Even as I approach the end of my 40th year on this God-forsaken hellhole, I’m not afraid to say that I remain an unabashed fan of professional wrestling and all the noise that surrounds it. I’m the guy who bought Power Slam magazine back in the day, the double-tape VHS SilverVision release of Wrestlemania IV…hell, I even bought Rowdy Roddy Piper’s hit(-ish) single, “I’m Your Man” and have no regrets about that purchase.
Perhaps unsurprisingly then, that love of wrestling has extended itself to the many wrestling video games that have come out over the years. In fact, some of my favorite games – and the memories that come with them – have been wrestling ones.
It all started in 1989, when I got my first Game Boy and a copy of WWF Superstars. Sure, it only contained six characters, but I still found it very cool that I could listen to a sketchy synthesised version of Mr Perfect’s entrance music on the go.
In 1992, I often went without lunch at school, as I threw coin after coin into the WWF Wrestlefest machine at my local arcade, marvelling at its chunky sprites, cool animation and meaty sound effects.
From 1998 to the turn of the millenium, wrestling games had their golden age with the Holy Trinity of WCW/nWo Revenge, WWF Wrestlemania 2000 and WWF No Mercy on Nintendo 64. Not a day went by that I didn’t play one of the three – hell, there were days when I played all three, one after the other.
After that brief, glorious golden age, wrestling games still had occasional shining moments. The Smackdown series came out of the gate strong, before transitioning to Smackdown vs Raw. WWE All Stars offered something a little different with its focus on over-the-top physics and caricatured character models. Even EA’s Def Jam series was essentially wrestling games with a hip-hop twist.
However, with each passing year (especially since 2K Sports took over the licence, following the unfortunate demise of the original THQ), the product has suffered and the disappointment has grown. As the slant on wrestling games has skewed towards realism (because that’s what wrestling fans really love about wrestling – the realism), features have been stripped out, customisation options have regressed, and control schemes have become increasingly and unnecessarily complicated.
What’s the solution? How can wrestling games possibly return to their former glory? While watching some wrestling recently, it hit me. When realism is the problem, and wrestling game developers are most concerned with making the fighting as realistic as possible, maybe wrestling games shouldn’t be fighting games anymore at all?
See, the problem with wrestling’s place in the fighting game genre is that there are just so many better fighting games out there, from Mortal Kombat to Marvel vs. Capcom. In an attempt to reach a wider audience, wrestling games have fallen into an awkward limbo within that genre – neither simple and casual enough nor complicated and hardcore enough to satisfy fans at either end of the fighting game spectrum.
For example, something like the joyous and riotous Gang Beasts, which could be fairly described as a physics-based wrestling game, nails many of the concepts that recent actual wrestling games have increasingly struggled with, while managing to capture the simplicity that made the best wrestling games work in the past.
On the other end of the scale, the increased complexity in recent wrestling games has also led to them being held to, and ultimately falling very short of, the standards required to compete with the Street Fighters and the Mortal Kombats of the world – games that themselves often fail to live up to the rigorous standards of fighting game fans.
So, where do wrestling games go from here? What form should future wrestling games take? I have some ideas.
For instance, with the proper execution, wrestling could make a great framework for a co-operative (yes, not competitive) rhythm action game, with two players pressing buttons or playing plastic instruments with the on-screen wrestlers executing choke-slams and suplexes in time.
I mean, let’s be honest here – match outcomes are predetermined anyway (I know, I was as stunned as you are), so remove the games’ competitive element altogether. The very best wrestling matches have an elegant, almost music-like flow to them, so crib from the best examples of the rhythm action genre – the Amplitudes, Rock Bands and Crypt of the Necrodancers of the world. These take rhythmic actions – playing guitar, racing, fantasy combat – and apply the mechanic of pressing buttons on top of them. Why not wrestling too?
For a more solitary and sedate experience, perhaps a management simulator would be more your pace. Wrestling management sims already exist, most notably the Extreme Warfare/Total Extreme Wrestling series, but it remains something of a niche genre at present. However, with the right licensing and presentation, then there’s no reason that a move into a more cerebral form of wrestling game couldn’t be a success.
Of course, I’m pragmatic enough to know that none of this is ever likely to happen. The WWE makes safe choices, and “safe” these are not. However, while sales for the WWE 2K franchise continue to remain strong, they should act now before that’s no longer the case. The latest of those wasn’t exactly well-received, after all.
The real world of professional wrestling has seen something of a skew towards a more reality-based product as it seeks to keep pace with MMA. However, in the slightly-less-real world of professional wrestling video games, the shot in the arm they need is anything but reality.
At the moment, you could say it’s still all a little too real to me, damn it.