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The "squared circle" of wrestling has been the focal point of many games over the last 20 years. From 8-bit simplicity all the way to next-generation visuals, wrestling games have been good and bad - sometimes even innovative. Some titles released on the consoles of yesteryear still hold up, and fans are begging for certain classic styles and features to be integrated into upcoming releases. Wrestling games have been around for a long time on almost every console, and there's no end in sight. Let's take a look back on the highlights (and lowlights) of wrestling videogame history.
8-bit Era: Ready to Rumble?
The early days of wrestling games were pretty slim pickings, but what was there was still mildly entertaining, based on the standards of the period. Licensed games from the WWF (now WWE) were not quite as dominant as they are now, so there were plenty of random games from Japanese companies, such as Tecmo, that featured bizarre characters and some campy design choices.
While other titles are likely to be remembered more, Tag Team Wrestling had the distinction of being the first title to put the squared circle into focus on the NES. Giving the player a limited choice of wrestlers, this title allowed for some very basic strikes and grapples. The animations took place in a South Park style, as you had a wrestler pick up and slam an opponent in about two frames. Additionally, Tag Team Wrestling featured a Tag Team mode and some outside-the-ring battling, which were memorable elements. Visually, the game looked a lot like many other releases that would come out for the NES, but the colors were on the garish side.
With Tag Team Wrestling acknowledged, it can be said that Pro Wrestling was the first substantial wrestling release from Nintendo on the NES. This release featured the bare bones of the wrestling experience, providing players with a ring, two combatants and a basic set of moves. The Japanese influence showed in the colorful character names within, such as Starman, Amazon (a lizard creature), Fighter Hayabusa and King Slender. The action was stilted and simple, but at the time it showed some spirit with its goofy music (think Ice Hockey on the NES), some occasional crowd noise and in-ring referee. The game allowed for some fairly basic strikes, with the roundhouse kick being particularly cheap, as it allowed for constant knockdowns (the primitive AI knew how to exploit this). Still, there were some random moves thrown in for good measure, such as a Mexican Lucha Libra-inspired plancha to the outside of the ring (a diving body attack). Pro Wrestling is still remembered fondly by many, deservedly or otherwise.
Nintendo wasn't the only company getting in on the wrestling game market during this time, to be sure. Tecmo's release of Tecmo World Wrestling added some depth to the 8-bit wrestling scene, as it introduced a slightly more complicated move list, and it also added some text commentary from a goofy announcer - "around and 'round he goes!" The grappling mechanic wasn't highly functional, but reversals were included, making the action somewhat unpredictable. Another aspect was the goofy training session that a female assistant encouraged you through if you lost - "Go get 'em, big boy!" Button mashing your way through sit-ups or push-ups would increase your wrestler's power and help deal with the upcoming fights.
It would be an oversight to omit the leader in wrestling titles - and the leader in the wrestling world (by default, at the time) - the WWE/F. The 1988 release of WWF WrestleMania marked the first true release of a licensed wrestling product for home consoles. Featuring the likes of Andre the Giant, Hulk Hogan, the Honkey Tonk Man, and "The Million Dollar Man" Ted DiBiase, WWF WrestleMania injected a bit a of well-known personality into the 8-bit wrestling scene. Each character had some basic clothing and headgear that made them recognizable (as much as a blocky sprite can look recognizable), and they could pick up little emblems bouncing around the ring in order to regain energy. The moves were pretty basic, but there were some throws, strikes and clotheslines thrown in. There was a pretty cool WWF World Heavyweight Championship title tournament that allowed eight people to play against each other (in alternating fashion), and this provided some fun gaming back in the day. The WWF made its impact on the 8-bit scene, immediately.
Detour to the Arcade
Before moving onto the 16-bit titles, it would be a serious oversight to not mention the high-quality release of WWF WrestleFest in the arcades of the early '90s. Not only did this game feature some phenomenal graphics for the time, but it also had some great gameplay that was highlighted by a fun grappling system. When locking up with an opponent, you could bridge into various situations including slams, suplexes, submissions, punching contests, and all sorts of memorable scenarios. There was also a steel cage match included, and this allowed for some great head bashing against the metal walls; the look of the match was very accurate to the real-life gimmick, as well. The Royal Rumble mode in this game was a first for wrestling games, and it was great to see six players on the screen vying for control. This was an arcade title that had legs, as it encouraged the player to constantly put in quarters to "power up" and continue their game. This cabinet title showed up in many parlors in many locations, and you can still find it in the odd place to this day.
16-bit Era: Double Team
The generation of the Super Nintendo and SEGA Genesis doubled up pretty much everything in wrestling games: double the grapplers, double the moves, double the modes and double the personality. With games of this time period, wrestlers were much more detailed, and they animated to a level that was a lot more believable than had been seen before. In the WWF, there was the introduction of new characters like the Undertaker, Shawn Michaels, "Razor" Ramon, and the Ultimate Warrior; each of these new personas was a reflection of wrestling at the time, as the cartoon era for sports entertainment was just getting into full swing. New moves were added into the mix of wrestling titles, including trademark "finishers" that were associated with various stars. Modes like the Royal Rumble, Tag Team Matches, Elimination Tournaments and many others were added into the list of options that a user could play. Finally, the "attitude" of wrestling was starting to come around, and it was readily apparent in the WWF product, but also in the always-popular Japanese wrestling scene. This new edge to wrestling created some memorable games from this era.
It is fitting that the first game out of the shoot for the SNES and the Genesis was WWF Super WrestleMania, a title that heavily upgraded the 8-bit source of inspiration. The game was an obvious improvement over the NES predecessor, and it featured some new stars such as Earthquake and Typhoon. Another notable feature about this title was its introduction of executing moves off the top rope, something that hadn't really been explored in wrestling games up to this point. WWF Super WrestleMania didn't allow for as many moves as subsequent game would, but your grappler could hit various suplexes and slams, as well as some varied running and strike attacks.
The following year, 1993, the SNES and Genesis both published a follow-up to WWF Super WrestleMania entitled WWF Royal Rumble. This game was memorable for several reasons, namely for its inclusion of the Royal Rumble match, the addition of wrestler-specific finishing moves, and a handy steel chair at ringside that made the proceedings all the more chaotic. The SNES and Genesis versions differed somewhat visually, and there were some notable roster discrepancies (SNES had Ric Flair and Yokozuna, Genesis had I.R.S. and Papa Shango... good old early '90s characters). The "Rumble" was quite entertaining for the time (and remains so even today), especially since six wrestlers could crowd onto the screen at once. The ways in which you could eject an adversary over the ropes were limited, but it was still cool to see half of a dozen wrestlers slugging it out. Finishing moves were also part of the action, and they allowed wrestlers like the Undertaker to finish off an opponent with the "Tombstone Piledriver."
At this point, there was a bit of a "malfunction at the junction" as the WWF took a couple of years off, but this left the door open for a very random - yet inspired - wrestling title from Capcom: Saturday Night Slam Masters. Since Capcom was behind the wheel for this one, there was a good deal of influence from some of their previous work like Street Fighter 2 and Final Fight. Regardless of its influence, Saturday Night Slam Masters provided a unique mix of gameplay that was part grappler and part fighter. Also of note in this title was the use of spectacular entrances for the wrestlers; each character came into the ring with lots of lights, lasers and fanfare that really made the stadium seem alive. The suplexes that wrestlers could execute were quite devastating and many of them could be bridged into pinning situations. For a game that basically had no license, Saturday Night Slam Masters managed to leave a mark on the videogame-wrestling scene in 1993.
The WCW had been around long before 1994, but the first game to really exploit the company's development of the early '90s was WCW Superbrawl Wrestling. There was a respectable amount of licensed WCW talent populating the roster including Ric Flair, Vader, Sting and the Steiner Brothers. Unfortunately, these entertaining characters of wrestling's history couldn't save the sloppy animation and gameplay design of this title. The stilted and uninspired way in which the characters moved and the general lack of personality to the game experience was readily apparent; the personality and presentation of a game like Saturday Night Slam Masters really shames WCW Superbrawl Wrestling. WCW-themed wrestling games would improve upon the release of the Nintendo 64, but that wouldn't be for a few years.
With that interlude out of the way, the WWF took center stage again in 1994. With the release of WWF Raw, the 16-bit wrestling formula from Vince McMahon's company was improved with an updated roster, more supplementary moves, a few new weapons, and some additional game modes. WWF Raw had a good feel to it and this was clearly evident in some of the tag-team action where you could have "bedlam" matches with four grapplers in the ring at once. This title also introduced some cartoonish moves, as certain wrestlers like Doink the Clown and the late, great Owen Hart could perform goofy spins and exaggerated strikes. None of these moves added much to the gameplay (and they were hard to pull off), but they added to the hyper-real nature of the game.
Japanese-developed wrestling titles can't be ignored, and 1994's release of Natsume Championship Wrestling was certainly influenced by the eastern style. The characters were all stock archetypes (big man, small tactician, mid-sized fighter) and each of them specialized in tactics that would weaken opponents in different styles. The game modes were fairly basic, just single and tag options, but the action was high impact and very "Japanese," as the crowd would progressively get more involved in the match, with close pinning predicaments getting frenzied reactions - very accurate, here. The moveset was not as deep as some WWF offerings, but did the job, nonetheless.
One of the last releases in the 16-bit era was the multiplatform release of WWF WrestleMania: The Arcade Game. This was certainly a wacky idea for a wrestling game, as it combined WWF style and characters with the combo and projectile-based fighting aspects of Mortal Kombat (even the menu was akin to MK games). The sight of the Undertaker chucking demonic magic at people or Razor Ramon smacking people with a two-by-four were definitely odd, and the fact that the game had minimal depth and replay value didn't help. The game was basically setup like a gauntlet style tournament and had you fighting the small roster of wrestlers one after the other (even a mirror match, ala MK games). The flow of the arcade style just didn't work at all for wrestling and it was, to quote Vince McMahon's commentary from the game, "a total debacle!"
The penultimate game of the 16-bit era "crown" belongs to a non-WWF title: Super Fire Pro Wrestling X: Premium. People in North America had to import this one, but there was no way any game stateside would've equaled the quality of this title - few games to this date have matched its refined gameplay and design. There's also good reason this title would not have been seen in the U.S., as it featured many WWF stars under different names - copyright infringement, what's that? The design of Super Fire Pro Wrestling X: Premium was so well executed and featured some gameplay that mirrored the Japanese style of wrestling: matches built logically and allowed for a progressively stronger arsenal of moves through the course of a match. Near the end of a given match, combatants would be exchanging devastating suplexes and strikes, and the pinning situations would be very dramatic. All of this worked so well because the grappling was timing-based and didn't rely on button mashing. This change alone is significant for this period of wrestling titles. The creation features of this title were surprisingly deep, including a move list and character design palette that is comparable to current-gen games. The Fire Pro brand has gone on to permeate many platforms (even in the U.S.) and this title showed why it holds up even today.