Wrestling Game StArcade: WCW Nitro

by Alex Knapp

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WCW Nitro
Year: 1997
System: PlayStation
Developer: Inland Productions
Publisher: THQ

When WCW caught on fire after the formation of the New World Order (nWo), it not only pulled the wrestling business as a whole out of the doldrums of the mid-90s. It also heralded a new beginning for wrestling video games. For the past couple of years, the gaming output for the struggling WWF had reduced dramatically, while WCW hadn’t released a new game since WCW SuperBrawl Wrestling on Super Nintendo.

But when 1997 began, that all changed. WCW was on top of the world. WCW Monday Nitro was the hottest, most well-produced wrestling TV show around, the nWo was the talk of fans coast to coast, and every Monday night saw Eric Bischoff’s company spanking Vince McMahon in the ratings. Making money hand over fist, WCW was in the perfect position to kickstart the resurgence in wrestling video games for The Monday Night Wars.

They released their first game of this generation, WCW vs. The World, earlier in the year; that game was fairly well-received, but it didn’t really make a big splash either. Then, WCW came up with their next one. Named after their flagship show, WCW Nitro would be a fast-paced experience which would also truly capture the atmosphere of the show we knew and loved on TNT every Monday night.

When you turn on your PlayStation, the game treats you to a pulse-pounding intro FMV showing major WCW highlights, setting up the mood and awakening your markish passions. When you get to the title screen, you hear that old familiar Nitro theme music, and are greeted by Gene Okerlund’s voice. As you go to the character select screen, you see a decent selection of main eventers and midcarders. On top of that, the available characters each have a “rant” option, where you can play a pre-recorded FMV promo by the wrestler in question, challenging you to step into the ring with them!

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This is all pretty cool! I can’t wait to play the game now! If it’s this atmospheric and engaging just on the title and character select screens, just imagine what it’s like when you actually get to the ring!

So I select my characters, start the match and…

Oh.

Wow.

Never mind.

Yes. It’s true. This game suffers from the dreaded “The Best Parts of the Game Are the Parts Without Gameplay” disease. Once the actual match starts, you’re treated to a slew of crap. Blocky, grainy graphics. Jerky and awkward animations and movements.  And the controls. My God, the controls.

The four basic buttons on the PS1 controller allow you to punch, kick, chop or Irish whip. This means that there is no grapple system, which in turn means that in order to execute larger moves, you need to perform button combos that take up either two, three or four buttons. There is nothing intuitive about figuring out which combos work to make you do the moves; if you’re playing the game for the first time and don’t have the instruction booklet, you had better quickly log onto the Internet to look up the game’s controls, because you will not survive with strike moves alone.

On top of that, you need to execute these moves before your opponent does. You can find yourself pressing the necessary buttons to do a move, only for your opponent to unleash it instead, because you were just a split-second too slow. But in order to be in the proper position to unleash the moves, you have to be close enough to your opponent, which makes you vulnerable. Learning how to play this game can be a frustrating learning curve, because the game doesn’t give you time to get used to the controls or become familiar with the usual button combos; you need to know them and be fast with them, or the AI will quickly gain the upper hand. And all the while, you not only have to quickly press the buttons; you also will need to frequently pause the game and look back and forth between it and the instruction manual, so that you can remind yourself what the buttons combos are. It’s needlessly complicated and annoying.

The movesets are a joke. Every wrestler has roughly the same moveset, including moves like suplexes, slams, powerbombs and piledrivers. Furthermore, this game’s idea of variety is to divide the roster up into heavyweights, who can do power moves like gorilla press slams, and lightweights who can do moves like hurricanranas. But what makes this ridiculous is that, apparently, the game concluded that a “lightweight” is any wrestler smaller than Kevin Nash. Thought you’d never get the chance to see Ric Flair or Randy Savage dish out a Frankensteiner? Well, you’re in luck, because these guys are now honorary luchadors, since they’ve been designated as lightweights! At the very least, each wrestler also has a couple of signature moves, and their finisher, but executing them can be difficult, because they tend to involve four buttons in their combos, so you need to build up a lot of rapid button-pressing experience if you hope to use them.

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As you play through the game, you get used to the timing and the controls. Saying this may be damning with faint praise, but: The game is at least playable, eventually. For your match options, you have the basic one-on-one or tag team exhibitions, as well as a singles tournament for the belt. The tournament is how you unlock the game’s hidden characters; beating through 10 opponents as each individual wrestler allows you to unlock a particular hidden character, and in turn, beating five opponents as one of the unlocked wrestlers allows you to unlock another character.

There’s at least some motivation for replayability here, but actually playing through the matches gets to be a tedious process. Because of the redundant movesets described previously, there’s little to no variety in the matches. All you need to do to win is stay on your opponent and beat them until their life bar depletes enough, so the easiest thing to do is to repeatedly use a few moves which you become used to through frequent use and which have button combos which are easy to memorize (like powerbombs and piledrivers). But this makes for monotonous matches that frequently all look the same, and if you want to add what little bit of in-ring variety the game spares, you have to go back and look up move combos all over again. There is very little opportunity to have an interesting match in this game, nor is there motivation to. Combine that with the game’s clunky animations, and it makes for an ugly, dull in-ring product.

Once you do complete a tournament, you are treated to a highlight reel FMV for the wrestler you just won as. It’s fun to see the old WCW footage, but once again, it just proves the point about this game’s central flaw: The best parts are the ones without any actual gameplay.

WCW Nitro may not be the worst wrestling game ever made, but in terms of the in-ring experience it offers, it’s just plain boring and tedious. It’s a lot of shine, with very little substance, and when WCW vs. nWo World Tour came out toward the end of the year, this game was rightfully swept to the wayside. It can be fun to replay it for the nostalgia and atmosphere, but as an actual game, it’s a weak, forgettable outing.

Rating: 2 stars

Photo Credits:

Photo 1: en.wikipedia.org

Photo 2: gamester81.com

Photo 3: mobygames.com



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