by Alex Knapp
Power Move Pro Wrestling
The mid 1990s was a lean period indeed, for both wrestling video games and American pro wrestling in general. The WWF had lost its mojo; rocked by a series of steroid trials that hurt their public image, and with most of their major names from the ’80s gone, they were in deep financial and creative doo-doo, and despite possessing a good roster of talent, they seemed to spend much of 1995 going through the motions, resulting in the most boring, forgettable calendar year in their history. WCW was trying to take the opportunity to pull ahead, and would debut WCW Monday Nitro head-to-head against WWF Monday Night Raw in the fall of that year; but they didn’t yet have the content to back it up, and they too were struggling to be relevant. ECW, for their part, was growing a strong underground cult following, revolutionizing the business with a genuinely cutting-edge and exciting product. But they had yet to grow beyond late night syndication, tape trading, and a de-facto regional fanbase in the Northeast, and were nowhere close to the mainstream penetration they would get close to later.
American wrestling was in trouble. And the video games that came out during this time reflected this. The WWF, which had gone from releasing a slew of multi-console titles during the Hulkamania peak years of the late ’80s and early ’90s, had now limited their output to a single game a year. And even then, they could barely be called wrestling games; their most notable title, WWF WrestleMania: The Arcade Game, played less like a grappling experience and more like an over-the-top, cartoonish, wrestling-themed Mortal Kombat.
In these anemic times, gamers needed something to breathe life into the genre and really provide a good onscreen wrestling experience. But for many stateside, it wouldn’t be until The Monday Night Wars and the AKI/THQ games on the Nintendo 64 that this would happen.
Luckily, pro wrestling was still going strong elsewhere. Across the Pacific, Japanese puroresu was presenting the more modernized and athletic form of professional wrestling that fans worldwide would come to expect. And soon enough, wrestling in Japan would also set the coming new standard for wrestling games. It came about on Sony’s brand new console known as the PlayStation, and it came to you made by a humble, newly-founded little company called Yuke’s. Years before Yuke’s rose to fame as the developers of WWE’s flagship SmackDown series, they cut their teeth in wrestling gaming with their very first outing. In Japan, it was known as Toukon Retsuden, the first in a highly popular series of licensed games for New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW), featuring major puroresu stars such as Tatsumi Fujinami, Riki Choshu, Keiji Mutoh, Shinya Hashimoto, Kensuke Sasaki, Jushin “Thunder” Liger, and more. When they ported it for an American release, they changed the roster to fictionalized non-licensed characters, and renamed it Power Move Pro Wrestling.
It was the very first 3D wrestling game ever made. And it’s one of the best wrestling games you’ve probably never played.
Reviewing Power Move Pro Wrestling is a challenge, because we live in a world that this game helped create. Nowadays, of course, just about all video games are 3D, and all of them have voiceovers, a certain standard for animations, and so forth. In comparison to what we’re used to now, Power Move looks limited and boring in comparison. But this attitude doesn’t do justice to how pioneering and forward-thinking this game was. Sure, there were good wrestling games beforehand. But at this point in the ’90s, there weren’t 3D wrestling games, and there weren’t games that really tried to modernize how much the gaming medium could capture the experience of professional wrestling. This game was truly ahead of its time, and set the stage for the modern age of pro wrestling games which would be kick-started by games like the AKI/THQ series. Understanding this, it’s important to approach this game with an open mind, and an appreciation for how it introduced some of the things we now take for granted in wrestling games.
Whereas Toukon Retsuden showcased New Japan, Power Move Pro Wrestling presents its cast of grapplers as members of the fictionalized wrestling promotion of the same name: PPW, complete with a bulldog logo modeled after NJPW’s lion head logo. As you begin the game, you’ll notice that it strongly resembles its eventual 3D wrestling game successors, Virtual Pro Wrestling/WCW vs. The World and WCW vs. nWo World Tour. Much like those games, its game modes have a distinct Japanese flavor to them, featuring exhibition matches, tournaments, a league mode, and the option to embark on a 12-man gauntlet against all the other members of the roster. It also features something nifty: A championship system, where one member of the roster holds the PPW Championship, and you can hold a match to challenge the titlist and, if you win, have the title change hands. Unfortunately, all of these matches are limited to basic singles matches, which makes the game boring from a modern perspective. But there’s still some pretty cool stuff in what we have to work with.
The roster provides a colorful cast of characters with unique and original gimmicks. There’s gung-ho military man Agent Orange, handsome ladies’ man Lance Dewlock (“The guy who gets all the ladies, and some of the men.” The game’s words.), bleached-blonde surfer dude Malibu Mike Swanson, Mexican superstar El Temblor, the mysterious extraterrestrial-like Area 51, deadly prison inmate brawler Chaingang, Middle Eastern heel The Egyptian Conniption (I defy you to tell me a more awesome ring name than that), and more. And yes, each guy has a distinct move set, with everything from grapple moves to strikes tweaked to add a degree of individuality to each wrestler.
You have a decent variety of arena styles to choose from, and also have a lot of flexibility to adjust the camera during the match itself. Once you get to the ring, you are introduced to something that was mind-blowing for its time: An announcer giving a full voiceover intro to the match! Again, this was when speech in video games was a brand new thing, so the fact that it’s pulled off here, and pulled off well, is truly ahead of its time. The announcer’s voice is full of energy and personality, and as he sets the stage for the match and gives colorful introductions to the individual wrestlers, you feel hyped. It works great. The referee calls for the bell (Yes, there is an actual referee in the ring all through the match, in yet another neat show of authenticity), and we’re off.
The graphics are dated by today’s standards, looking like what you saw in the old Virtua Fighter games. But they don’t look bad at all, and what is particularly impressive is how smooth the animations are. And that brings attention to one of the most impressive aspects: The gameplay. It’s crisp, easy, and accessible. As I said before, in many ways, from the match options to the actual in-ring experience, this game strongly resembles WCW vs. The World and WCW vs. nWo World Tour. In terms of how smooth it is to wrestle a match in this game, I’d say it’s actually better than WCW vs. The World, though not quite as good as World Tour.
Each wrestler has his own unique combination of strikes, holds, and grapple moves which he can pull off by either tapping or pressing the appropriate button while the opponent is in different positions. Again, this is very limited by today’s standards, but you have to realize that there was nothing like this in the mid-1990s. The grapplers in this game pull off impressive moves never seen in 3D before, whether it’s a scorpion death lock, tombstone piledriver, hurricanrana, German suplexes, top rope splashes, or any other of the many moves available. Heck, it’s even possible to do a running baseball slide to an opponent who’s outside of the ring! You can also take the fight out of the ring and ram your enemy into the guardrail. But be careful, because PPW does have a certain standard of rules, including disqualifications. Yes, if you lock in an illegal chokehold, or continue holding onto a submission after your opponent gets to the ropes, the referee will give you a five-count to break the hold. If you don’t react quickly and press buttons to get out, you can indeed find yourself disqualified. Rope breaks look a little silly today, because holds have to be broken up even if the attacker is the one who is close to the ropes, but it’s still a great addition that calls for some strategy in the match.
The game also includes a somewhat prototypical version of the Spirit Meter: If you pull off impressive moves or do enough showboating, you can get the crowd chanting your name, giving you more stamina and easier access to some of your most damaging signature moves. On the other hand, if you use repetitive moves, the crowd can start chanting for your opponent. It’s very similar to the crowd support mechanism which would be introduced by Acclaim in WWF War Zone, and it’s another layer of atmosphere and strategy for this game.
The game’s biggest flaw is that, although it can provide for some neat experiences in the ring, it’s somewhat lacking in replay value, as the match selections are limited. That’s not necessarily a knock on the game’s quality, but it is probably the biggest reason why it’s not considered a classic today, a la the AKI/THQ games. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Power Move Pro Wrestling hasn’t aged well, since, by itself, it’s still a good gameplay experience. Instead, it was simply the first innovator of its generation, and the ideas it started provided the basis for other games to improve on it and modernize the standard for wrestling games which it helped introduce. Even Yuke’s themselves would expand far beyond the framework of their first game, and go on to bring us the SmackDown/SmackDown vs. Raw/WWE series that currently are the standard-bearers of mainstream wrestling games.
Nonetheless, I’d say that Power Move Pro Wrestling deserves to be better known. It was a very daring and innovative game that stepped out into the unknown territory of 3D wrestling gaming, and succeeded in bringing us a fun pro wrestling experience. I’d recommend checking it out, if you can. And if you have the means, you can also see if you can find a way to play the original Toukon Retsuden, if you’d prefer a licensed old school 3D puroresu experience. Paradoxically, although this game doesn’t hold up today in some ways, it nonetheless holds up when you consider just how forward-thinking and groundbreaking it was, and how unique and colorful the presentation is. A true pioneer for modern wrestling games, I give Power Move Pro Wrestling a thumbs up.
Rating: 4 stars
Photo 1: gamefaqs.com
Photos 2-4: gamespot.com
Categories: Wrestling Reviews