth to – licensed products acting as wrestling game. The Simpsons Wrestling and Shrek SuperSlam are two that instantly spring to mind, and whilst I appreciate that these types of game are aimed at kids, they damage the genre and make it harder for “true” wrestling games to be taken seriously.
The first wrestling game I ever played was Epyx’s Championship Wrestling on the Commodore 64 in the late eighties. The game was going to be a WWF game, but Epyx couldn’t obtain the license and had to make some changes – Hulk Hogan became K.C Colossus and The Ultimate Warrior became The Berserker. The roster was filled out with 80’s wrestling clichés – from a Russian called Col. Rooski, to a Native American bizarrely named Howling Manslayer. Due to only having one action button, the game was pretty much a punch, kick affair based on which way you moved the joystick.
The first few WWF branded games I played were the LJN (SNES) / Flying Edge (Mega Drive) series – Super Wrestlemania, Royal Rumble and Raw. The games were button bashers, with the majority of gameplay coming from a tug of war grapple mechanic. Whichever wrestler managed to filled their half of the meter would pull of their intended move. Each face button has a separate move, although each wrestlers move set was identical – although each had their individual finishing moves. The last game, Raw added Mega Moves for each wrestler; with wrestlers somersaulting through the air from one side of the ring to the other – which I found ruined the game, even when I originally played it as a tweenager. The games each featured a roster of a dozen grapplers, cartoon-like in appearance, but without much variation apart from their attire – The Undertaker, who is a shade under seven foot tall in real life would stand the same height a Ric Flair (who’s a good foot shorter) being one notable example.
The PlayStation’s WWF Warzone and WWF Attitude from Acclaim brought a larger pool of wrestlers, greater move variation and for the first time in-match commentary (prior to this I’d called the action myself). The games featured ring entrances of sorts, and as the format was CD based, had actual entrance music rather than chirpy, 16-bit renditions. The Acclaim games moved more into Beat Em Up territory, with Street Fighter-style button combinations needed to pull off finishing moves. The games were also the first to offer the create-a-wrestler tool. I remember spending hours agonising over exactly the right outfit, hairstyle and moniker for my created brawler.
Around the same time that Acclaim were producing WWF games, THQ were busy making games for the opposition WCW. One of my favourite all time games to this day is WCW/nWo Revenge on Nintendo 64. The game offered a larger roster than the Acclaim games, and added neat touches like taunts. The game featured the New World Order stable, which was pretty much the hottest thing in wrestling in the mid to late nineties. Revenge also had cruiserweights, offering a high-flying style of wrestling, which hadn’t really been seen in games before; offering players the opportunity to execute insane (real life) top rope moves. The game is the earliest example of today’s product, with more strategy required over who can bash buttons faster. THQ eventually acquired the WWF license and used the base model of the WCW games for their Smackdown series, which were equally as fun and playable.
Soon after WWF and Acclaim parted ways, Acclaim developed a game for hardcore promotion ECW; releasing Anarchy Rulz in 1999. By this time I was becoming a bit savvier as a gamer, and whilst I bought the game as a fan of the show, the games graphics was starting to look dated compared to THQ’s. Bloodshed and general carnage were ECW’s hallmarks, and whilst the game offered plenty of gore, the claret looked as if it were drawn onto wrestlers’ heads and torsos. Whilst hand models weren’t as sophisticated as they are today, the wrestlers look as though they were fighting in a pair of oven mitts. The game was a complete back step, and at odds with ECW’s product, which was breaking new ground in the industry with its hardcore style of wrestling. My only justification for buying Anarchy Rulz was to play as Rob Van Dam.
The next side step I took from the WWF/E product was Legends Of Wrestling on the PS2, again produced by Acclaim. Legends Of Wrestling featured wrestlers of yesteryear and at the time current unsigned stars. The characters looked more comic-book like, all with rippling muscles. The game was glitchy, and its engine could only cope with one command at a time; execute more than one and you’d need to wait for the animations to catch up. The game was fun as a stroll down memory lane, but didn’t really offer anything long term. I should have left well alone, but again Rob Van Dam was a playable character and I was a huge fan.
By the mid naughties, I’d all but abandoned the WWE product, sneering at the PG era and looking to its only major rival TNA for my wrestling fix – purchasing the Midway developed TNA Impact to sate my gaming thirst. The game had a now genre standard story mode, but rather than giving players the opportunity to play as their favourite superstar, restricted them to playing as a masked character called Suicide; the theory being that the player was Suicide. TNA even integrated the character into their real life product. Unfortunately this was the game’s downfall, as I’d much rather have played as AJ Styles, Sting or Kurt Angle, the stars I watched and cared about.
I returned to the WWE games franchised with one of the final games in the series product by THQ – WWE All Stars on Xbox 360. I was drawn to the game as it pit WWE legends against stars of the current roster. The game is a quirky mixture of elements from Legends Of Wrestling and WWF Raw; with overly muscled characters and gravity defying special moves. Despite how much I loathed both games for these reasons, the way they were presented in All Stars actually kinda worked. All Stars also had a decent story mode covering WrestleMania matches of yesteryear, and sport sim style game play. Unrealistic but insanely good fun, even for casual fans.
My most recent experience is WWE 2K16, which features a massive roster of wrestling legends, current superstars and divas, as well of stars in the making. The game features every possible match type, a deep career mode and create-a-wrestler tool, and online gameplay options. Matches are now strategic – with chain wrestling, reversals and in-match rock paper scissor-style mini games. Graphically the game looks damn near identical to the real life product, accompanied by ring entrances and theme songs for each wrestler. The only bad point is the lacklustre in game commentary – it doesn’t flow with the in ring action, the commentators would rather waffle on about a wrestler’s childhood than call the damn match (but this again is close to real life, as the commentators seem to talk about anything other than the match!). Commentary aside, I still felt strongly enough to put WWE 2K16 in my top five games of last year, purely for how well wrestling games have come over the years.
And there we have it – twenty-odd years of wrestling games; as I mentioned some good, some bad. Did I miss any gems or absolute stinkers? Let us know in the comments section below.