It’s WrestleMania weekend. What better time to look back at every wrestling game I’ve ever played.
I started watching wrestling right when WWF began skewing their product to kids my age. Cartoony super heroes like the Ultimate Warrior filled the Saturday morning tv slots alongside actual cartoons (that contained far less steroids).
Speaking of golden ages, I also acquired my first game console, the NES, at the same time. Growing up with these two forces in my life, the odds were against me. But here I am, writing about it today, a survivor of an incredible leisure time.
Pro Wrestling was a remarkable achievement for 1986. It captured realistic details like the ref running to make the count, a camera-man outside, and two commentators (silently) calling the action above. Ambitious when you consider how much memory each sprite consumes on a limited NES cartridge.
It was challenging as heck, but features smooth animations and a passion for the sport it was simulating. It made every other WWF game on the NES look like a huge step back.
Impressively, it was programmed by just one man, Masato Masuda, who eventually went on to work on the critically acclaimed Fire Pro Wrestling franchise.
WWF Wrestlemania Challenge
It featured licensed WWF stars and a limited 3vs3 Survivor Series mode, but the mechanics were clunky and it felt more like a fighting game. The biggest challenge of any wrestling game is designing a fun test of skills. AKI and Human are the only two that fully succeeded in my opinion. Without a rock paper scissors or timing mechanic it becomes a random that’s too far away from actual (fake) wrestling.
The sprites were getting bigger and the moves more complex, but the grapple system was too vague. Wrestlers locked up but how you won was a mystery to me. I felt like I figured out the mysterious timing, but I couldn’t prove it in a court of law.
Although I grew up thinking the Genesis version was inferior (a complex Sega owners know all too well) I just learned today that only the Sega version had signature moves for every wrestler. Suck on that SNES and your incredible roster of JRPGs and Mario!
Back when the arcades were much more powerful than home consoles, this game felt larger than life. A massive roster of golden-age stars animated in a suitable cartoonish fashion, and a chaotic Royal Rumble mode that felt like the real thing.
The move-set was simple, but the grapple animations at least let you know who was winning the test of strength, and also allowed you to move the grapple loser around to a better position.
The signature moves looked great and the ability to pile multiple wrestlers for a doggy-pile pin was a fun touch.
Very shallow, but extremely fun. The perfect arcade experience.
A much-improved version of Super WrestleMania, Royal Rumble bumped up the visuals and added a progress bar showing who was winning the grapple. But the biggest addition was a Royal Rumble mode that boasted 6 wrestlers in the ring simultaneously. The mechanics to eliminate a wrestler felt fair and the ability to perform illegal moves in the Rumble or when a ref was knocked out was an accurate detail.
The modes and look were there, but pressing buttons faster than your friend got old quick.
A fine sequel that added a few unique moves for bigger/smaller wrestlers, as well as zany megamoves.
WWF Wrestlemania: The Arcade Game
The success of Mortal Kombat and NBA Jam led to this wacky game featuring digitized versions of real-life wrestlers, huge combos, and zany shenanigans. Again, it was a decent arcade game worth popping a quarter into for cheap thrills.
Super Fire Pro Wrestling X Premium
Discovering the world of emulation and games from other regions opened us up to this gem. Super Fire Pro took wrestling very seriously. The grapple mechanic was based purely on frame-perfect timing, and the smallest details were accurately represented. Although the grapple mechanic was miles ahead of other game’s button-mashing, it still prevented the match from gaining momentum as every grapple could go either way. And if you were better at the grapple, you won. For hardcore fans, there was nothing better at the time.
There’s a great PS2 version titled Fire Pro Returns that’s also available on PSN via PS3. PS4 and PC owners can look forward to Fire Pro Wrestling World coming to early access this year.
A random booking simulator
Exploring more of the internet, I eventually found a text-only booking simulator. Signing wrestlers, creating PPVs, and reading the match results was one of the reasons I didn’t get into drinking and drugs at a young age.
The N64 had the best games of this generation, but Warzone provided an adequately entertaining slice of wrestling fun. The models looked more realistic than AKI’s, but the collision detection was slippery at best. Frantic 4-way battles, smashing televisions on each other, and a deep create-a-wrestler made up for the weak mechanics.
WCW vs the World / World Tour
AKI was finding their footing with these two. The systems were mostly there but lacked the finishing touches and battle royal modes that would make the later games the best in the biz. A nice start, but not worth going back to now.
It didn’t have the create-a-wrestler, story mode, or destructible tables of the later games, but the roster and frame rate made this my favorite of the bunch. WCW was at their peak and featured a lineup of aging ex-WWF stars, the red-hot NWO, young WCW talent, and quality Luchadores. They even included copyright-friendly versions of famous Japanese wrestlers under the fake umbrellas of EWF and DAW.
WWF Wrestlemania 2000
The sequel flipped over to the WWF license just in time for WCW’s demise and McMahons’s attitude era to take over. Although I liked the top talents like Rock, Austin, Michaels, and Undertaker, I found the lower-card lacking. Who wants to play as Chaz when they could be AKI man?
The storyline mode and create a wrestler were the two biggest additions.
WWF No Mercy
The introduction of tables, ladders, and backstage fighting felt like AKI finally covered every aspect of the sport. The frame rate was a big problem during 4-wrestler matches, dropping to a sluggish speed. This could be mostly fixed by turning off the background music, but was an odd issue considering it didn’t exist on the two previous games using the same engine.
WCW Nitro and Thunder
Dear lord did this games blow. The wrestlers were stuck on a 2D track, the grappling system was non-existent, and the entire experience was a life-less mess. Like many terrible PS1 games, this terrible two-some had FMV, 3D models, and nothing else. Avoid at all costs.
Royal Rumble (Dreamcast)
9 wrestlers in the ring at once was impressive, but the limited nature of this arcade-port shocked gamers at the time. Two modes, and shallow gameplay was hardly enough for a fun rental, let alone a purchase.
Like the dreamcast, it was an impressive concept with poor timing and execution.
This series gets a lot of love from fans, but I couldn’t get into them. Being a teenager during the attitude era and AKI N64 games was hard to compete with, and perhaps I simply aged out of it by the time Yuke’s came along. I haven’t met a grappling system I’ve liked since WWF No Mercy, but would love to be proved wrong one of these days.
WWE Legends / All Stars
These games ditched the simulation and embraced the over-the-top aspects of the sport. Although they weren’t my favorites they went much deeper than the arcade versions and carved out a niche of their own.
I’ve dabbled with Yuke’s current-gen games but haven’t found much to hang my one-piece wrestling leotard on. The graphics get a little smoother (mostly Triple H’s, except for that god-awful squid hair), but the mechanics never draw me in like AKI did so many years ago. It feels like the actual wrestling is a low-priority, designed after the modes and graphics have been polished to a marketable shine. But gameplay will always be king of my ring.
Let me know if you have any favs that should be mentioned, especially if there’s a Yuke’s game I should be checking out.