From Pixel to Post is back with some old school wrestling game talk, including the game that everyone's been waiting for: No Mercy!
Welcome back to our look at the video game world of professional wrestling from years past. Last time, we touched on the humble beginnings of the genre and made our way through the 16 bit era. Now, it's time to get serious. I've got a lot of ground to cover so I'm going to get right to it. Remember, if I don't touch on a game it's because I never really played it. Onward!
A New Dimension of Pain
Hands down, the generation following the 16 bit era was the Renaissance of the wrestling game. The Nintendo 64 and Sony Playstation were huge game-changers in terms of what was possible and what could be accomplished in these games. Rather than drag through in a more chronological fashion like the previous column, I'm going to group the games into different sections based on their developers and gameplay. I'll start with the Acclaim-published WWF/ECW titles and move on from there, what do you think? IT DOESN'T MATTER WHAT YOU THINK!!!
Ahem. First up on our journey into the virtual squared circle is WWF War Zone for the N64 and Playstation. Released in 1998, this game was extremely anticipated by yours truly. It was to be the first true "next gen" WWF title (we had been cutting our teeth on WCW vs nWo World Tour prior to this). I remember getting aggravated as the game kept getting delayed but finally, it would be mine. The first thing you'd notice about the game is the graphics. While today, they don't look like much but at the time they were definitely a cut above anything else. The wrestlers had fairly realistic character models and the presentation was more like that of its televised counterpart. The gameplay modes were still standard fare and the single player mode was yet again a simple tournament fighter-style mode. Occasionally, a wrestler you had beaten before would challenge you to a "grudge match" just to mix it up a bit. The gameplay was a mixed bag. Instead of the intricate grapple system of WCW vs nWo, it used grapples as a springboard to initiate other moves via Mortal Kombat-style button combinations. It was fairly tedious as you had to memorize the moves for each character otherwise you'd have to pause the game every 10 seconds to view the move list. The gameplay and character selection was the same between the N64 and Playstation versions, yet there were still noticeable differences. The Playstation version had real, CD-quality theme music for each wrestler (this particularly made me jealous of PSX owners) in addition to some full motion video cut scenes in addition to more sound bytes from the wrestlers themselves. The N64 version had better, higher resolution graphics and overall faster gameplay. A funny thing about this game is that it was released as the real-life WWF's "Attitude Era" was starting to pick up a lot steam. Therefore, there's a lot of profanity in the game. Given that Stone Cold Steve Austin more or less introduced frequent swearing to mainstream wrestling TV, his character in particular had a lot of choice taunts. This was especially amusing to me and my juvenile friends who would just sit and taunt so we could hear what Austin had to say.
Though we really enjoyed it at the time, looking back, the game hasn't held up well. The clunky gameplay and awkward character models are laughable and there's not a lot gameplay mode-wise to invite a lot of replay value. HOWEVER, this game is notable for introducing something that would become a staple for wrestling games and ultimately major criteria for my overall enjoyment of any subsequent wrestling title: the Create-A-Wrestler mode. It was this mode that made my friends and I foam at the mouth for this game. It had long been our dream to create our own wrestlers or wrestlers from other organizations to do battle in dream matches with the WWF elite. Fantasy battles like Shawn Michaels vs Sting or Bret Hart vs Hulk Hogan could finally be realized. This may not sound like a big deal today, especially if you aren't a big fan of wrestling games, but back in 1998 when there were very separate, major competing pro wrestling organizations, this was huge. Though very basic by today's standards, and even by standards set by proceeding games in the same generation, we were able to have a lot of fun with this mode. In the case of the N64, the game saved data to Controller Paks which were inserted to the system's controllers. If your friends had the game, they could bring their controller paks over and import their custom wrestlers as well, giving you a huge amount of characters to choose from. Though it had its problems, we were still able to have fun with War Zone. Acclaim would produce a sequel, WWF Attitude, which tried to fix a lot of the issues of its predecessor. Along with better graphics and sound and a larger selection of wrestlers, an assortment of "common moves" were given to all wrestlers that were achieved by the same button combination so that cut down the amount of move commands you had to memorize. The Create-A-Wrestler mode was greatly expanded to afford more customization options (I made an incredible Rob Van Dam in this game, probably one of my finest CAW efforts ever). The career mode was probably the biggest innovation of this game. Instead of the standard tournament for the title, it actually put you in the life of a wrestler. You worked through one or more calendar years, competing in house shows before you finally earned a chance to move to Monday Night RAW and eventually the various WWF pay-per-views. To my knowledge, this was the first true career mode of its kind and was at the time the most robust single player mode to be featured in a wrestling game up until that point.
Attitude was the last major WWF title to be produced by Acclaim on the home consoles before THQ obtained the license. They weren't quite done yet, however. Acclaim would go on to produce two ECW titles, Hardcore Revolution and Anarchy Rulz. Unfortunately, there wasn't much new brought to the table for either of these titles. They were basically the same game as WWF Attitude but everything was replaced with the wrestlers and thematic of upstart wrestling promotion Extreme Championship Wrestling. They did have barb wire rope matches and the characters could "bleed" more than in previous Acclaim titles, but that's pretty much the end of the story as far as Acclaim-produced wrestling titles go.
The Undisputed Champ
Here we are. This is what everyone wants to read about. The THQ/AKI wrestling games. Published by THQ and developed by AKI/Asmik Ace, these wrestling games radically redefined the genre. Whereas most other wrestling titles had more of an "arcade-like" fast-paced feel, these games were more methodical and simulation-based. I'll talk a bit about the gameplay first (as it's fairly similar among all the titles) and then talk about the innovations in each game and how they evolved over the years. These games are based around a grapple system. While there are various, basic strikes your wrestler can perform on an opponent, the bulk of the gameplay comes from the implementation of strong and weak grapples. Simply tapping the grapple button will cause your wrestler to initiate a grapple or "tie-up" with their opponent. From the base grapple position, you perform moves by simply pressing a direction on the D-pad in conjunction with pressing either the strike or grapple button. This is a weak grapple, which simply means you can perform quick, relatively weak moves to your opponent such as a snap-mare takeover or a simple scoop body slam. However, if you HOLD the grapple button down you would initiate a strong grapple. Pressing a direction and the grapple or strike buttons now will allow you to perform more powerful, devastating moves such as powerbombs, brainbusters, or various types of suplexes. In addition to all this, your wrestler can perform aerial maneuvers off the top rope, leap outside the ring while running, and obtain foreign objects to use as weapons, or team up with other wrestlers to inflict tandem moves on your opponents. Basically, if you can see them do it on TV, there's a good chance you can do it in these games. You may think this gameplay sounds fairly simple, and you'd be right. That's what makes the AKI-developed wrestling games so fun. They are extremely simple to pick up and play yet there are a lot of techniques and moves to master. Someone who spends a lot of time with these titles can become nearly unstoppable once they master the combat.
So let's take a closer look at the various games that used this fantastic wrestling engine. There were 5 big WCW/WWF games developed by AKI and published by THQ. The first is WCW vs The World for the Playstation. This game isn't as well known but it formed the basis that would be expanded on into the later games. A WCW-licensed port of the Japanese game Virtual Pro Wrestling, WCW vs The World had a handful of big-name WCW wrestlers and a lot of fictional wrestlers (who were typically based on other, real-life wrestlers and mixed martial arts competitors). The game modes were basic tournament-style play, but it would be the first title to introduce the tight gameplay that would become the hallmark of the AKI-developed titles. The game that most people remember as being the genesis of the THQ/AKI wrestling domination is WCW vs nWo World Tour for the N64. An expanded concept of WCW vs The World, the game featured different "factions" of wrestlers to choose from. Apart from the WCW and nWo factions, there were a few fictional wrestling promotions that once again featured fictional wrestlers that were based on real-life counterparts. To unlock secret characters or win "titles," you would fight through the wrestlers of one of the various promotions and become their champion. This was again done in a tournament-style fashion. The thing that really made these games shine, aside from the gameplay, is the ability to play it with your friends. The N64, having 4 built-in controller ports, was really the first truly social home game console. Whether playing a tag match or free-for-all, there was nothing quite like playing this game with three of your friends. You could pass hours, and hours we passed. We played the ever-loving crap out of this game.
Eventually, much to our delight, a sequel would be unveiled in WCW/nWo Revenge. Revenge continued the same gameplay from the previous iteration albeit with some tweaks to both the gameplay itself as well as the overall presentation. The wrestler character models were more detailed than before and their signature moves were more accurately depicted. In World Tour, before the match started, the wrestlers would already be in the ring and they would pose when they were "announced." In Revenge, you would actually see the wrestler coming to the ring from the entrance way, which was accurately modeled after the real life stages used by WCW. In addition to their Monday Nitro set, sets of some of their more popular pay-per-views like Halloween Havoc, Starrcade, and Souled Out were also included. One of the unpopular additions to the game was a combo system. Only a few wrestlers utilized it, but in essence it entailed performing a grapple and pressing the strike button. After doing this, the wrestler would grab their opponent in a type of clinch and perform MMA-style close strikes. While interesting in concept, this effectively eliminated HALF of a wrestler's potential moveset. Fortunately, this would be the only game to have such a feature. Another fairly disappointing aspect is the lack of any real wrestler theme music in the game (they simply just come out to either the WCW Monday Nitro theme or a generic, ominous theme) and the lack of a create-a-wrestler mode. You could change the colors of the outfits of wrestlers and mix and match their wardrobe with other selectable characters, often to some pretty hilarious results, but it wasn't quite enough. It didn't matter in the end however, as the gameplay was still so good that it overshadowed these negatives. The game featured a very large selection of popular WCW wrestlers, which was a big plus; there were only two fictional factions this time around. WCW/nWo Revenge is without a doubt the best WCW game ever created. My friends and I logged countless hours into this title and it was the source of great entertainment for all of us. This would be the last AKI-developed WCW game to be released. THQ did publish two more WCW titles, WCW Monday Nitro and WCW Thunder. Some people enjoy Nitro, but I didn't. The gameplay was stiff and unintuitive, but the graphics and presentation was impressive. The sequel, WCW Thunder, just plain sucked.
The Attitude Era
Soon, THQ agree to produce licensed titles for the WWF. Their first was to be WWF Wrestlemania 2000 and was developed by AKI. Featuring the same engine as Revenge, WM2000 was also highly anticipated by my friends and I as we had long dreamed about a WWF game with the superior AKI wrestling engine. To add more fuel to the fire, this game would have a fully-functional create-a-wrestler mode and a true career mode featuring actual wrestling storylines. This game really upped the ante for what was expected of the genre, even moreso than the WCW games did before it. Featuring a large selection of WWF Superstars and no fictional wrestlers or factions, this game moved further to improve upon the advancements made by Revenge. Once again, the graphics were improved, providing further detail to the wrestler models themselves as well as the ring and arena. Like Revenge, it featured the set of their main TV show, RAW, as well as various popular pay-per-view sets. You had a handful of available "slots" in which to create your own custom wrestlers. This create-a-wrestler mode was leagues beyond what was offered in the previous Acclaim WWF offerings. You could completely customize the look of your wrestler as well as assign individual moves and taunts. Creating a wrestler can take a long time, as you assign the wrestler's moves for ANY given situation. It can be fairly daunting at first as there are lot, and I mean a A LOT, of choices. AKI included a lot of the moves and taunts of WCW wrestlers from Revenge so you could easily have those cross-promotional dream-matches I was talking about earlier. If I have any complaints about this game, it's that the custom wrestlers can tend to be too powerful (because, really, who is going to go through the effort to make a custom character and not make him awesome) in relation to the pre-existing lineup of wrestlers. If you play with friends, and you have a custom wrestler and they don't, then they just aren't going to be able to stay competitive. Creating wrestlers was always my favorite part of the game, however, so I always had an ample selection to choose from.
The ultimate realization of the AKI-developed games was WWF No Mercy for the Nintendo 64. I'm just going to tell you right now: this is the best wrestling game ever made. Period. The perfect synthesis of gameplay and presentation, No Mercy has become the measuring stick by which all other pro wrestling games are judged. Newer wrestling games may have flashier graphics, more involved create modes, and a wider variety of match options, but none of them have the absolutely perfect gameplay of No Mercy. Everything that was good about WM2000 was cranked to 11 for this game. Vastly improved character models, a more in-depth create mode, new match types (such as the life-destroying ladder match), backstage areas to brawl in, and a branching storyline-based career mode all contributed to making this game incredibly tight from top to bottom. If you think a match of Street Fighter is intense, you haven't lived until you've played a 4-way ladder match with 3 of your friends. Sheer insanity can ensue. If I have to recommend one wrestling game for non-fans to play, it's No Mercy. Its predecessors are enjoyable, for sure, but No Mercy is truly the total package. The graphics might not hold up by today's standards, but it really doesn't matter. Once you learn the gameplay and its nuances, you'll be hooked. Not only is this the best wrestling game to ever be created, I'd go as far as to say it's one of the best fighting games I've ever played in general. There's enough depth and strategy in this game to impress even the most devout Virtua Fighter fan. Sadly, No Mercy was the last licensed wrestling game to be produced by AKI. They were originally supposed to create a sequel to the mediocre WCW Mayhem by Electronic Arts and release it on the Playstation 2, but the purchase of WCW by WWE but the kibosh on those plans. AKI has gone on to do other wrestling games, though. They've done a couple of games based on the animated series Ultimate Muscle in addition to the rap-centric Def Jam Vendetta and its sequel, Fight for New York. Both of those series are more over the top and out-there when compared to the WCW/WWF games, but they still contain at their core the same great AKI wrestling engine that made the N64 titles great.
And That's the Bottom Line...
Now, there are a lot more wrestling games out there. As the AKI games gained prominence with the N64, THQ utilized a development studio called Yukes to create a series on the Sony Playstation called WWF Smackdown. You may have heard of it. I'm not going to discuss those titles here because there are a ton of them. Perhaps I'll devote another column to the history of the Smackdown games prior to the release of the upcoming Smackdown vs RAW 2010, which I plan on buying and ultimately reviewing. I might also take a brief look at some of the other "modern" wrestling games like the THQ titles released for the Xbox and Gamecube in addition to the Fire Pro series. I hope you enjoyed this look at the wrestling games of days gone by. As I said before, I've always been a huge fan of wrestling games (if it isn't apparent already) and I just wanted to open up my nostalgia to other fans out there in addition to maybe helping the uninitiated understand what all the fuss is about. I really enjoyed typing this out and thank you for taking the time to read along. And again, if you haven't played No Mercy, I've got two words for ya: Play It!. (please).
(Thanks to GameFAQs for the screenshots.)
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