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Retro Wrestling Game Review #1: WCW Mayhem for the Playstation

The "Golden Age of Gaming" in the United States essentially coincided with the rise of mainstream professional wrestling during the late 80s/early 90s. Nintendo's most celebrated mascot, Mario, and the WWF's breakout star, Hulk Hogan, were arguably two of the most recognizable pop culture icons at the time. Parallels continued to exist between the gaming and grappling worlds throughout the digital decade, as the audience, content, and technology continued to evolve. Wrestling-related merchandise was being pumped out like never before, and video games proved to be another profitable medium through which mainstream organizations like the World Wrestling Federation and Ted Turner's "World Championship Wrestling" could be promoted.

By 1994, the video game market had seen significant advancements in both graphical and storage capabilities of home consoles; however, the much-touted "next-gen"platforms at the time failed to gain mainstream acceptance. Although computer game technology continued to evolve, the colossal failure of cd-rom based systems such as the Panasonc 3DO and Phillips CD-I, commecially and creatively, had many people questioning their faith in the home-gaming industry. Some speculated that it had peaked with the success of the Sega Genesis and Super Ninendo Entertainment systems during the 16-bit era. And honestly, how many people did you know who actually owned a Sega CD, let alone an Atari Jaguar?

But in 1995, the Playstation changed everything. Thanks to a ton of buzz surrounding the system, a strong, divese lineup of original titles, and a relatively affordable launch price ($299 vs $699 for 3DO and $1000 for CD-I), Sony reinvigorated the market, ushering in a new and unprecedented era of prosperity in gaming. A few years later, a stagnant wrestling industry would experience a similar surge in popularity.

mayhem.jpgFlash forward to 1999. Professional wrestling had once again become a pop culture phenomenom, regaining and perhaps even surpassing the success the business had achieved during the late 80s boom. This time around Vince McMahon had company: WCW. By this point the Playstation had released its fair share of pro-wrestling titles, many of which placed heavy emphasis on presentation rather than substance, not unlike WCW television programming. THQ's WCW Nitro and WCW/NWO Thunder received mixed reviews upon release, but now Electronic Arts had their shot. EA Sports' first effort, WCW Mayhem, was heavily hyped for its integration of real-life audio commentary, playable backstage areas, and "cutting edge" graphics. But experienced wreslting gamers know that polygon counts aren't important; the core gameplay mechanics are what really defines the classics. WCW Vs. NWO: World Tour on the N64 redifined the genre for American fans. Would Mayhem deliver on the Playstation?

 

mayhem.grapple.jpgMayhem's basic striking and grappling system isn't the worst utilized in a 3-D wrestling game, but the non-intuitive control scheme can seem a bit frustrating at first. For example, the player can perform a vertical suplex using Bret Hart by simultaneously pressing down on the directional pad and the triangle button; the piledriver, a move that requires the wrestler to assume a sitting position in order to bring his opponent down onto the mat, is executed by pressing "up" and triangle. This just doesn't "feel" right to me. The editing options offered in contemporary wrestling games afford players some sense of move mapping if they feel that attacks are assigned to the wrong buttons, an imporant feature that is often taken for granted nowadays. Play Mayhem and you'll gain a whole new appreciation for moveset customization.

Players have a fairly diverse array of manuevers at their disposal in total, although grappling and striking options from each position are somewhat limited. The reversal system requires precise timing with the attack buttons, and feels non-responsive in most counter situations.

There is no real option to target specific body parts; wrestlers incur overall damage, regardless of where the attacks are focused. The player's health bar is really more of a momentum bar in this game, so you'll have to use a variety of moves and holds to gain control in the match. This was a nice change of pace from the older games that encouraged you to simply punch and kick your way to victory, completely draining your opponent's health in a matter of minutes. But the collision detection is pretty poor, which is unfortunate considering how fundamental basic striking, stomping, and aerial tactics are to the world of wrestling. Your opponents' seemingly arbitrary behavior is dictated by poor artificial intelligence, a problem that continues to plague modern wrestling games. But games prone to A.I. glitching do have their charm. During a recent match I played, Perry Saturn, who was actually in control at the time, abruptly decided that he was through with me and proceeded to march towards the locker room for absolutely no reason.   

mayhem.backstage.jpgThe introduction of the backstage fighting areas to the genre was a definite plus, even if a limited number of match types was offered. Players are given the freedom to explore the arena at any point during the contest without having to worry about being disqualified, which adds to the game's replay value. However, some traditionalists may have a problem
with Mayhem's blatant disregard for standard ring countout rules. As a matter of fact, many conventional wrestling rules aren't enforced in this game: players are not prohibited from using foreign objects, "run-ins" are frequent and always tolerated, and half of the time rope breaks are not enforced. The only real time the unseeable referee's presence is felt occurs during a pinfall or submission attempt in the center of the ring.  

 

mayhem.stinger.jpgThe graphics are pretty clunky by today's standards, but each wrestler is easily recognizable and the game features an impressive roster of WCW talent. That's a good thing, because the "Create a Wrestler" mode in this game is absolutely abysmal. Aside from the fact that the appearance editing options are severley limited, your created stars can only be given predesigned movesets from wrestlers already in the game, finsher and all. So yeah, you're better off sticking with the default lineup. Sigh...

Mayhem does a decent job of recreating the sets from WCW's major televison broadcasts and Pay Per View venues, although the crowd is horribly rendered as this giant, flat mass of bodies. Many wrestlers have distinct entrance animations, but the overall atmosphere in the arena feels somewhat sterile. The sound effects do manage to capture the impact of many of the wrestling moves, as well as some degree of audience participation. The looped cheers and jeers can get repetetive, but this is your standard background noise for most wrestling games, even today. Generic "wrestling game commentary" is provided by Bobby "The Brain" Heenan and Tony Schiavone thoughout the matches. Classic WCW themes are played during menu and loading screens.

EA Sports also kept the camera cuts to a minimum, which can make certain spots during the match seem more dramatic. Game designers today usually take every opportunity to show off their charcter models with distracting, up-close action shots, which can slow down the pace of gameplay. The overall appearance of the game is somewhat unpolished, but unmistakably
WCW.


The Bottom Line
WCW Mayhem failed to deliver anything truly revolutionary at the time, but it's still a solid time killer if you happen to be feeling nostalgic. Other WCW games such as WCW/NWO: Revenge for the Nintendo 64 will provide a deeper and much more satisfying experience. 
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