Wrestling through the gaming years: a perspective on everything that changed for better, worse, and possibly more sexist!
I am a fan of wrestling, I know the product is faked before you ask, and yes I know that seems odd to admit, but I am a fan more of the business side of the industry now that I am older, not the characters and the flamboyant presentation, no instead I am a fan of the intricacies of how the business is molded from one year to the next, to adapt to its ever changing demographics.
Mirrored in this are the wrestling games, which like the TV product have evolved to match the ever changing needs of the target audience.
My first wrestling game was SmackDown for the Playstation 1, whilst I understand that many and more arcade and retro games existed before that, I was still a fledgling gamer in those days, so the PS1 and SmackDown is where I start, whilst the game was fun, if at times a little lacking for depth, it was a good attempt to capture what made WWE (at the time WWF) as fun and enthralling as it was, add to that the unprecedented (at the time) graphics and realism
When SmackDown 2: Know Your Role was released, I was in heaven, a virtually endless season mode, that hasn’t ever truly been beaten, only matched, made the game a true standout in sports simulation at the time, additionally, customization of wrestlers was greatly improved from the previous iteration.
My next wrestling game was on the N64, and arguably this was the finest wrestling game ever made – WWF No Mercy. I had missed most of the WCW franchise, not being a fan of the TV product, and I had also now played WrestleMania 2000, as I preferred the SmackDown graphics
However my brother pestered and I gave in to play No Mercy. To call No Mercy a revelation was an understatement, unprecedented detail in technical wrestling, even incorporating knockouts, and moves that could land onto weapons, wrestling as a product had come home.
In amongst this time is the introduction of ‘Micro wrestling’ game Def Jam vendetta, which is a beat-em-up and wrestling hybrid, this was an attempt to bring wrestling game players into the beat-em-up , what’s interesting and note worthy is that the games like this, the Simpsons wrestling and a few others are great wrestling games without licensing, a thing I will touch on more in depth later.
Moving forward a little and the follow on from Raw, Raw 2, became my mainstay wrestling game, as I had made the move to the Xbox, favouring its control pad to the PS2 pad, and Raw 2 became the first wrestling game I had truly gotten into after No mercy, Raw 2 was a standout game for its abandonment of the basic rule in wrestling, Women could win any title, this seems odd, especially now, reflecting back on how this seemed sensible at the time
Though the men were stronger, the women were usually faster so would present a challenge. And if you think about it, this is a fair assumption as many male heroes face female enemies and vice versa, yet in wrestling both pre and post Raw 2, there is an assumption that the female competitors aren’t able to compete with the guys
What’s striking is that in the SmackDown vs raw franchise, there is a ‘bra vs panties’ match, a match style derived from the notion that females in wrestling are solely eye candy, yet in Raw 2, the women are treated equally
We were a sexist bunch once, apparently, then not, now again – so it seems.
With the game cube came both day of reckoning and WrestleMania 18, which served the console ably, but not as ably as Legends of wrestling, the first non WWF/E game that I truly enjoyed (and almost the last)
LOW focussed on a whistle stop tour, pitting you against some of the biggest names in the storied history of wrestling.
Fast forward a little more, to the last generation (do I call it last yet?), and the Xbox 360, Ps3 offering, SmackDown vs Raw 2007, this was the first new wrestling game I had bought in a while and in terms of technical merit was worlds away from the franchises I had experienced thus far, it also featured the much revered (though bizarrely misbalanced) GM mode, which pitched you as a booker for the promotion (short of letting you pre-pick winners)
This became my focus, and for a few years it was my main stay wrestling game, others came and went, but it was the power to promote that kept me coming back, but eventually all things must move on, and I moved with the times to try the first non WWE game that had been released in several years.
TNA impact, to say anything positive about the game, would be to trawl through the multitudes of short comings the game has, mostly this revolves around the tiny roster and repetition of counters etc, add to that an entirely broken online mode, and you get the idea.
That and the TNA game featured NO WOMEN.
To say that this decision was appalling would be an understatement. Yet there you have it, the biggest (at the time) draws in TNA’s TV product were not on the company’s flagship game
Back to the fun that can be had with No licensed wrestlers on board, Grey Dog software have a management sim out, called Total Extreme Wrestling, the game puts you in the shoes of a booker for a wrestling company, and even eventually owner, now if you don’t know the back room of wrestling, I’ll educate you here, a booker is responsible for the running of a card (series of matches) and must decide the outcome of each (who wins, pins who, disqualifications etc.)
This is the best management simulation engine out there, certainly for wrestling, and it doesn’t lack for wrestlers, even if they aren’t real.
Additionally worth mentioning, for having the best snapshot of the industry, MDickie software have several wrestling games, Wrestling Mpire is a stand out game, both in levels of customization, that and for a game that is free it is phenomenal!
It places you first in wrestling school, you will be signed up by a promotion, jobbed off, treated like dirt, given dodgy names, outfits, and moves you’ll hate, but the game is so awesome you can die in ring, or lose a hand, foot, whatever, the matches are brutal, and the mods, the mods that exist for this game a truly something to behold.
‘SmackDown vs Raw’ became ‘WWE’ with a suffixed number, in 2011 with the release of WWE12, a game that boasted a decent roster and some great achievements in terms of AI design, it even featured ‘Universe Mode’ the closest a WWF/E game has come to the now famous SmackDown 2 season mode, yet the mode required some tweaking.
With the TNA gaming franchise buried WWE games looked only to go on in strength with WWE13, the improved universe mode and a few tweaks to balancing make ’13 the game of the franchise, and for me as a gamer, this is sort of where the story has halted, but for WWE games, it gets strange and interesting from here.
When the death of THQ was announced I was shocked, with the rest of the gaming world I felt that somehow the world wasn’t ready to say good bye to the company who had spear headed WWE and Darksiders, not to mention Metro and others.
Companies snapped up the other intellectual properties of THQ like the hot cakes they are, but it was only really ever going to be EA Canada or 2K games who picked up WWE games.
2K14 was announced, amidst the ruins of THQ, the games development would continue as planned, so I decided to forgo this yearly installment, and instead await WWE 2K15 to see just what 2K games do with the franchise, after revolutionizing basketball and hockey games.
What bodes well for the franchise is that we have passed WrestleMania now, and with no announcement to suggest 2K15, perhaps the game will finally get an E3 unveiling it deserves as a longstanding franchise of critically accepted prevalence.
What remains unclear is what modes and ideas will make it to the table this time around.
Some of the past of wrestling games is murky, with games that were broken, unbalanced (especially the online matches) and with too much emphasis on story.
Some games like Raw 2 and No Mercy focused on technically accurate representations of the moves and holds seen all over the world, whilst SmackDown versus raw has focused on the entertainment of the spectacle.
Looking at the ‘WWE’ iteration of the franchise, a decent enough balance has been met after many alterations to the formula.
What remains to be seen, going forward, is how independent from the TV products the games remain, because at the moment, the TV product is rated PG, the games rated 15 (Mature) and though this seems like a mixed message, it is an accurate snapshot of how precariously balanced the wrestling market is.
Will 2K reinvent the wrestling game, or is THQ’s legacy more important.