by Alex Knapp
System: PlayStation and Nintendo 64
Developers: Electronic Arts, Kodiak Interactive
Publisher: Electronic Arts
In retrospect, WCW Mayhem is a pretty fascinating game.
The Monday Night Wars had turned decisively in the WWF’s favor at this point. The Attitude Era had brought Vince McMahon back into mainstream dominance, regaining the Monday night ratings lead, doing phenomenal business, and causing many of the disenfranchised undercard talents of WCW to jump ship.
Over at the once-hot, now-not WCW, Eric Bischoff was taking this turn of events about as well as you’d expect. Which is to say, he was freaking out. Yes, the man who had once turned WCW into a juggernaut was now becoming completely unglued, as he watched WCW’s stale, plodding product fail to keep up with the WWF’s raunchy, fast-paced, yet captivating onscreen presentation. This led him to the only logical conclusion: Instead of, say, improving the actual wrestling on the show, pushing young and fresh talent to the main event, and making the promotion more financially efficient, he came up with a better idea. Surely, he concluded, the solution to WCW’s woes would instead be to waste even more obscene amounts of Ted Turner’s money on such necessities as rock concerts, helicopter cameras, and a now-irrelevant Dennis Rodman! Meanwhile, he’d put the actual wrestling in the capable booking hands of his good buddy, Kevin Nash, who would go on to continue to push the old, geriatric main eventers, while the undercard continued to spin its wheels. Shockingly, this brilliant strategy failed to right the ship.
As all this was going on, AKI and THQ, creators of the highly successful WCW games for the N64, saw the way the wind was blowing and courted the WWF to make video games for them. WCW, not wanting to share game developers with the competitor who was now embarrassing them in the ratings every Monday night, turned to gaming giant Electronic Arts instead.
And so, WCW games went in a different direction. And the first product of that direction would be WCW Mayhem. And…wow. This game is certainly…something.
In terms of content and details, Mayhem certainly comes out swinging. WCW’s infamously ginormous roster is on full display: The game not only includes main eventers like Bill Goldberg, Sting, Hollywood Hulk Hogan, Kevin Nash, Diamond Dallas Page, and Randy Savage. Not only are there well known cruiserweights like a (now-unmasked. How’d that work out for you, WCW?) Rey Mysterio, Eddie Guerrero, Juventud Guerrera, and Psychosis, or hardcore brawlers like Raven, Saturn, and Kanyon. This game saw fit to go all the way and include some of WCW’s most memorable curtain jerkers, such as Prince Iaukea, Bobby Eaton, and Bobby Blaze! Two of whom I just mentioned are actually unlockable (more on this later) wrestlers!
Oh, and incidentally, the game’s characters were out-of-date by the time this game came out in August of 1999; they capture the immediate post-Fingerpoke of Doom makeup of the promotion, with Hogan and Nash leading NWO Wolfpac together, while those left behind in NWO Black & White was being led by such illustrious names as Stevie Ray and Horace Hogan. Plus, Steve “Mongo” McMichael is still in The Four Horsemen! Are you excited yet?
There’s certainly no shortage of venues to choose from: every single one of WCW’s monthly pay-per-views are available as arenas, along with WCW Monday Nitro, WCW Thunder, and even freakin’ WCW Saturday Night. Match options are pretty decent: singles, tag, triangle, four-way,etc., and singles matches can be fought with the rules in place, falls count anywhere, or under Raven’s Rules (i.e. no rules). Only the singles matches have this option, which is disappointing: I guess the game couldn’t handle hardcore matches with three or four participants. Still it’s quite a lot, I’ll give it that. It’s not quite as stacked as other games of that era: WWF Attitude, for example, had a greater variety of match stipulation options. But it’s interesting.
So you hit the ring, hear “Mean” Gene Okerlund make the introductions, the wrestlers come out and…
Geez Louise. I’ve criticized the WWF Acclaim games, like WWF War Zone and Attitude, for having awkward, clunky character animations. But Mayhem makes the Acclaim games look like the newest WWE 2K game on the current-gen consoles in comparison! The animation in this game is butt-ugly. Movement is slow and plodding, strikes swing wildly and miss quite often, the speed of the wrestling moves goes awkwardly from glacially slow to lightning-quick, and for whatever reason, every single wrestler stands with this weird posture where there arms are sticking out down and straight in front of them. When you get in a tie up, it doesn’t get much better: the controls are easy enough, but movesets are painfully limited, and matches quickly become repetitive. The graphics aren’t hideous, but aren’t breathtaking, either, and on top of that, graphical glitches pop up every now and then, such as when I jump to the outside on the other side of the ring, and yet can see my wrestler clearly through the entire ring apron.
On paper, the actual mechanics of the match are pretty good: you have a “Momentum Meter” which increases or decreases depending on whether or not you are able to maintain the offensive. If you can keep up a streak of strong offense, you’ll build up your meter to the point where it flashes, at which point you’ll be able to execute your finisher. It’s a good concept, and one which has the potential to lend itself to some good back-and-forth matches. The problem, however, is that, in my experience, the AI in the game tends to be pretty easy to beat; matches on Medium difficulty still see me squashing my opponent, and I’d have to go on Hard difficulty to get something even remotely resembling a challenge, so this potential for seesaw matches isn’t fully lived up to.
It’s bizarre. It’s like this game is consciously doing a 180 away from what the previous WCW flagship games were like. WCW/NWO Revenge eschewed shiny bells-and-whistles like theme music and commentary, and instead focused on the actual wrestling, creating good-looking renditions, smooth animations, and easy access to a wide variety of impressive wrestling maneuvers.
Mayhem, meanwhile, shifted to the opposite extreme: They throw in a buttload of presentation. Theme music is included, although it’s restricted: Top guys like Goldberg, Sting, the NWO, the Horsemen, and DDP all get their actual themes, while everyone else gets the same generic stock music (as if the audience didn’t get enough messages that the WCW undercard were afterthoughts). The game features a moderately impressive create-a-wrestler system. Commentary is also included: the PlayStation version of the game features commentary from Tony Schiavone and Bobby Heenan, while on the N64 version, Schiavone flies it solo. The commentary isn’t terrible, but to borrow a phrase from Tony himself, doesn’t exactly show “flashes of brilliance” either (yes, he actually uses that phrase in the game). And, in true WCW “corporate TV show first; wrestling promotion second” fashion, Schiavone plugs Electronic Arts itself in the commentary, which, ironically, is a very authentically WCW gesture.
In all fairness, there’s also one area where, undeniably, this game does make a strong innovation. WCW Mayhem was, in fact, the very first game to feature backstage brawls. If your hardcore matches spill out of the ring, you can proceed to up the ante, head up the entryway, and find yourself in such backstage locations as the locker room, the bathroom, the ticket office, or the loading dock. You’ll find weapons aplenty in the back, including chairs, bats, cookie sheets, and even a taser(!) for your brawling pleasure. This, I will admit, is a pretty unique addition which works in the game’s favor. In 1999, video games hadn’t quite caught up with the increasing presence of hardcore wrestling in American pro wrestling, first in ECW, and then the WWF and, finally WCW. WWF games like War Zone and Attitude did feature weapons, but Mayhem actually made an attempt to allow gamers to create full-blown hardcore insanity. To give credit where credit is due, this is an impressive first step which helps this game stand out.
And yet, despite all this stuff…the actual wrestling in this wrestling game isn’t very good.
It’s kind of a similar situation as what would happen with the TNA Impact! video game years later: A big pile of spice, sitting on a bland, undercooked steak. The movesets in this game are still limited and poorly animated, and the matches are still repetitive, uninspired, and not very challenging. Like I said, it’s almost a complete reversal from the modest presentation, yet superior wrestling content of WCW/NWO Revenge. Unfortunately, this shift does not do the game many favors.
The game also features a campaign mode called Quest for the Best. In it, you pick your wrestler and fight your way up from the WCW Television Championship ranks to the WCW United States Championship ranks up to the WCW World Heavyweight Championship by beating all of your opponents and…actually, that’s pretty much it. Not very exciting. Doing this is your key to unlocking the game’s hidden wrestlers. But the choices for hidden wrestlers in this game are pretty perplexing. Some of them include big names like Ric Flair or Scott Hall. But you also have to work to unlock such illustrious names as…Bobby Eaton and Sgt. Buddy Lee Parker. There’s also Chris Jericho, who, by the time this game was out, had jumped to the WWF without looking back in one of the most high profile wrestling defections of the year. Oh, and you can also unlock non-wrestlers such as Eric Bischoff, Sonny Onoo, “Mean” Gene Okerlund, and, drumroll please…Doug Dillinger!
As an added dose of absurdity, all of the non-wrestlers have been given luchador-like movesets. So if you’ve ever dreamed of seeing Mean Gene pull off a sick 450 splash, this is the game for you!
Finally, there’s a menu called PPV Passwords. You can enter your cheat codes here. And yes, this does include a code to unlock all of the hidden wrestlers. Yes, that does basically render Quest for the Best entirely pointless, thanks for asking. On top of that, though, it’s called “PPV Passwords” for a reason: If you enter certain complicated, case-sensitive passwords, you can play in recreations of genuine historical WCW pay-per-view events, with four matches representing a card of a real-life pay-per-view. The menu includes a message telling you to check EA and WCW’s websites for the latest passwords, the first time I can remember a wrestling game incorporating the Internet to such a degree. I looked a few codes up on gamefaqs.com and managed to put in a few. And folks…if this game weren’t peculiar enough already, this is where things get even weirder.
You see, most of the pay-per-views are historical. For example, there’s WCW Halloween Havoc 1998 (no Hogan vs. The Warrior, unfortunately!) and WCW Bash at the Beach 1998. They mostly have the same matches that were at those events, but not always: For example, Bash at the Beach 1998 has a Juventud Guerrera vs. Alex Wright match, despite the fact that at the actual event, Guerrera faced off with Billy Kidman (who is also on this game’s roster). Guess they’re just undercarders, so who cares, right?
Then, when I put in another code, I got a surprise: Disco Inferno vs. Lash LeRoux? Eddie Guerrero vs. Saturn? Lex Luger vs. Bret Hart? Hulk Hogan vs. Sting? Folks, this is the card of WCW Halloween Havoc 1999. An event which happened a couple of months after this game’s release, when Bischoff was put out to pasture and Vince Russo was brought in to save the day.
Yes, WCW Mayhem allows you to play PPVs that happened after the game’s release. What makes this especially funky is that the game is depicting future events, despite the fact that the wrestlers’ gimmicks are stuck in the stasis that they were in when this game was made (Hulk Hogan was back in the red and yellow around WCW Halloween Havoc 1999, and Luger had changed his name to simply The Total Package. Oh, 1999 WCW, you were so adorable).
If that weren’t enough, there are codes online that, when inputted, pull up WCW events even further into the future! There are ones for numerous pay-per-views from the year 2000, and I managed to find one for WCW SuperBrawl Revenge (from February 2001). In the cherry on top, there is, indeed a code for a Nitro event which includes Booker T. vs. Scott Steiner for both the United States and World titles, and main evented by Sting vs. Flair. Yes, in this WCW game from 1999, it is possible to play the final episode of Monday Nitro from March 2001.
I am genuinely curious as to what went on to make this possible. Was there someone at EA and/or WCW who was dutifully publishing PPV codes for this game all the way to the bitter end, right up until Shane McMahon walked into the Nitro ring? Did fans who bought this game really devote unfathomable amounts of spare time to cracking the code that would make it possible to recreate the glory days of 2000 WCW? Were these codes pre-programmed into the game from the beginning, thereby subtly revealing to the world that The Illuminati had prophesized and pre-planned the demise of World Championship Wrestling?
I told you this was a fascinating game in retrospect.
Unfortunately, this does not necessarily make WCW Mayhem a good game. In a way, it’s a very good representation of WCW at this time: They were out of ideas and trying desperately to find a way to recapture that buzz they had in their glory days, and in order to do so, they were throwing everything at the wall to see if it stuck. Onscreen, it was rock concerts, a half-hearted attempt at a hardcore division, and hotshotting the title belts, while on the consoles, it was commentary, Internet gimmicks, and backstage brawling. In neither situation did it seem to occur to either Eric Bischoff or EA that their wrestling product might well have been improved if they focused on, shock of shocks, wrestling. It’s a fitting example of the ass-backward priorities WCW had at the time, devoting countless time and energy to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, without doing anything to try to plug the holes by fixing the problems they had with fundamentals. Mayhem is far from the worst game ever made; it’s playable, has its distinctive aspects, and I kept coming back to play it as a kid, so it couldn’t have been all bad. But as a wrestling game, it has a week hand to play, and is another game that leaves me asking, “Where’s the beef?”
But hey, you can’t be too harsh on this game, right? After all, it was EA’s first WCW game, and nobody’s perfect on their first try. Maybe the year after, they’d give us something a little more toned-down, more polished, more wrestling-focused, more…
Rating: 2.5 Stars
Photo 1, 4: gamefaqs.com
Photo 2: savesurge.org
Photo 3: lukiegames.com
Categories: Wrestling Reviews