Monday, March 22, 2010

Wrestle(videogame)mania Week: WWE Games and Publishers

The road to Wrestlemania ends this weekend in Phoenix with Wrestlemania XXVI. As anyone who knows me is already aware, I have a completely un-ironic and sincere love for the art form of professional wrestling (yes, I think it is an art form, and yes, I would love to debate that). I also have a completely un-ironic and sincere love for professional wrestling videogames. This week is a perfect opportunity to meld my loves. Today I'll talk about the WWF/E's relationship with videogames, Wednesday will be a primer on non-WWE wrestling games (including some puroresu games) and Friday will be a special double Top Five Friday centered around wrestling games. On Saturday, I'll put up a bonus post which will be a Wrestlemania preview just like the one I did last year. Without further ado, let's talk about WWE games.

The Acclaim/LJN Era
The first publisher to lay claim to WWF's games was Acclaim. Some of the games were released under the Acclaim name, some under the LJN imprint (Acclaim's way of getting around Nintendo of America's five games a year rule), nearly all were horrid. The first one released and the first one I remember playing was WWF Wrestlemania for the NES. If Wikipedia is to be believed, it was actually programmed by Rare, and if that is the case, it is Rare's worst game. Even worse than Perfect Dark Zero.

The game featured very few wrestlers, almost no grappling and a ridiculous difficulty curve. For NES gamers who had already played Pro Wrestling, it was a big step down. Unfortunately, the rest of Acclaim's NES output showed minimal improvement at best. Their 16-bit titles got a little better, culminating in Rage in the Cage, which almost no one played, as it was a Sega CD title, but it was essentially the same as the semi-highly regarded Royal Rumble for SNES & Genesis, but with FMV and more wrestlers.

In the late '90s, Acclaim went through a house cleaning and attempted to revamp their image. It kind of, sort of worked. It was around this time that we saw Turok: Dinosaur Hunter (lauded at the time, but pretty crappy in hindsight) and Acclaim's last two WWF releases, Warzone and Attitude, the former for PS1 and N64, the latter for PS1, N64 and Dreamcast.

They were very much the same game in terms of gameplay, using fighting game-esque button combos to execute wrestling moves. Attitude was the first wrestling game I remember playing that both had a robust character creation mode (Warzone feature a mode for this, but options for looks were sparse and movesets were all premade) and a story mode that semi-closely resembled actual wrestling programming. It included grudge matches and a climb from b-rate shows like Shotgun Saturday Night up to pay-per-view events like Wrestlemania. Still, as with Acclaim's other releases from the time, they've both aged pretty poorly, and are only worth checking out for nostalgia or curosity's sake.

The Ocean Era

Ocean Software made a few WWF games for gaming PCs/microcomputers in the late '80s and early '90s. The only one of these I've played is the DOS version of WWF European Rampage Tour, based on the tour of the same name. It was pretty bad, if memory serves, but the digitized Sean Mooney speech between matches was kinda neat for the time. The graphics shamed any of Acclaim's NES releases, but the gameplay was pretty well par for the course (which is to say, bad). Not much else to say, really.

The Technos Era

Now this is where WWF games get good. Technos, one of my all-time favorite developers in both the arcade and on consoles, the fine folks behind Double Dragon and River City Ransom, had the WWF license for two glorious games, one of which is still considered by some to be the best WWF game ever made.

The first was WWF Superstars, which should not, under any circumstances, be confused with Acclaim's awful WWF Superstars for the Gameboy. Superstars featured eight wrestlers total, six playable ("The Million Dollar Man" Ted DiBiase and Andre the Giant are the boss team) and features only tag team play. It followed the semi-standard button mash style of gameplay popular at the time for grapplers, but the button mashes weren't nearly as hard to win against the CPU as later games like Three Count Bout.

The second is still one of the most beloved WWF games to come out, WWF Wrestlefest. Wrestlefest featured a much larger roster, much larger, more detailed sprites, and even some digitized live commentary. It was released two years later, and features twelve wrestlers, ten of which are playable (the Legion of Doom are non-playable bosses). Each wrestler has a unique set of moves, resulting in many more moves overall compared to Superstars, which had a fairly standard set for all the superstars.

In terms of play modes, it features a mode based on Saturday Night's Main Event, in which you (and a friend?) choose a tag team and try to take the Tag Team Titles from Hawk and Animal, the Legion of Doom. The other mode, which was a big deal at the time, is Royal Rumble, in which you (and up to three friends) choose superstars and have to eliminate everyone to be the last man standing. They're a little loosey-goosey with the rules of the Rumble, allowing pinfalls as well as the real Royal Rumble rule of throwing your opponent over the top rope to eliminate them.

Overall, Technos did a great job with the WWF license. Unfortunately, they only had two releases, and neither of them ever saw a console port. But I wouldn't blame you if you used MAME to play them.

The Midway Era

This era consists of exactly one game: WWF Wrestlemania. It was an arcade game that may as well have been called WWF Jam, since it's to WWF what NBA Jam and NFL Blitz are to basketball and football, respectively. Still, the game is a remarkable bit of fun, even if it can be beaten in about fifteen minutes on the hardest difficulty and only features eight playable wrestlers. It was ported to consoles by Acclaim, as they had both the WWF license and a deal with Midway to port their arcade games. The SNES version is gimped significantly, supporting only three characters on screen at a time and cutting Yokozuna and Bam Bam Bigelow entirely.

Following that game, Acclaim did an in house sequel, only for consoles, ironically called WWF In Your House, based on what the off-month pay-per-views (the ones that weren't Wrestlemania, King of the Ring, Summerslam, Survivor Series or the Royal Rumble) were called at the time. It added four player support, but killed everything else. The graphics were awful, the controls were sluggish and the special moves were much harder to pull off. Leave it to Acclaim to take someone else's good idea and ruin it.

The THQ Era

THQ are the current holders of the license, and they've been busy, busy, busy. The flagship series for them is the Smackdown vs. Raw series, which started simply as the Smackdown series. It began life on PS1, with two releases that were developed by Yuke's, a development house which seems to specialize in pro wrestling games. They were pretty well known in Japan for the Toukon Retsuden series, which were games based on the New Japan Pro Wrestling promotion.

Before that, they were known for their collaborations with developer AKI, who, before partnering with WWF, were responsible for WCW/nWo World Tour and WCW/nWo Revenge on the N64. AKI used the same engine for the two N64 WWF releases they did that were published by THQ. Those games were Wrestlemania 2000 and No Mercy. No Mercy is considered by fans of wrestling videogames to be among the greatest ever, if not the greatest ever. It's pacing, character creation tools, number of moves, branching storylines and myriad of unlockable content make it legendary amongst fans of the genre. If you like wrestling, No Mercy is reason enough to keep your N64. AKI went on to develop the first two Def Jam games for EA, then the Ultimate Muscle/Kinnikuman games.

On the Xbox front, THQ released two games in the Raw series, both by Anchor that were middling at best. They followed that up with Wrestlemania 21, which was mediocre by all accounts. After that, they just decided to go with the sure thing, and with the Xbox 360, they've just been releasing entries in the previously Playstation exclusive Smackdown vs. Raw series.

That series is also on the Wii now, but previously there had been a number of games on the Gamecube. They were all a bit different, with the biggest sore thumb being Wrestlemania XIX, which featured a really dumb storyline (even for a wrestling game) which basically turned the game into a Final Fight-style brawler, with you beating guys up at constructions sites and the like. It was dumb. Never play it. THQ and Yuke's did, however, finish the Gamecube era in a strong fashion with the two Day of Reckoning titles. With a similiar, but not congruent system to Smackdown vs. Raw, the Day of Reckoning titles feature a strong emphasis on story, the second game being particularly notable as it's one of the very few grapplers I can think of that starts you as the champion, then sets you on a quest to regain your title, instead of making you the wet behind the ears rookie out to prove himself and win the title.

THQ also did two GBA titles that are not great alone, but entirely un-necessary when you realize that the first two Fire Pro Wrestling releases to come to the US were on the GBA. They later experimented with other genres, including an ill-advised foray into the car combat genre with WWE Crush Hour. One odd little experiment that's surprisingly solid is WWF Betrayal, which, despite what I said about Wrestlemania XIX, is a Final Fight-style (really more Mighty Final Fight-style) brawler that works really well. You choose one of four characters (Undertaker, Stone Cold, Triple H or The Rock) and punch and kick dudes, occasionally busting our your finishing move. It's dumb and easy, but it's fun in the way the most beat-'em-ups are.

So that's my tour of WWF/WWE's videogame history. Yes, I know I didn't cover every single game, but it's just an overview. If you're really curious, check the link at the bottom of the page. Stay tuned on Wednesday for an intro to non-WWE games!

Wikipedia's WWE game list


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