Shining a Spotlight 11.29.12: Wrestling Gaming
Posted by Michael Weyer on 11.29.2012
With WWE '13 continuing the grand tradition of WWE video games, 411's Michael Weyer takes a look at the history of wrestling games in this week's Shining a Spotlight!
I'm a video game buff among my other loves like wrestling and sci-fi. Not ultra-serious, sure many have bigger game libraries than me but still enjoy a fun game. I usually go for third person adventures, RPGs and such but am also a big fan of the various Lego games. Of course, wrestling games have always been of interest to me. Currently, "WWE 13" is doing great continuing the tradition of WWE video games, keeping up with the fun of the series. Of course, it wasn't always that way as wrestling games have a long road to achieve some decent gaming, let alone greatness and interesting to see how it's developed.
Like every other sport, wrestling had the same problem with the video game format: Technology. Or rather, the lack thereof. The early years of home gaming were bad as you just had messy blocks rather than real graphics. The arcades were better but not by as much. It wasn't helped when the video game industry basically collapsed in 1982, a low point that would last for years. However, it began to rise back into power in the mid-‘80's which coincided with wrestling hitting the mainstream more than ever thanks to Hogan and the WWF. Taito got a nice arcade game I used to play, rather generic moves but fun to go outside the ring and such for some brawling. The fact is, it was something needed for video games as between the action and larger-than-life characters, wrestling is perfect for the genre.
Nintendo brought it to home fans with their own Pro Wrestling game in 1985, mixing wild characters like Starman, King Slender and the Great Puma with a pretty good moveset including combo points. There was then M.U.S.C.L.E., based on the bizarre action figures from Japan. SEGA was getting into the game with their own Pro Wrestling game that introduced important elements like a heel/face system to decide who could face who and the use of in-ring weapons. 1988 would bring the first WWF game, Wresltemania for Nintendo, a fair attempt to bring the experience to home gamers. The graphics weren't that good, all yellow for guys and blocky graphics with stuff like grabbing big dollar signs for energy boosts.
What arcades had all over home versions was simply much better graphics and presentation. Home versions could be good but just not up to that par for a while yet. Konami, one of the powerhouses of arcade creators, realized that with The Main Event, a fun game using a tag team setting with an attempt to get real size of guys in a realistic fashion. Technos was deliver two top-notch WWF arcade games. First 1989's WWF Superstars used a tag team mix with Hogan, Warrior, Honky Tonk Man, Hacksaw Duggan and others, working together to eventually face Andre the Giant and Ted DiBiase. The moves were much better with off the top rope stuff and brawling outside the ring. Much better, however, was 1991's Wrestlefest. Dear God, I loved this game. The graphics were amazing as the wrestlers really looked like the actual guys with amazing moves like Perfect's dropkick and reverse suplex, Hogan cupping a hand to his ear and the great moves of Perfectplex, Million Dollar Dream, Gorilla Press/splash and more. The tag team scenario was good as you could be a mix of guys with a cage match that you could send guys slamming into. My favorite pairing was being Jake Roberts hitting a DDT and then tag in Earthquake for a splash. Better yet was the Royal Rumble mode as you could toss guys over or pin them to eliminate them, bouncing around in battles with no loyalties like the real thing. My all-time best was playing as Hogan and getting everyone but Mr. Perfect (even in video game form, Hennig was a sneaky bastard). It was fantastic work and a shame Technos left the wrestling scene (and went out of business) right after it.
The 16-bit revolution of Super NES and Sega Genesis led to vast improvements for games. The highly underrated Saturday Night Slamasters was a fantastic Capcom release, mixing in massive powerhouse guys with cruiserweights and great movesets with stuff like hitting a powerbomb for a pin and luchadores flying around, a great release. WWF kept it up with Super Wrestlemania and the Gameboy's Steel Cage Challenge but the Royal Rumble game was a huge hit. You had access to a dozen major stars from Bret Hart to Yokozuna, Undertaker, HBK and more, working the Rumble concept for the first time for home gamers in a great way. You also had the use of steel chairs, finishers that looked much more like the real thing and even the ability to bump the ref and pull illegal moves behind his back. It was, to that date, the best overall wrestling game experience ever and a model for all that followed like 1993's RAW game.
Sadly, WCW had trouble cracking the video game scene. SuperBrawl was a bit of a mess, poor graphics and controls and the wrestlers looking almost nothing like the real things. The Game Boy WCW: The Main Event was pretty much notable only for being the first video game version of Steve Austin. Then there was the wild Wrestlemania Arcade. The 1995 arcade game was less wrestling and more Mortal Komabt with video-based images of Bret, Shawn, Razor Ramon and others doing battle with whacky stuff like Ramon's arms turning into actual razors, Doink electrocuting guys with a joy buzzer and Undertaker throwing out waves of smoke. It was popular as you'd move from one-on-one matches to multiple guys and able to use stuff like Yokzuna's drop and the Sharpshooter but not exactly a real wrestling game. Less so was IYH: In Your House which was basically guys fighting in various places except a ring.
1996 would bring a couple of major shifts. First came Japan's Super Fire Pro Wrestling X. The series had been around for a while on the PC but this pushed it to new dimensions as it wasn't just button mashing anymore, you had to time moves properly and use strikes to wear guys down in order to pull off major moves like turnbuckle jumps, piledrivers and more. It was far deeper than other games and folks were willing to play imported versions to get it. The other big change was the coming of the N64 and three-dimensional gaming. No longer were wrestling games mostly flat stuff of just moving left to right or up and down, you could have guys going at each other at different angles and better captures of the crowd reactions as well as voices of commentators. Surprisingly, WCW was able to lead the way here, hooking up with the AKI Corporation to first present WCW vs the World, the first decent WCW game. But far, far better was World Tour, which broke ground that is still followed today. Instead of just throwing a move out of nowhere, you have to do a hold first and the taunt system was added to build strength for bigger moves. The characters were great, Hogan, Nash, Mysterio and more as well as various fighters created for Japan's port of the game, Virtual Pro Wrestling.
Of course, WWF wasn't going to be left out of this new run. WWF Warzone was a dramatic rise for the company in games, boasting a huge lineup with Austin, the Rock, HBK, Undertaker, Ken Shamrock and Mick Foley as all three of his in-ring personas. Each wrestler had recorded full motion video sequences to look real and had their own entrance themes and videos. Thus, the moves looked amazingly real for the time (keep in mind, these graphics were considered top-notch for home gamers in 1998) and even non-wrestling fans could hook onto it. WCW/NWO Revenge fired back with new guys like Bret and Goldberg and introduced the idea of actual arenas to mess with. Sadly, both suffered with their follow-ups as Thunder added far more guys but less control and Attitude was a mess of slick presentation over good play. Adding to the problems was that after over a decade with Acclaim, Vince McMahon decided to suddenly throw in with THQ, who had been making the WCW games, forcing WCW to move to Electronic Artists. Acclaim picked up the license for ECW but their efforts (Hardcore Revolution and Anarchy) were, let's just say, less that successful with ugly controls and graphics. ECW went under still owing Acclaim money.
EA and THQ went to battle with WCW Mayhem a fair work and Wresltemania 2000 a decent early effort from the latter with an updated roster but fans weren't happy with the complicated button mashing needed for moves. But their next effort would more than prove their worth: Smackdown, released for the Playstation (with an arcade version as well named Royal Rumble) would wow fans to the extreme with stuff never seen before. Wrestlers would be shown reacting to pain, crying out, pounding the canvas in a submission hold and touches like Austin's middle finger to Rock raising the eyebrow. The controls were far simpler, more like arcade, not needing to go through multiple twists to get a proper move on, making it easier for casual gamers to latch onto. You had standard stuff like cage, Rumble and Career modes but the game also took the backstage brawling from WCW Mayhem and streamlined it was great fights in parking lots and the "Special Referee" mode that let you call favorites with the calls and counts (something they should really bring back today) and I Quit matches. As excellent as that was, No Mercy would make it even better. Walk-ins with entrance music, a ladder match mode, crowd passing weapons to guys, reverses, turnbuckle moves, all improved and made much smoother to watch.
It's no surprise that WWF was riding high in video games as WCW faltered. The company's last gasp for gaming would be Backstage Assault, a game that took place totally in backstage areas, not the ring. It was clear to all that WWF was the top game in town and that would be true when the new generation wars began.
2001 was really the true downfall of the arcades. With the release of the Xbox, Playstation 2 and Game Cube, home systems finally caught up to arcades in terms of graphics and controls and the online aspects the Xbox pushed meant no longer would gamers have to hang out together at arcades in order to be connected for play. The first efforts were a bit rough, the Game Cube's Wrestlemania X8 and the Xbox's RAW not exactly wowing folks. However, PS2 owners would get the real gift with Smackdown: Here Comes the Pain offering the best wrestling package yet with damage meters for specific body parts, individual stats and stamina, bringing in legend characters and adding stuff like First Blood and even Bra and Panties. Sadly, Xbox users (like myself) were left in the cold as all we had was 2005's Wresltemania 21, basically unfinished when it was shipped, filled with glitches and several advertised features that ended up being absent. Meanwhile, there would also be Simpsons Wrestling for the Playstation, considered possibly the worst Simpsons game ever with terrible controls and multiple bugs to earn a place in WrestleCrap lore.
No, if you wanted really good wrestling games, you needed the PS2. Oh, Game Cube had a few with the Day of Reckoning series with good moves and the first attempts to tell long-term storylines but were overlooked (as was much of the Cube). 2005 brought the big turn as PS2 owners got Smackdown! Vs RAW, the best mix yet and kicked off what would basically be the Madden of wrestling games. The 2006 version finally got voice acting right as well as momentum working to wear opponents doing and new stuff like Buried Alive matches and a manager mode and even the brilliant idea of being able to synch your game to the PSP to continue it on the road. The 2007 version tweaked things with the grapple function moved from buttons to the right analog stick which would become standard. Meanwhile, Konami produced Rumbles Roses XX,an all-female wrestling game that put more into the looks of the gals than real action.
Sadly, the '08 version of Smackdown vs RAW didn't win many over, seeming flat after the last few games. Meanwhile, TNA finally made the jump into gaming with IMPACT which had a lot of great faces from TNA stars and the Ultimate X mode was cool to try out. However, the overall controls were too shaky and not much in story modes either to keep gamers interested. Meanwhile, Fire Pro Wrestling Returns kept the Japanese franchise going strong with even better graphics and action than before.
WWE produced Legends of Wrestlemania, a fair game for lovers of not just nostalgia guys but also a return to the old button-mashing arcade style, giving them a chance to play Hogan, Andre, Steamboat, Savage and more. But much better was THQ taking a big boost with SvR 2009. Not just better graphics and sound but also adding the Inferno match, the ability for fans to create their own finishers and, best of all, the Road to Wrestlemania mode that allowed fans to enjoy pretty well-done storylines involving major stars over weeks of shows building to the biggest one of the year. The 2010 version altered the control scheme a bit and also brought in the massively popular Story Design mode, allowing gamers to finally create their own storylines to play out online, the perfect thing for the fantasy booker who wanted something better than what was on the TV screen. The 2011 edition had, to me, the best control scheme, easy to work moves and also added the fantastic WWE Universe mode, allowing you to play out multiple matches over months at a time, creating feuds and turns, letting you put in your own battles but more fun just watching it all play out. It felt amazingly organic and allowed you to enjoy a wrestling game like never before.
The next year changed things as the SvR was dropped to simply become WWE and the year. We had the All-Stars game that was less real wrestling, more a fighting game with exagerrated graphics. The newest incarnation has slightly more complicated control schemes with the ability to work a specific part of your opponent's body over. Vast improvements include being able to catch an opponent in mid-air and more spectacular moments for TLC matches. Plus, the "Attitude Era" is a fun way to relieve that fantastic time for wrestling with various storylines involving DX, Mankind, Austin and more plus the "Off Script" bit of stuff in 1999/2000. It remains top notch with graphics and sound, not as many bugs as the previous versions and continues a great legacy of downloadable content to add to the roster. There's also the special iphone downloadable game that brings Wrestlefest back to life with the current roster in a fun experience. The main WWE games remain popular as you can have guys take bumps no human being could experience without injury, especially in the TLC battles, all rendered in lovely detail so you think you're watching the real thing.
So for the moment, WWE is the only game in town, pun intended, although Japan tries to put out more with Fire Pro Wrestling entries. It's been a long road but finally wrestling has found its niche with video game fans, not just hardcore wrestling guys but even those who enjoy a fun game. We can only hope it keeps up as video games improve and allow wrestling fans the freedom to enjoy the sport they love in new ways.