by Alex Knapp
System: Nintendo Entertainment System
By the latter half of the 1980s, the World Wrestling Federation (WWF) was the unquestioned king of pro wrestling. Vince McMahon’s ambitious growth had seen the fed lay waste to the territorial promotions of old, neuter the AWA, and eventually defeat the one promotion that could compete with them nationally, Jim Crockett Promotions (JCP). The era of Hulkamania and the Rock ‘n’ Wrestling Connection was in full swing, wrestlers were appearing on MTV, and WrestleMania III had recently generated unbelievable attendance and buyrate numbers, as millions of paying fans witnessed Hulk Hogan slamming Andre The Giant (all 7,000 pounds of him, brother!).
A central component of the WWF’s success was its ability to ride the waves of the evolutions in media going on at the time. The developments of cable television and pay-per-view were instrumental to the WWF becoming a household name. Now, they were turning their attention to another young new form of media: Video games. And thus, the very first licensed wrestling game for the home consoles was created, WWF WrestleMania for the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES).
And my God, did it SUCK.
Part of me wants to excuse the enormous shortcomings this game has. After all, wrestling games were still new and untested back then, and a lot of game developers were going through unexplored territory. But then I actually play the game, and I am baffled as to how Rare and Acclaim concluded that they were creating a remotely enjoyable, or even playable, video game.
The game features six wrestlers: Hulk Hogan, Andre The Giant, “Macho Man” Randy Savage, “The Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase, Honky Tonk Man and Bam Bam Bigelow. You get the options of a regular one-on-one match, or beginning a tournament for the title against the five other opponents. To add to the presentation, each wrestler is accompanied by 8-bit renditions of their theme music. Hulk Hogan has “Real American,” Randy Savage has “Pomp and Circumstance,” and Andre has…“Stand Back?”
Ooooooooookay then. Anyway, once the game starts, you quickly see one of the biggest problems with the game. It’s hard to describe, but the ring is viewed from a strange sort of directly-straight side view, while the wrestlers walk straight up and down and to the side as if from an overhead view. Mind-bending as the physics are, it also makes for a very strange and awkward game engine, because the movements are so linear and jerky that it’s hard to get in the proper position to face the opponent. The animation is laughable; although it is technically possible to move diagonally, the wrestlers can only face 90 degree angles, either straight up, down, left, or right, as they waddle around the ring like toddlers who need their diapers changed. It’s impossible to take seriously.
On top of that, it begs the question: Why would I ever want to turn and walk away from my opponent in a wrestling game!? Fundamentally, every wrestling game before or since this one have always kept the player-controlled wrestler automatically facing toward the opponent at all times. It’s the most basic idea of this game genre: You always want to be facing toward the opponent so that you can be in a good position to either maintain offense or go on the defensive. Pro Wrestling for the NES managed to get this fundamental aspect right. And yet in this game, if you want to put some distance between you and your opponent, you literally have to turn tail and waddle away with your back to the other guy, leaving you open to attack from behind, and creating a needlessly cumbersome gameplay system.
Match participants each have an energy bar to mark whether they’re about to be ready for a 3 count. However, this presents one of the game’s most ridiculous aspects: When the game says “energy,” it literally means “energy.” Your meter can be drained not only by getting hit, but also by missing moves in your attempts to attack your opponent. This wouldn’t be so much of a problem, if it weren’t for the fact that it is often really freakin’ difficult to find the right position to be able to hit your opponent; if you’re awkwardly pushing just a teensy bit above/below your opponent, thinking that you’ll be able to land a punch or a kick on them, you could find yourself inadvertently losing the match, as every time you swing at air in a vain attempt to actually land an attack, you’re draining your own power. You can quickly find yourself eventually defeated and pinned all because you tuckered yourself out by missing attacks. Can you imagine something like this playing out in a real wrestling match? A wrestler getting pinned and losing because he got too tired from swinging and missing their punches and kicks? It sounds like a surreal CHIKARA gimmick, and yet, it’s par for the course in WWF WrestleMania.
The controls make me want to go on an Angry Video Game Nerd-like profanity-filled rant. The game suffers from what I call Acclaim Syndrome: The AI opponents have impossibly superhuman reflexes and are able to execute their moves in the blink of an eye, as opposed to your own limitations within a human being’s reaction time. Wrestler movesets are individualized to an extent: Some are able to do bodyslams, while others aren’t (and, in an admittedly clever touch, Hogan is the only one who can bodyslam Andre), some can do turnbuckle moves, etc. And yet carrying out these more advanced moves is often more trouble than it’s worth. To do a bodyslam, you need to press A and B at the same time, which sounds simple in theory, but the game is annoyingly picky about the timing. Even then, you can’t pull it off if your energy meter is too low, and as I said previously, your meter can get low for some stupidly arbitrary reasons.
But this doesn’t compare to how irritating it is to do turnbuckle moves; you’d think that climbing the turnbuckle would be as simple as walking right to it, maybe pressing the B button at the same time, right? Wrong. To get on top of the turnbuckle, you have to go to the very bottom of the screen and run toward it (or more accurately, do a fast waddle towards it), and then with perfect timing, press B at the turnbuckle to climb on it. Why make it so convoluted!? I don’t care that game developers didn’t have much experience with wrestling games at the time; why would your first instinct be to program turnbuckle moves in such a non-intuitive way!? By the time you figure out how to get the timing just right to get on the turnbuckle, your opponent will probably have gotten up and moved out of the way anyway, so it’s almost entirely pointless to go for these moves.
The icing on the cake is undoubtedly pinning. Remember when I said that movesets were somewhat individualized? Well, for some asinine reason, this includes how you execute pinfalls. Yes, different wrestlers have slightly different button combinations for pinning opponents. Once again, like with the turnbuckle example, they took one of the most basic, straightforward components of a wrestling game, and made it pointlessly complicated. On top of that, the timing is touchy, and I would sometimes find myself running to a time limit draw in a match, all for the sole reason that I couldn’t figure out how to pin my opponent once I had depleted his energy meter; he’d be down for the count, and yet, because I couldn’t get the button combo just right and hit the B button and the right D-pad direction at just the right time, he’d recover and turn the tide of the match. Absolutely, completely asinine.
What an embarrassing first outing on the consoles for the WWF. The definitive American wrestling promotion of our time, the company that penetrated the mainstream, made pro wrestling cool, and gave us countless childhood memories, and their first representation on the wonderful medium of video games is this near-unplayable crap. As the AVGN would say: What were they thinking!!!???? There are so many mistakes and wrong-headed programming decisions in the game, when even before it was made, there were examples (namely, once again, Pro Wrestling) of games which offered simple, straightforward control schemes and mechanisms. Terrible. Sadly, it would be a while before the WWF was done justice in the video game world; the only consolation is that, considering that WWF WrestleMania was what they were working from, there was nowhere to go but up.
Rating: 1 star
Photo 1: en.wikipedia.org
Photo 2: consoleclassix.com
Photos 3-4: casualgaming.bmoviefilmvault.com
Categories: Wrestling Reviews