We’re days away from yet another WWE video game release with WWE 2K16, the third entry for the wrestling giant under the 2K Sports banner. The first entry, 2K14, mesmerized two years ago with its detailed ’30 Years of WrestleMania’ mode (even with Jerry Lawler aping Bobby Heenan’s ‘fair to Flair’ routine in overdubs of the WrestleMania VIII commentary). Then last year, 2K15 disappointed gamers with the excising of many features (Story Designer, tornado and ladder tag team matches, among others), while the 2K Showcase mode (replacing the far-reaching ’30 Years’ saga) grew old quickly out of repetition.
Optimism sits ‘above cautious’ for 2K16, with the lure of a gigantic roster (120 wrestlers, including a T-800 that will be more cautious of what he says when cameras are present) and the return of many of the creative elements lost in last year’s mostly-maligned release.
Expectations have certainly spiked in the years since the release of WrestleMania for the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1989. Archaic even in its day, you punch and kick and bodyslam (if you’re lucky) with a roster of six wrestlers, one of whom, Bam Bam Bigelow, had been absent from the company for ten months. There was no downloadable content that could provide you with The Ultimate Warrior or Rick Rude or Jake Roberts, so you made do with the small roster and a meager amount of game modes at hand. There’s always the novelty of Ted Dibiase’s character sporting a Dick Murdoch-esque beer gut, but that charm only has so much shelf-life.
If you count MicroLeague Wrestling, a computer-based release from 1987, then WWE video games have been on the market for 28 years and counting, with ten brilliant releases that will be highlighted here. That contrasts with the release of much technicolor garbage-water over the years, from the aforementioned WrestleMania, to NES’ lazily-made King of the Ring in 1993, to PlayStation’s In Your House from 1996, to last year’s 2K15 misfire.
There’s also the ill-advised ‘Betrayal’ for Game Boy Color, a side-scroller in which the player has to rescue a kidnapped Stephanie McMahon, one assumes from Hans Gruber and his band of terroristic thieves. John McClane would walk on broken glass and swing from a fire hose one hundred stories high, but if he were an IWC ninety-nine percenter, he’d repeatedly call Gruber’s bluff until he knew Stephanie had met the same fate as Joseph Takagi.
Instead of dwelling further on such wastes of technology, let’s instead jump into what is sure to be a debatable list. A number of entries here have aged well. Others have not, but will be lauded for their contributions to the evolution of WWE games. It’s in the same way that George Mikan is in the Pro Basketball Hall of Fame for his undeniable importance to the sport sixty years ago, though most experts believe he’d be torched like kindling by modern NBA big men.
Away we go.
10) WWF Attitude (1999, Acclaim)
Not only did Attitude not age well, but it was rendered obsolete by the release of THQ’s SmackDown for PlayStation roughly six months later. The criticisms are valid, with the clunky movement and needlessly complex button combos for a simple move (the equivalent of a nuclear launch code needs to be entered to perform a snap suplex) echoing above the din. Once SmackDown came out, and PS1 gamers were duking it out in the interactive backstage environment, Attitude collected more dust than unsold cases of Ico-Pro.
Where the game is to be lauded, however, is in its breakthroughs. If 16 wrestlers on Attitude’s predecessor, WWF War Zone, was considered ambitious, that total would be more than doubled with over 40 playable characters on Attitude’s roster, marking the first time you could institute a legitimate Royal Rumble match with thirty entrants. The blood, weaponry, extensive career mode, and tons of exhibiton modes compensated for its engine flaws, making Attitude a must-play in the company of three other friends supercharged on Surge.
All of these options would have been swell enough for pre-Millennium gaming, even without the create-a-wrestler suite that reached beyond comprehension for the time. War Zone’s creation mode was put to shame, and Attitude’s creation mode dwarfed the staggering limitations of SmackDown released months later. Catering to gamers with wild imaginations and a healthy amount of blood lust alike, Attitude delivered in its time.
9) WWE All-Stars (2011, THQ)
Once the SmackDown series developed the formula of ‘release an annual game depicting 75% of the WWE roster and try to make the experience as realistic as possible with each subsequent release’ in the early 2000s, WWE games eventually lost its sense of mayhem. It eventually got to the point where creating a wrestler’s moveset gives you the option of choosing between 15 different vertical suplexes, 12 different scoop slams, and so on, each with slightly different nuances to accommodate the differences between a Mr. Kennedy scoop slam and a Shad Gaspard scoop slam. The SmackDown series was eventually done in by this sort of overwrought sterility. Whatever happened to just picking a wrestler and beating another wrestler senseless?
WWE All-Stars hit stores just prior to WrestleMania XXVII, during the branding switchover from ‘SmackDown’ to just ‘WWE’ for games, and brought elementary fun back to WWE games. Taking a cue from spiritual parent WrestleMania: The Arcade Game, All-Stars pits a roster divide between legends and the then-current roster, and gives wrestlers exaggerated movesets (wrestlers can leap 40 feet in the air when doing finishers, etc) and lets the game play out like the Ritalin-deficient cartoon that wrestling can beautifully be.
A more serious gamer may not find novelty in Randy Savage twisting like a tornado when hitting his Flying Elbow smash, but novelty was needed. For the first time in half a decade, a new WWE release was utterly distinguishable from its prior releases, and can bring out the kid in older players, not just by exposing them to stars of their youth, but to a game they would have played the hell out of when they were twelve.
8) WWF Superstars (1989, Technos Japan)
Why sit at home trying to time a turnbuckle mount in NES’ WrestleMania when you could pony up some quarters, head on down to the arcade or corner deli and play Superstars, guaranteed to at least be graphically superior given the divide between arcade and home consoles of the time? The sprites from the quarter-century-old game look impressive even by today’s standards, nifty cartoon versions of the Mega Powers, Ultimate Warrior, and the like, a far cry from The Honky Tonk Man looking like some Satanic gopher creature on Nintendo.
The plot of the game centers around climbing the tag team ranks with your choice of two performers (Hogan, Savage, Warrior, Honky, Big Bossman, and Jim Duggan) in order to earn a shot at Ted Dibiase and Andre the Giant. The fact that teams make their entrance in the WrestleMania III ring carts is enough to give a game a thumbs up on its own, but Superstars sought to overachieve.
The tag team mode does limit the player’s imagination, but who could really complain? You get to bash opponents with tables and chairs, long before Vince McMahon thought to invent the Attitude Era out of the equation, ‘ECW + production values’. Superstars clearly holds influence over future video games, and spawned a sequel that will be working its way onto this list.
7) WWF Raw (1994, Acclaim)
The trilogy of SNES/Sega Genesis games of the early nineties showed minimal promise with Super WrestleMania, changed the game with Royal Rumble matches on its namesake game the following year, then reached for the stars with Raw in the fall of 1994. The only one of the three games to use the same rosters for both consoles makes the most of a dwindling 1994 cast, although the curious inclusion of Luna Vachon is an oddity, especially when you’re tossing her around with The Undertaker or Yokozuna.
Raw was much more fast-paced than its predecessors, boasting the comedic element of seeing Diesel and Yoko move like Space Invaders on some demented speed level. The game builds on Royal Rumble allowing each wrestler to have their finishing move by differentiating movesets for variety’s sake. Diesel and Bam Bam Bigelow perform backdrops instead of hip tosses, as one example. This doesn’t even count the ‘Mega Moves’, outlandish attacks ranging from a Shawn Michaels multi-flip dropkick, to Doink field goal kicking the opponent out of the ring.
As the first game to feature both Royal Rumble and Survivor Series matches, it has great replay value. That’s not to mention the ‘Bedlam’ matches, which were two-on-two no disqualifcation matches with steel chairs, ring bells, and a metal bucket as handy weapons. You can even make the referee leave the ring in disgust if you hit him ten times, which never seemed to lose its stupid thrill. In all, the 16-bit era peaked with this enjoyable offering.
6) WWF SmackDown 2: Know Your Role (2000, THQ)
The original SmackDown, released earlier in 2000, introduced wrestling gamers to a more frenetic experience, hitting upon interactive elements (making alliances and enemies during season mode, fighting backstage) while improving the gameplay exponentially from its Acclaim forebears. If Irish-whipping D-Lo Brown into a corridor’s vending machine wasn’t enough fun for you, you probably asked for SmackDown 2 for Christmas later in the year, and were even more satisfied.
The only downgrade for the sequel is slower load times, but that’s made up for by the expanse of venues, wrestlers (Kurt Angle, all four Radicalz, Rikishi, and Tazz make their WWE gaming debuts for PlayStation here), and match types. SmackDown 2 was the first game in the SmackDown series to feature a ladder match, as well as a primative version of Hell in a Cell (just a steel cage with a ceiling that didn’t encompass ringside whatsoever). There’s even a mode to act out Hardcore title matches with a countdown clock, a nod to Crash Holly’s days as 24/7 titleholder.
What makes the game is its roster, during one of the most wildly successful years in WWE history. Think back to those PPVs in 2000 where the main events and undercard alike were boasting a couple four-star matches and some supplementary three-star bouts while plunging WCW deeper down the pipes. And yes, the create-a-wrestler suite is much improved from the inaugural SmackDown, rivaling Attitude’s deeper selection of bodies and attires.
5) WWE ’13 (2012, THQ)
One year earlier, WWE ’12 was the first game released without the ‘SmackDown’ branding in over a decade (for PlayStation releases, anyhow), and sweeping changes were promised. In reality, the game didn’t play all that differently from its SmackDown ancestors. WWE ’12 didn’t suck, but it wasn’t exactly reinvention of the wheel. WWE ’13 steered the series away from the ‘Road to WrestleMania’ mode that grew longer in the tooth, instead, invoking a swift blast from the past in its place.
Enter Attitude Mode, allowing players to recreate landmark moments from August 1997 through the end of 2000, from Montreal to Steve Austin’s WWF Championship wins to The Rock’s rise to stardom, unlocking tons of classic characters along the way, from The New Age Outlaws to Davey Boy Smith to Ken Shamrock to Vader, among over 30 others. For fans that only hang onto WWE today for the nibbles of nostalgia (read: WWE Network subscribers who live in The Vault), this was like playing War Zone on a seventh generation console.
Coupled with the creation suite and online access, you can fill in the CAW slots with Attitude Era studs otherwise absent (Dudley and Hardy Boyz because of TNA contracts, Owen Hart and Chris Benoit for obvious reasons). Really, the game doesn’t exactly break new ground in terms of innovative content, but it repackages wrestling video games as Generation Y best knew them, with playability that simply wasn’t standard in that time. THQ went out with a solid bang.
4) WWE 2K14 (2013, 2K Sports)
I speak for more than myself I’m sure when I say that WWE ’13 made wrestling video games cool again for a finnicky, aging fan. As nice as Attitude Mode was, imagine the thrill of 2K14 going a step further, packing three decades of history into one game, allowing for the most impressive roster on a wrestling title outside of the mediocre Legends of Wrestling games from a decade ago. ’30 Years of WrestleMania’ was just that, Attitude Mode stretching back to the days of Rock n Wrestling, appealing to anyone whose eyes light up at the mere mention of ‘Coliseum Video’.
So 2K14 is essentially WWE ’13 with more historical appeal, plus the capacity for deeper customization. With 100 save slots for which to overpopulate (up from the 50 spaces on ’13), the player is free to load up the game with missing WrestleMania icons like Roddy Piper, Demolition, and so forth. Like ’13, it doesn’t really break new ground, instead simply providing an outlet for older fans to feel young once again, with the sort of graphics and gameplay that didn’t exist in our youth. That counts for something, I think.
Really, wrestling games have peaked when it comes to what the developers can provide, aside from even-more realistic graphics and sound. The innovation comes from the gamers themselves, hence the biggest disappointment going from 2K14 to 2K15, the removal of much of the creative suites. Even with some minor glitches (created arenas sometimes result in the screen going inexplicably blurry), 2K14 is basically the most complete WWE console experience in years, perfectly enjoyable without any life-altering reinvention.
3) WWF No Mercy (2000, THQ)
When it comes to user-customization, this Nintendo 64 release was far and away a pioneer, combining the all-encompassing ability to make over the game’s roster to your absolute liking with the sort of simplistic beat-em-up mayhem that is often lost in latter-year WWE releases. No Mercy serves two very important masters, both the painstakingly-detailed fans, and the ones that just one to swing chairs and propel off of the top rope. It’s Know Your Role with more save slots and without the internal loading times, with the Nintendo ‘flavor’.
Most of the plaudits come from the famed ‘AKI’ engine, the same development team behind critically-hailed WCW games like WCW vs. nWo World Tour, and later the even more-acclaimed WCW/nWo Revenge. Understandably, in the heat of the Monday Night Wars, the battles spilled over into the video game realm, with WWF winning the rights to have AKI produce their next two titles for N64: the enjoyable WrestleMania 2000, followed No Mercy, which was like going from winning the lottery to winning the lottery once a year.
It’s been a decade-plus since Nintendo 64 went obsolete, and to this day, there remains a large segment of wrestling gamers that still dust off their consoles and play No Mercy with updated (as in, to this minute) rosters that are made possible by the forward-thinking that went into the game’s creative suites. If you have the game and the system, you can download an accurate and functional 2015 roster immediately after reading this sentence. Of course, if you have the game and the system, chances are you’re well aware of this reality.
2) WWF WrestleFest (1991, Technos Japan)
The fact that No Mercy isn’t number one is going to irk plenty of readers, given how ahead of its time the game was fifteen years ago. That’s a quality that earns points on any list, trailblazing. Those little nuances that made No Mercy great a decade and a half past are what make players of the WrestleFest arcade game whistful a quarter-century later. It’s a game you simply don’t forget, one you remember absolutely fondly in spite of its limitations. Wrestling fans have wild imaginations, and WrestleFest is in many ways precisely the game we’d dreamed of playing as children.
The vivid arcade graphics and mesmerizing background music are bolstered by the speed of the action, a well-coordinated blur of leaping powerslams, titanic-struggle lock-ups, and even finishing moves for everyone, a novelty of the time (though half the roster on NES’ WrestleMania Challenge had finishers). Even the announcing is superior to what lay ahead, with some nameless voice braying wrestler and move names in a cartoonish bark. “EARTH-quake! VERT-i-cal SPLASH!” is preferable to Michael Cole’s disinterested monotone infecting your leisure time, surely. The selling of the characters is another joy, expressing anguish and jubilation with more detail than most of NXT’s novice class.
The first game to ever feature a Royal Rumble match appeals to our inner child with its good-natured simplicity and its unvarnished cartoon presentation. It’s a caricature of wrestling, amped up to pleasantly assault the senses of those mashing the buttons, an escape from reality more than a pixelated extension of it. As WWE releases today try to pack in more and more with each subsequent release, WrestleFest harkens fans back to the day when was less was more, and an extremely detailed ‘less’ it was.
1) WWE SmackDown: Here Comes the Pain (2003, THQ)
Really, it’s the perfect hybrid of No Mercy and WrestleFest, without the ability to redesign the entire game as with the former. Players of SmackDown vs. Raw the following year will recall the tinge of disappointment they felt playing that game, a palpable downgrade from what HCTP represented: arcade-style pacing and violence with a very deep roster (the first invocation of legends in a WWE release, notably) and enough avenues for the creative types to get their fix in making over the game in something of their own image.
What I remember most is the awesome presence that Brock Lesnar and Goldberg had (remember when Goldberg was in WWE?) HCTP does both men justice by adding bone-crunching sound effects (maybe the best in any wrestling game) to the most powerful of moves, casting Lesnar and Goldberg as absolute killing machines. Seriously, play as Lesnar against one of the games’ cruiserweights (Rey Mysterio, Ultimo Dragon, et al), and it’s sadistic fun as you mow them down like crash dummies. Goldberg’s spear sounds like a clap of thunder when you break some hapless computer foe in half.
That, to me, is the one advantage it truly has over the slightly-more cartooned No Mercy: it’s arcade-like, but it’s also unflinchingly brutal. The first of the SmackDown series to feature blood after brutal blows to the head (chair shots sound like the slamming of a manhole cover on a concrete sidewalk) gives players a grown-up, post-Attitude rendition of WrestleFest, perhaps Adult WrestleFest, more flesh-toned and gritty, perfectly suitable for those that cheer a body falling from Hell in a Cell.
Follow Wrestledelphia.com columnist Justin Henry on Twitter @JRHWriting.