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Anyone familiar with the dumb things I say on Replay and Twitter knows that I’m a lifelong pro wrestling fan. Thankfully, it’s an industry that’s always had its toe in my other favorite industry, video games. Pro wrestling’s video game history has seen its fair share of highs and lows, various series from different promotions, and publisher/developer changes. In my history of playing wrestling games, I’ve been a young fan of sub-par grapplers, a high school fan of Nintendo 64 classics, and a cautiously optimistic adult that’s anticipating the release of WWE ‘13. With THQ’s big release hitting stores at the end of this month, I looked back at my personal history with the genre.
1993 - 1997: Early Days
Several WWF titles were released on the NES, but I didn’t discover wrestling until seeing Shawn Michaels and Razor Ramon on my TV in 1993. I immediately became obsessed, and had to get my hands on the first wrestling game I saw. That game happened to be Acclaim’s WWF Royal Rumble for the Sega Genesis. In retrospect, it was not a great game. It featured a goofy button-mashing grapple system and stiff controls, but I didn’t care as long as I could be Shawn Michaels or Randy Savage.
WWF Raw was next, which was basically the same game but with a tweaked roster. Despite this, I still freaked the **** out when I received it for Christmas (this video makes me think that I was probably a supremely annoying child). Acclaim also added a bucket that you could hit people with, which I enjoyed more than I should have. I distinctly remember wanting Shawn Michaels’ theme music on cassette tape but not being able to find it, so I held a microphone up to my TV to record the MIDI version that played on the character select screen.
When I made the mistake of saving up my lawnmowing money to buy a Sega CD, I only bought one game (even though that abomination Sewer Shark came with it). WWF Rage in the Cage was (again) just like Royal Rumble and Raw in terms of core gameplay. However, it featured something that totally sold me on the idea of disc-based gaming. It seems stupid now, but I was amazed that you could watch brief, ultra-compressed, washed-out clips of your character’s finishing move from the select menu. This was before I knew what the internet was, so it was the only way I could queue up clips of The Razor’s Edge or the Tombstone Piledriver whenever I wanted. It’s such a tiny thing in retrospect, but it blew my nine year-old mind.
1997 - 2000: Wrestling Takes Off
Wrestling fans almost unanimously point to the late 90s as the biggest and best boom period the industry has ever seen. Hulk Hogan, Scott Hall, and Kevin Nash made waves in WCW with the NWO angle, while WWF was building mega-stars like Stone Cold Steve Austin, The Rock, and D-Generation X. The Monday Night Wars weren’t just a peak time for the television programming, as the era also resulted in the best pro wrestling games ever made.
It didn’t start so hot for the WWE (then WWF), as Acclaim’s WWF WarZone and WWF Attitude were stiff, clunky messes. Hearing Stone Cold and Triple H spout catchphrases was cool, but the rough gameplay made it more of a hassle than anything. This same engine would be used for a couple of mediocre ECW titles once Acclaim lost the WWF license.
On the other hand, WCW teamed up with THQ and AKI to put out two great titles: WCW vs. NWO World Tour and the hugely improved WCW/NWO Revenge. They featured a fun art style, plenty of taunts and moves, and (most importantly) awesome gameplay mechanics. Revenge in particular featured a fantastic roster, filled with main eventers like Goldberg and Sting all the way down to jobbers like Van Hammer and Disco Inferno.
By 1999, Vince McMahon’s WWF had started taking over WCW in terms of both quality and popularity. No time was better for THQ to take over the WWF license, and they came out swinging with WWF Wrestlemania 2000. Everything that made Revenge great made its way to this title, and it was a blast to play as the WWF’s colorful roster. Bells and whistles like create-a-PPV and create-a-belt modes were nice, but gameplay was once again king.
Its story mode was a linear road to Wrestlemania 2000, but the game’s sequel added some new wrinkles to the formula. Each championship received its own storyline, which featured branching paths that were determined by your wins and losses. Winning matches also rewarded you with currency that could be spent at the Smackdown Mall. This virtual store allowed you to unlock characters, attire, new moves, props, venues, and more. Today’s WWE titles are loaded to the brim with features, and WWF No Mercy was one of the first wrestling games to impress in this regard.
Replay fans are most likely familiar with this story, but I’ll tell it again for others. While watching an episode of Smackdown back in high school, I was furious that my local TV station cut into the final 20 minutes for a storm warning in a county miles away from mine. I missed the end of Smackdown, and responded by creating three of the weathermen and anchors from the station in No Mercy. I made a VHS tape out of my gameplay footage, which consisted of Stone Cold Steve Austin beating all of them senseless with a steel chair. I then mailed this tape to the station. I had a lot of free time in high school.
Topping the Nintendo 64 classics wasn’t in the cards for THQ, but they launched a successful new Playstation series called Smackdown. In a few short years, five of these games were released (Smackdown, Know Your Role, Just Bring It, Shut Your Mouth, and Here Comes The Pain). While the first couple of entries featured some flighty controls, the series was fairly refined by the time Here Comes The Pain released in 2003. It was during this period that THQ started to really ramp up the number of creation options, as gamers were able to create a wide variety of ridiculous characters. This first Smackdown series started out a little shaky, but gradually improved over time. Despite this, it never quite captured the magic of the 64 titles.