As the venerable age of 40 looms ever larger in front of me with each passing year, I’m not afraid to say that I remain an unabashed wrestling fan, both of the wrestling itself and of all the periphery of fandom that surrounds it. This means that I’m the guy who bought Power Slam magazine back in the day, the double-tape VHS SilverVision release of Wrestlemania IV, and Rowdy Roddy Piper’s (non-)hit single “I’m Your Man”.
I have no regrets.
That love of wrestling has extended itself to the many wrestling video games that have come out over the years. In fact, some of my favorite games—and the memories that come with them—have been wrestling ones.
In 1992, I often went without lunch at school, as I threw coin after coin into the WWF Wrestlefest machine at my local arcade. From ‘98 to the turn of the millenium, wrestling games had their golden age with the Holy Trinity of WCW/nWo Revenge, WWF Wrestlemania 2000 and WWF No Mercy on Nintendo 64. Not a day went by that I didn’t play one of the three—hell, there were days when I played all three, one after the other.
After that brief, glorious golden age, wrestling games still had occasional shining moments. The Smackdown series came out of the gate strong. WWE All Stars offered something a little different. Even EA’s Def Jam series was essentially hip hop-skinned and highly competent wrestling games.
However, with each passing year, the product has suffered and the disappointment has grown. As the slant on wrestling games has skewed towards realism (yeah, because that’s what wrestling fans really love about it—its realism), features have been stripped out, customisation options have regressed, and control schemes have become increasingly and unnecessarily complicated.
What’s the solution? How can wrestling games possibly return to their former glory? While watching some wrestling recently, it hit me. When realism is the problem, and wrestling game developers are most concerned with making the fighting as realistic as possible, maybe wrestling games shouldn’t be fighting games anymore at all?
The problem with wrestling’s place in the fighting game genre is that there are just so many better fighting games out there, from Mortal Kombat to Marvel vs. Capcom. In an attempt to reach a wider audience, wrestling games have fallen into an awkward limbo within that genre—neither simple/casual enough nor complicated/hardcore enough to satisfy fans at either end of the fighting game spectrum.
For example, something like the joyous and riotous Gang Beasts, which—in the most reductive terms—could be described as a physics-based wrestling game, nails many of the concepts that recent actual wrestling games have increasingly struggled with, while managing to capture the simplicity that made the best wrestling games work in the past.
On the other end of the scale, the increased complexity in recent wrestling games has also led to them being held to, and ultimately falling very short of, the standards required to compete with the Street Fighters and the Mortal Kombats of the world—games that themselves often fail to live up to the rigorous standards of fighting game fans.
So, where do wrestling games go from here? What form should future wrestling games take? I have some ideas.
For instance, with the proper execution, wrestling could make a great framework for a cooperative (yes, not competitive) rhythm action game, with two players pressing buttons or playing plastic instruments with the on-screen wrestlers executing choke-slams and suplexes in time. In real wrestling each match’s outcome is pre-determined anyway (blasphemy, I know), so remove the games’ competitive element altogether. The very best matches have an elegant, almost music-like flow to them, so crib from the best examples of the rhythm action genre—Amplitude, Rock Band, Crypt of the Necrodancer. These take rhythmic actions—playing guitar, racing, fantasy combat—and apply the mechanic of pressing buttons on top of them. Why not wrestling too?
For a more solitary and sedate experience, perhaps a management simulator would be more your pace. Wrestling management sims already exist, most notably the Extreme Warfare/Total Extreme Wrestling series, but it remains something of a niche genre at present. However, with the right licensing and presentation, then there’s no reason that a move into a more cerebral form of wrestling game couldn’t be a success. Fantasy Football has really taken off, including in the new Madden game; why not fantasy wrestling?
Hell, if they can make basketball into a story-driven role-playing game, why not wrestling too?
You could even make an Xbox Kinect game that used Microsoft’s motion-sensing camera accessory to translate your movements into the ring! Just imagine the possibilities!
…actually, you know what? Let’s just pretend I never said that.
I’m pragmatic enough to know that none of this is ever likely to happen. The WWE makes safe choices, and “safe” these are not. However, while sales for the WWE 2K franchise continue to remain strong, they should act now before that’s no longer the case. The latest of those wasn’t exactly well-received, after all.
In the real world of professional wrestling, WWE’s Reality Era could be the shot in the arm that the company has needed for years. However, in the slightly-less-real world of professional wrestling video games, the shot in the arm they need is anything but reality.
At the moment, it’s still a little too real to me, damn it.
Andy Manson is a gamer of over 30 years and, as such, remembers when consoles were powered mainly by imagination and transistors the size of your fist. You can follow his shorter ramblings on Twitter @PsychTyson.
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