Names: WCW vs. nWo World Tour, WCW/nWo Revenge, WWF WrestleMania 2000, WWF No Mercy
Developer: AKI Corporation
Publisher: THQ and Asmik Ace Entertainment
North American Releases: 11/16/97, 11/17/98, 11/17/99, 11/17/00
Console: Nintendo 64
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I had a dozen different opening paragraphs I was working with for this piece. I tried every different angle imaginable to find the right opening hook to segue into a write-up on a series of Nintendo 64 games. There wasn’t one of those that I thought sounded right. Not one. Why is that? Because these four games are pro wrestling games, and if you know me at all, you know that’s a topic on which I have many thoughts.
I grew up obsessed with pro wrestling. I have a bin full of wrestling action figures in all shapes and sizes, and I had every piece of wrestling merchandise that I could find and my parents could afford. If wrestling was on TV, I knew it, and I was parked in front of the set. There’s a huge stack of old WWE VHS tapes in my basement that if they worked would surprise me to no end, given how often I watched them.
I liked G.I. Joes, I collect video games, I am a fantasy genre aficionado to the point that I’m writing my own literary series called Gold & Steel, but above all of that, was pro wrestling, and it wasn’t a competition. The industry of pro wrestling has and continues to mean a great deal to me.
In fact, when I was school-aged, the primary ambition I had was to be a pro wrestler. Once I graduated high school up until about 2014, I was involved in the independent pro wrestling scenes of Newfoundland and Ontario. Over the course of that decade, I filled every role imaginable both in front of an audience and behind the scenes. I even pulled up stakes and moved to Windsor, Ontario to train at Scott D’Amore’s Can-Am Wrestling School. An unrelated, expensive dental emergency wiped out my savings to spare my teeth, and I made the difficult choice to step back from pursuing my ultimate goal of being a pro wrestler. Instead, I settled into the equally fulfilling, but less dentally dangerous role of being a referee.
Before I could actually get in the ring, though, the closest thing a kid growing up in the late 80’s and 90’s could get to the experience of pro wrestling was through video games.
For instance, the earliest wrestling games for home consoles landed on the NES in the form of Tag Team Wrestling and M.U.S.C.L.E (seen in the screenshot above). That’s right, the second generation of consoles (Atari 2600, Colecovision, Intellivision, et al) didn’t even attempt it at all, or if they did, it was a port from a newer console. Such was the case of the Atari 7800 game Title Match Pro Wrestling, which only came along in 1989.
These games, and their contemporaries for the time, like WWF WrestleMania, World Championship Wrestling, the computer game Bop N’ Wrestle, and the like, all tried to distil the essence of what pro wrestling was into an accessible format, and the task proved to be more daunting than any developer could imagine. Most developers resorted to making barely playable button mashers, like in the case of the M.U.S.C.L.E game. Nintendo themselves arguably had the most success of this era, with their game that was simply titled Pro Wrestling. It’s the only NES wrestling game I still get the urge to play, and though it might seem a little button-mashy, it has some sense of strategy to it. Nintendo’s wrestling game had a good idea on how to pull off a playable game, and everything functions better than you might expect for a game released in 1987. Though it had no real wrestlers like the WWE (then called the World Wrestling Federation or WWF) and WCW licensed games, the roster is memorable, if for no other reason than the bold choice to include a star-faced space man and a swamp creature in its ranks. To wit, its “A Winner is You” mistranslation still resonates as a meme to this day. The game made some sort of cultural impact, and that’s more that can be said about the other 8-bit wrestling games.
Unless otherwise stated, all games are for the NES. Top row: Bop n’ Wrestle (top left) for the Commodore 64, M.U.S.C.L.E. (bottom left) Pro Wrestling (right). Second row: Tecmo World Wrestling, Tag Team Wrestling (top right), WWF WrestleMania (bottom right). Third row: World Championship Wrestling and WWF WrestleMania Challenge. Bottom Row (l-r): Title Match Pro Wrestling for the Atari 7800, Pro Wrestling for the Sega Master System, WWF WrestleMania Steel Cage Challenge, and WWF King of the Ring.
The 16 bit era of the early 90’s proved marginally better for wrestling fans looking for their video game fix. The much-maligned nemesis of the Angry Video Game Nerd, LJN, had perhaps the most popular foray into the wrestling genre by this point, making three games with the WWE license behind them. Developed by Sculptured Software, the games Super WrestleMania, Royal Rumble, and Raw is War respectively, came within a year of one other and offered a solid, albeit simple gameplay experience. They were button mashers to their core, but they were fun, especially in two-player mode. Both the SNES and Genesis had their own ports, with the first two games even having differing rosters depending on which console you were playing.
A few other publisher/developer teams took a shot at wrestling for the home console in this era, too. WWE’s game licence was absorbed by Acclaim when they bought LJN, and they attempted a Mortal Kombat-esque fighting-game-masquerading-as-a-wrestling-game called WWF WrestleMania: the Arcade Game. It’s playable, but has far less going for it than the three Sculptured Software games that came before it. Play it if only for the sight of stuff like the Undertaker throwing literal tombstones at his opponents and Vince McMahon’s wacky commentary sound bites, but don’t go in expecting anything of substance or depth.
WCW’s licence holder, FCI, handed over development to Beam Software, who made the barely-playable mess of a game that is WCW SuperBrawl Wrestling. Jaleco gave it a whirl as both publisher and developer of Hammerlock Wrestling. It’s playable, but they decided to go with separate split screens that feature detailed animations of what you’re actually doing in the ring, which can be distracting, to say the least. Still though, an honest effort was made. Capcom even got in on the craze by making a game that’s basically Street Fighter II with grappling and pinning functions and the ability to walk in four directions instead of just left-to-right. Saturday Night Slam Masters, as their game was called, even included Final Fight’s Mike Haggar, Metro City’s wrestler-turned-mayor. (Much like Kane would do years later) As wrestling games went on the SNES, it’s among the most accessible, even today. It looks fantastic, plays even better, and is compatible with a multi-tap, allowing four people to join the mayhem at once.
Lastly, I should mention Natsume Championship Wrestling, which was developed and published by the game company in the title. Natsume removed the licensed wrestlers in the North American release, but the game was actually based on the roster of All Japan Pro Wrestling, and was one of four in a series released in their home country. It holds the distinction of being the only game in the 16-bit era in North America that’s more than a button masher. Until then, grappling systems for wrestling games in North America boiled down to two styles: a) First to grapple is on the offense or b) strongest button masher wins the grapple. Natsume Championship Wrestling, or NCW, built an engine similar to what was already wildly popular in Japan thanks to Human Entertainment/Spike Chunsoft’s series, Fire Pro Wrestling. Fire Pro and NCW relied on both timing, and the strength of the move being attempted when initiating a grapple. Trying too strong of a move too early in the match made it easier for the opponent to reverse the hold, having poor timing also cost you the offensive edge. The system had a modest learning curve, especially when compared to the pick-up-and-mash style of a game like WWF Royal Rumble. The lack of a familiar licensed brand like WWE or WCW and general indifference from video game media further hurt the game, and NCW remained a one-off in North America. Even Fire Pro Wrestling stayed in Japan until the early 2000’s, despite a cult following and full fan translations of two of the Super Famicom Fire Pro games. (Super Fire Pro Wrestling X and Super Fire Pro Queen’s Special, to be specific)
All games listed are for the Super Nintendo. Top Row: Hammerlock Wrestling (left), Natsume Championship Wrestling (top right), the Japan-only Fire Pro Wrestling X (bottom right). Second row: WCW SuperBrawl (top left), WWF WrestleMania: the Arcade Game (bottom left), Saturday Night Slam Masters (right). Bottom row (l-r): the three WWE LJN games Super WrestleMania, Royal Rumble, and Raw is War.
So what was a wrestling fan in North America to do for a wrestling game that was more than a button masher or an obscure, one-off? We had to wait for 3D.
The Sony PlayStation was the first to get a wrestling game in full 3D, and it came from a little company called Yuke’s. 1996 was the year, which as we covered in my Donkey Kong Country review, was the breakthrough year of the 3D home consoles. Despite a promising engine and a fully realised 3D game, Power Move Pro Wrestling failed to catch on outside of Japan, where it had the New Japan Pro Wrestling branding to help it. Acclaim’s PS1 port of WrestleMania: The Arcade Game and its sequel, WWF In Your House, both received far more gaming media attention and overshadowed Yuke’s freshman effort. Coupled with the WWE’s own marketing blitz to sell the games and popular arcade ports to go with them, Power Move Pro Wrestling could do little to compete. Despite the fact that Power Move was a far superior game, it slipped away into obscurity, where it sits quietly next to Natsume Championship Wrestling to this day.
However, change was on the horizon. By the mid-90’s, video game publisher FCI had given up on the gaming industry, and their license to produce games based on WCW was up for grabs. Enter The Toy HeadQuarters, or as we came to know them in the video gaming world: THQ. As a publisher, THQ had a reputation for getting licenses to publish games based on popular movies and TV shows, handing the development to a third party, and going to market with whatever the end result was with nearly no oversight on quality. Home Alone, Wayne’s World, The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle, and the four Ren & Stimpy games all saw the light of day because of THQ. Think about that. They signed off on those games and said, “Yep, that’s fine, let’s print a few hundred thousand copies of each.”
Granted, not everything that THQ published was wholly terrible. They had stuff like The Mask, and The Lawnmower Man, which were playable, at least. They even managed to do all right with an original title called Mohawk & Headphone Jack, which, while nothing remarkable, managed to be at least enjoyable. However, for every one Mohawk & Headphone Jack, there were overwhelmingly terrible titles by the handful like Race Drivin’ and Pit-Fighter. Quite frankly, for as much flack as LJN gets, THQ equally deserves it.
Another thing that THQ has in common with LJN is that it would be pro wrestling that would prove to be THQ’s biggest boon. At the time that FCI walked away from video game publishing, WCW was on the verge of its most successful point since its inception, and whether or not THQ knew this, they had picked up the license to make WCW’s video games at the ideal moment.
Since Vince McMahon’s destruction of the old territory system and overtaking of the industry in the 80’s, no other company, not even the storied National Wrestling Alliance, could compete with the WWE. As mainstay companies like the AWA and WCCW were folding against McMahon’s advances, the biggest promoter under the NWA umbrella, Jim Crockett Jr., was selling his still-successful promotion to the one man who was both interested in wrestling and had deep enough pockets to rival McMahon: Billionaire media mogul Ted Turner. Under Turner, Jim Crockett Promotions became World Championship Wrestling, or WCW, and they took over Crockett’s coveted timeslot on Turner’s own TBS Superstation. (6:05pm on Saturdays, for those wondering) With the TV presence and the finances to survive, WCW dug in for the long haul with its roster of top tier JCP talent like Ric Flair, Sting, and Ricky Steamboat to main event the cards and keep butts in seats.
By the early 90’s, however, wrestling was beginning to stagnate across the board. Fans were tuning out, and both WCW and WWE were largely to blame for their own woes. First, steroid scandals in the WWE rocked the wrestling world, and nearly took the WWE out of commission altogether. 80’s mainstays like Hulk Hogan, Andre the Giant, and Dusty Rhodes were showing signs of being past their primes, and besides all of that, the shine from the Rock n’ Wrestling era was just plain gone. As a result, fan attendance was down across the board. A failure to generate new stars, or sticking the new talent with hackneyed gimmicks like a garbage man named Duke “The Dumpster” Derose, or a hockey player called the Goon, were further hampering both companies. It’s hard to feel bad for either McMahon or WCW’s rotating creative staff at this point in time, as they all did this to themselves.
From left to right: Duke “the Dumpster” Derose, RoboCop busting Sting out of a cage during a terrible tie-in for the movie of the same name, the totally-not-a-spider-man-ripoff known as Arachnaman, and the Goon. All gimmicks that WWE or WCW tried in the early-to-mid 90’s. Hard to believe that wrestling was hurting at this point with such brilliant characters around.
In 1996, both WWE and WCW found their individual spark just as FCI was relinquishing its WCW video game license. WCW, in particular, caught success when they signed away two of WWE’s rising stars in Kevin Nash and Scott Hall, (known there as Diesel and Razor Ramon, respectively) who showed up in WCW and began causing a stir as supposed WWE agents. At the Bash at the Beach pay-per-view event that July, they participated in a three-on-two tag match against three of WCW’s top stars in Lex Luger, Sting, and Randy Savage. At the climax of the match, Hulk Hogan ran in to seemingly save the overwhelmed WCW faces, who had lost Luger to injury and were being badly beaten by Hall and Nash. When all hope seemed lost for Sting and Savage, Hogan turned on his friends and hit Savage with his patented leg drop. With that one jaw dropping act from the most beloved wrestling star of the 80’s, a little group called the new World order came into existence.
The nWo, as they were commonly known, was an instant hit, and viewership and attendance for WCW programming was never higher. As WCW ran with the storyline of their own roster having to fight off these former WWE stars for the company’s very survival, WWE was already stoking the fires of their own revival. Without Hogan casting a long shadow over the top of the card, wrestlers like Shawn Michaels, Bret Hart, and The Undertaker were able to come into their own as bankable main event stars. New generation WCW castoffs like “Flyin” Brian Pillman, Dustin Rhodes, “Stunning” Steve Austin, Jean-Paul Levesque, and Cactus Jack further rounded out the card, being rebranded as “The Loose Cannon” Brian Pillman, Goldust, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, Triple H, and Mankind respectively. With these new personas, the former WCW wrestlers and WWE’s own talent combined to bring about a whole new Attitude toward pro wrestling.
WWE began moving away from the family-friendly approach they had cultivated in the Hulk Hogan “Rock N’ Wrestling” era and began rolling with edgier content geared towards teenagers and adults. Their arena aesthetic and imagery started looking dark and grungy, heavy metal music introduced all their programming and most of the wrestlers, and violence reached unseen highs by WWE’s standards. The WWE was no longer a place where you could take your whole family to watch cartoonish, over-the-top characters like the Ultimate Warrior and the Honky Tonk Man. It was now a place where angst-y teens watched The Rock tell everyone who crossed him to shove their disapproval up their candy asses and where Shawn Michaels and Triple H told everyone who wasn’t down with them to suck it. The fans, it turned out, were definitely down with them.
This uptick in the fortunes of both WWE and WCW made wrestling a hot commodity for the first time since the late 80’s. While there was a whole host of entities looking at opportunities to cash in on this resurgence, it was THQ who was about to hit the jackpot.
WWE had decided to remain with Acclaim into the 32/64 bit 3D era, and Acclaim began working on a game suited to their strengths. WCW, on the other hand, were waiting to see what THQ planned to do with their license. Perhaps THQ saw the commodity that wrestling was becoming again, perhaps they were merely just scooping up an available license for the sake of it, but one thing was clear: they couldn’t have outsourced the development to a better company.
A little known developer called, I kid you not, The Man Breeze was working on something pretty special in Japan: their very own 3D wrestling games. Under the watchful eye of publisher Asmik Ace, The Man Breeze were putting together two visually similar, but functionally different games. The first was planned for the PlayStation, while the other was for the Nintendo 64, and they both shared the title of Virtual Pro Wrestling.
The games were set to follow a trend set by Fire Pro Wrestling, in that the rosters of the game would look and act strikingly close to popular Japanese and North American wrestlers, but be juuuuust different enough to avoid copyright infringement. While the lack of licensing often hurt such games in North America, like Natsume Championship Wrestling and Hammerlock Wrestling, the model proved successful in Japan, allowing games like Fire Pro to compete alongside branded games featuring WWE, WCW, All Japan, and New Japan’s rosters.
What were The Man Breeze to do in order to market their two shiny new games in North America, though? Well, a company like THQ that could somehow market dumpster-fire games like Home Alone and Wayne’s World might be able to help. It also just so happened that one of the two major wrestling companies on the continent was riding record profits and TV viewership and THQ had their video game license.
The deal was struck between developer and publisher, and the developer got so excited that they changed their company name from their wildly off-putting The Man Breeze to the far more palatable AKI Corporation. WCW themselves and video game magazines went into hype mode over the first new WCW video games since WCW SuperBrawl in ’94. These weren’t just any wrestling games though, oh no, these were in fully-realised 3D. WWE, by contrast, had only the promise of a 3D game somewhere on the horizon and the 2D arcade fighter WWF In Your House on the PS1 to hold gamers over in the meantime. There was no other competition in sight for WCW on the Nintendo 64. THQ and AKI’s game would be the first wrestling entry for Nintendo’s shiniest, most powerful console.
The advanced reviews in the magazines promised something truly special for wrestling fans, whether they picked up the PS1 or N64 AKI game. The PlayStation game had the advantage of full motion video and CD quality sound, but the reviews for the Nintendo 64 game seemed to lean towards it being the superior gameplay experience. October rolled around, and PlayStation gamers were gifted with WCW vs. The World. Sales were rolling in, gamers were elated with the product, and Nintendo 64 owners waited for their turn.
In November of ’97, the waiting ended.
At age 12 at the time, I was ecstatic about even the prospect of a fully 3D wrestling game for my brand new Nintendo 64, to say the very least. I recall a tiny screenshot featuring two nondescript wrestlers appearing in Nintendo Power when the game was first announced as just an untitled WCW game and my mind was already blown. So, when the game itself showed up on the continent, I pestered the crap out of my parents to take me to the nearest Blockbuster (which was still forty minutes away) ASAP so I could rent WCW vs. nWo World Tour.
It. Was. Incredible.
[Author’s Note: From here on out in this piece, You might see screenshots that I took of a tube screen using my phone. Apologies in advance for the diminished quality of what you normally see here. I’m looking into screen capture devices, I promise.]
To this day I can still recall the first time I booted up WCW vs. nWo World Tour. That intro video above played and my jaw just dropped. Wrestling games in 3D had finally arrived.
I didn’t know where to start first. It had more options than I had even seen in a wrestling game up to that point. I mean, they managed to fit a team gauntlet mode (the WCW vs. nWo mode), a single elimination tournament, round robin tournament (league mode), and a championship mode into one cart. Then there’s the exhibition mode, which allowed for singles, tag team matches, 2-vs-1 handicap matches, and even four way battle royals! I know when compared to the WWE 2K series nowadays, or even games like WWF SmackDown! Here Comes the Pain that came just seven years later, these options seem paltry. But in ’97, as mine and many others first ever experience with 3D wrestling games, this was huge.
The graphics have aged, but the blocky models, flat and cartoonishly rendered faces, and simple textures looked damn good when they were first on the market. You know what? Even now, nothing looks jarringly bad; it’s just the early days of 3D gaming on full display. I should say that everything was distinguishable, the writing on the ring apron and mat were legible, and for such an unexplored medium, AKI Corporation still managed to get a decent amount of detail into things all the same. For example, it looked so cool to me that for once, the wrestlers seemed sized proportionately. Kevin Nash and the Giant, for instance, were both taller than everyone else was. Yes, that was a detail worth noticing back then. They even included different arenas/rings. Okay, so it was only four and the differences were purely aesthetic, but still, that was rare in wrestling games back then. The only weird part was that while hit detection was good, collision detection between the wrestlers was loose. Body parts could float through at times, and wrestlers arms themselves could sometimes appear to be floating spectrally, especially when playing as cruiserweight wrestlers or the lone, hidden woman wrestler. Those would be the only nitpicks I can think of, though.
The roster was massive for a game in 1997. In the 16-bit era, to that point, there were generally no more than a dozen wrestlers to choose from in any game and yet World Tour featured thirty-seven wrestlers right out of the gate, with six more to unlock as you go. Interestingly enough, only about half of those were under WCW contract at the time. The other half are, in the Fire Pro tradition, modelled on real wrestlers but altered sufficiently to avoid copyright infringement. It’s an assorted group, too. Given the country of origin of the game, many of these doppelgangers are based on Japanese wrestlers of the day, like the Great Sasuke and Genichiro Tenryu, but a few slots were reserved for legendary gaijin, or foreign wrestling stars in Japan, like the original Sheik and Terry Gordy.
Gameplay wise, it was perfect. Everything just controlled so crisply, there was no lag, and no hit detection issues; everything just worked. They employed a new system for grappling that added more variety than ever seen in a North American release of a wrestling game. When close to an opponent, a tap of the A button launched a grapple attempt. If successful, you could then press A or B along with any direction of the D-pad (or just the A or B button alone) and perform a move. Nearly every direction and the static options was its own move (The only holdout was that both the left and right directions were mapped to the same move). To that point, I was accustomed to stuff like Royal Rumble, where you had a total of six moves and one of those was to throw your opponent towards the ropes. Not only did you have all those options at your disposal, but if you held the A button a little longer before grappling, you could attempt a stronger grapple. While easier to reverse, this new assortment of moves did more damage, so it was an even trade-off. The point though, was that just with a standard, standing grapple position you had sixteen possible moves at your disposal. If you grabbed the opponent in a rear waistlock, you got about eight new move options again. Admittedly, the rear waistlock option had far less variety than a front grapple, but the amount of options was staggering for a wrestling fan having freshly arrived from the 16-bit era.
It also seemed to my young mind that no matter where the opponent or I wound up in or around the ring, there seemed to be moves geared toward each scenario. Opponent on the ground? No sweat, depending on whether they’re face up or face down and you’re standing at their feet or their head, you have options for what you can do. Opponent knocked into the turnbuckles? You can grapple them from there too, and go for some high impact moves from the top rope. If you’re reading this and you’re younger than me by a decade or more, you’re probably laughing right now, and I get it, this is basic stuff for wrestling games that came after. What I’m trying to say though, is that in November of 1997, this was as new and exciting as Fortnite was almost exactly twenty years later. AKI Corporation had singlehandedly revolutionised wrestling games. Sure, you can’t call them the pioneer of 3D, as Power Move Pro Wrestling will forever hold that distinction, yet WCW vs. nWo World Tour was the first for the Nintendo 64 and it set a standard that Power Move could only dream of touching.
Finishing moves, the big attraction of nearly any wrestling game, and the momentum of your wrestler in general, were tied to a spirit meter that fluctuated depending on how well you were doing in the match. The spirit meter largely replaced the usual health bar seen in such games, with the only other way to gauge your character’s health being represented by whether or not they were visibly favouring a part of their body. (which was another brilliant touch, I might add) The meter was represented by a beating bar that either shrank or grew, and changed colours from cold blues to hot reds to match. At its peak, the bar would read “Special” which meant that you had about fifteen seconds or so to hit as many finishing moves as you could. It was yet another innovation in the genre that just brought the whole package together.
But it wasn’t just offense though, oh no, World Tour brought defence! With a little timing, holds could be reversed and strikes blocked or countered. Yeah, sure, I admit the blocking mechanic of having the wrestler puff out their chest to absorb blows looked a little weird, but dammit, it worked. Reversing holds had probably the biggest learning curve, but it was quite satisfying to get the hang of it. Being proficient could make for some interesting matches between evenly skilled players… Or pure frustration for someone just getting into it when up against a player who knew what was going on. I’ve seen both of those in action numerous times.
Even the sound effects for striking and slamming felt satisfying. Do enough damage, and you could even bust open an opponent’s forehead or tear off the masks of guys like Ultimo Dragon and Rey Mysterio. Outside the ring, you could grab weapons out of the audience, which, felt out of place in a WCW game. Was this an ECW game, I would say that NOT being able to get weapons from the crowd was strange, but in a WCW game, it was a little odd. I suppose that they just didn’t have time to program the wrestlers to be able to reach under the ring, where weaponry is typically stashed. Regardless, the amount of little details alone packed into this cart kept me mesmerised when I was playing this one.
If I was to talk about any flaws, I can really only do so in retrospect. I mean, sure, if you had more than two wrestlers in the match and two were in a grapple, the others couldn’t break the grapple. While that might be seen as a flaw, to me, I get the sense of it. From a realism standpoint, it makes sense that hitting one of two guys in a grappling situation would get them to stop grappling and address the hitter. From a gameplay standpoint, though, it can be frustrating, because you could be at the whims of button mashers who just make their wrestler flail their limbs all around the ring. Otherwise, I guess the most glaring thing that still gets me when I play this game is that I can’t slide into the ring from under the ropes; you have to slowly climb onto the apron and step between the ropes. That was something I noticed even then, and hoped would be addressed in a future game (and it was).
The last point I want to add is that this game had a complete feel to it. Back in ’97, you had one shot to get the game right before it was released. There were no patches to fix bugs or glitches that the players might find. Once it was on the market, that was it. (with one exception that I’ll get into later) Some games, especially in this early 3D era, and particularly amongst the saturated racing and sports game genres, could feel wonky and buggy. I had rented/borrowed a few games that felt this way, and it was not often that a game made by anyone other than Rare or Nintendo themselves could truly nail it for the N64. Well, the AKI Corporation did in fact nail it. It had mass appeal, too, even amongst casual and non-wrestling fans, as the game had nuance for wrestling, but was still easy to pick up and play for everyone else. To that end, with its four player battle royals, it was the fighting game choice for parties. Before Super Smash Bros. came along, this was the way to go if you wanted a game where you and a bunch of your buddies could beat the tar out of one another. At least it was for my crew. Countless weekends were spent sleeping over at one another’s houses with this game in an N64 that had controller cords going in every direction.
I didn’t personally get a copy for myself until fall of ’98, when sealed copies of it started to sell for a little cheaper at stores. Why was the price suddenly dipping? Well, THQ had already made the announcement that the sequel was on the way in time for the ’98 holiday season.
That’s right, we’re getting into WCW/nWo Revenge.
Before Revenge could hit the market in November of ’98, though, WWE and Acclaim unveiled their first attempt at the 3D wrestling world with WWF War Zone, and uh… It’s… It’s a game, I guess.
For some reason, Acclaim, who had Power Move Pro Wrestling and WCW vs. nWo World Tour to draw inspiration from, decided that their best bet would be to model their wrestling game not on those proven examples, but on their own Mortal Kombat games. It was not a good call, folks.
Acclaim sent the game out into the world with ports for both the PS1 and N64, and hoped it would somehow compete with not only what AKI Corporation had already done, but had on the way in their sequel.
Acclaim was not even in the same league.
The game handled slowly, the wrestlers walked as though they were carrying a load in their trunks, everything you attempted to do felt clunky and stiff, and worst of all, to do any move stronger than a punch or a top wristlock, you had to memorise convoluted button combos that were lifted straight from Mortal Kombat. The only selling point was to be able to play as one of a small number of the WWE’s roster or to make your own wrestler. Yep, WWF War Zone was the first 3D wrestling game to allow you to do that. Fire Pro Wrestling’s team are the pioneers behind the concept, but again, they were Japan-only at that point. This was the first time that option became available in a North American wrestling game.
It wasn’t enough. There’s little appeal to making your own wrestler when using them is a hassle at best. A friend of mine got the game that year for Christmas, and he and I played it quite a bit, but man, did he ever feel like he got shorted. We could get over the learning curve, and I tried to see the best in the game, but more often than not we’d play no more than two or three matches in a sitting and quickly switch over to something better.
Something like WCW/nWo Revenge, which I got for Christmas that year.
AKI Corporation returned to the ring with a bang for this one. By contrast, World Tour felt like a demo of what AKI’s game engine was capable of accomplishing. They sprinkled a few familiar wrestlers and a splash of WCW branding, but mostly, it was all just icing for their starter cake. The finished cake, the one they set out to make in the first place and present to the judges, was WCW/nWo Revenge.
The engine that AKI debuted in World Tour was back in full force, and it felt even smoother than before, if that was possible. The animations of the moves themselves, which could look a little robotic in World Tour, now looked noticably more natural. Sliding under the ropes when entering the ring was now possible too, eliminating my one critique from before.
The aesthetic of the game got a total overhaul from World Tour, and this is perhaps the biggest deviation from the original. There were more wrestlers than before, in fact, it’s hard to think of any WCW wrestlers who were missing from this one; aside from Ric Flair, that is. (he was ironing out a contractual dispute with WCW when the roster for the game was finalised and missed the cut) Even perennial undercard performers like Disco Inferno and part-timers like Larry Zbyszko were there. It also marked the debut of WCW’s biggest breakthrough commodity in Goldberg, who at that point was at the peak of his young career with his triple-digit undefeated streak.
The doppelgangers of the top stars of Japan’s wrestling scene returned too, but this time they only acted like their counterparts. Costumed characters such as a Samurai warrior, a Frankenstein’s monster, and the zany AKI Man ensured that the movesets were the only thing these stand-ins had in common with Toshiaki Kawada, Jumbo Tsuruta, and Mitsuharu Misawa, respectively.
The game felt fully like a WCW game though, despite the inclusion of these non-WCW wrestlers. The non-descript, minimal, “90’s Pro Wrestling” vibe of World Tour was replaced wholesale with the grungier environment that wrestling in North America in general was firmly entrenched within by 1998. All the arenas were pulled straight from WCW TV and Pay-Per-View programming, and the music went from sporty tracks to hard rock riffs. There were even entrances for each wrestler now, albeit without signature entrance music. The spirit of each wrestler’s mannerisms were accurately captured, though, with guys like Diamond Dallas Page hitting their trademark poses and taunts on their way to the ring. Speaking of DDP, he and others like Randy Savage, Yuji Nagata, and Curt Hennig were now accompanied to the ring by their valets/managers of the day. With a secret button input on an unused controller, one could even control the managers. The game was just packed with neat little touches like that.
On the game options front, players could now participate in a Royal Rumble style battle royal. Although only four wrestlers could be in the ring at any time, an elimination of any of the four would allow the next wrestler to enter, for a total of up to 40 individual wrestlers entering a given match in their turn. The championship belts appeared for the first time, too. Kept to their own mode of play, players could challenge for each belt by running a gauntlet of nine other wrestlers before meeting the champion at the end for a title shot. The winning wrestler could then appear with their belt during their entrances in exhibition modes. Unfortunately, even after winning the belts for the first time, they could only be challenged for again in the gauntlet modes. Each belt did unlock a wrestler on first completion, though, (or wrestlers, in the case of the tag team belts) so it had some purpose.
There was also now a scoring system attached to each match, too. Every possible factor in a match, and how you responded to those factors, had been distilled into a numbered point system. The more points, the higher you rank. Scores were even kept for each specific match type and collective scores for the championship gauntlets were tracked too. It was a neat little add-on, all said.
Revenge fulfilled everything one could reasonably expect in a sequel, and THQ had a second breakout hit on their hands. For N64 wrestling fans, the times couldn’t be better.
The PlayStation owners, though, got shafted. For what was likely due to the turnaround time on multiple video games inside a year, a decision was made between THQ and AKI to have AKI focus solely on the N64 games. In their place, a new company named Inland Productions were given the task of making the next WCW PlayStation game. While N64 owners were waiting for WCW/nWo Revenge, PlayStation owners got WCW Nitro, named after their Monday night hit show.
If that screen shot above looks bad compared to Revenge, it’s because it is. Nitro’s development team went with a different engine than AKI, Yuke’s, or Acclaim had been using to that point, and the results, were… Well, they were mediocre. I mean, the game’s not totally broken, but it is extremely janky. Playing it feels less like an attempt to win, and more like an attempt to not do as badly as the other person does. Hitting moves seems like a stroke of luck at times, and I found even at my most well intentioned, I was just doing the same two or three moves all match. It didn’t help that the AI seemed to be either as dense as mud or blindingly amazing, with no middle ground. Between WWF War Zone and now WCW Nitro, it was quickly looking like the PlayStation was a poor place for the wrestling fan to hang their hat.
Despite how WCW Nitro played, it still sold well enough that it was re-released in Sony’s budget Greatest Hits line-up. This success gave THQ enough reason to let Inland Productions take another crack at it, and this time, they titled the game after WCW’s newest TV show, Thunder. WCW/nWo Thunder was definitely a successor to WCW Nitro, but that’s not saying a whole bunch. It offered minor improvements over the first, and one or two new bells and whistles, but ultimately, it was more of the same. Most importantly to this story, the main distinction this game has today is that its release in January of ’99 made it the last WCW game published by THQ.
Meanwhile, in Stamford, Connecticut; WWE saw how well the Nintendo 64 games featuring WCW’s talent were performing both in the reviews and, most importantly, in the market, and they wanted to form a stable of their own with THQ and AKI. Badly. In fact, while Acclaim was still working on WWF Attitude, the follow-up to WWF War Zone, WWE hit them with a surprise super-kick and Marty Jannetty-d them through the metaphorical Barber Shop window. When WWE brass broached the idea of a partnership with THQ, they were… Interested, to say the least. I mean, this was a company who just a few short years prior, was touting The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle for the SNES as an accomplishment. Now, they were on the cusp of cornering the market for a whole genre of games by virtue of holding the license for the two biggest wrestling companies on the continent. Of course they were only happy to sign a deal with WWE.
That news went over with WCW about as well as Barry Darsow’s “Mr. Hole in One” golfer gimmick did with their audiences. WCW, not wanting to share a game developer with their biggest rival, cancelled their existing deal with THQ/AKI and hit the market in search of a new video game publisher. That single swap by WWE and WCW would make 1999 a notable year for wrestling games thanks solely to the number of them that hit the market in that twelve month span.
Of course, the fortunes of the two companies certainly played a role in the whole matter as well. By this point in the Monday Night (TV ratings) Wars between the two companies, WCW had lost its lead in both the ratings and in the Pay-Per-View buy-ins. To make matters worse for WCW, not only was WWE out in front in both respects, but they were pulling away rapidly. It should be said that WCW was still a viable company by this point, but, especially in hindsight, it seemed like the beginning of the end.
Behind the scenes, WCW was haemorrhaging money due to ballooning expenses and out-of-control spending, a bloated roster of wrestlers, and declining attendance at the gates. Younger wrestlers like Chris Jericho and Eddie Guerrero were looking for a way out, seeing no viable future in the company due in no small part to Hulk Hogan. The reason for that was in the fine print of Hogan’s sweetheart of a contract deal, and particularly, with a creative control clause that allowed Hogan the right to veto any planned storylines of which he didn’t approve. One of the things that Hogan just so happened to disapprove of was passing the torch to the new generation of talent that were on the cusp of succeeding him. Though Jericho, Guerrero, and others like Rey Mysterio Jr. seemed poised to break through the undercard to better positions at various points, they were routinely watching their self-made opportunities crushed beneath the boot of Hogan and his cohorts.
The first of the morale-deprived new generation to leave for perceived greener pastures was Paul Wight, known in WCW as The Giant, (and best known as the Big Show, though that came later) who arrived to the open and inviting doors of the WWE in February of ‘99. The departure of WCW’s largest athlete was huge, but not just in terms of his physical presence and star power; it was also a portent of the veritable exodus from Club Hogan to McMahonLand that was to come.
WCW’s stock had diminished considerably, and their refusal to share THQ/AKI with WWE was but one more straw on the back of an already strained camel. With a shrug and a wave goodbye, THQ took the plucky little AKI Corporation and their magical wrestling engine, and went to work for the WWE.
Still, THQ had one more WCW game for N64 owners. You’re probably thinking, “Wait, is this some unreleased version of Revenge or a Japan-only game?” No, it was neither of those. Instead, it was a port of WCW Nitro from the PS1. It hit stores at nearly the exact same time that its own follow-up, WCW/nWo Thunder, did for the PS1, and brought the uh, action, for the lack of a better word, to the last cartridge console. What’s it like? Well, it was Nitro, a game that was released a year prior for the PS1 and was already succeeded by a sequel there. Nintendo Power and other gaming magazines of the day spent some time covering the game, despite Revenge, which was superior in every conceivable manner, having been released a mere two months before. It was also ported to Windows-hosting PCs, but even that port made more sense to me than the Nintendo 64 one. At least PCs really didn’t have anything else in the wrestling genre to pick from, besides WWF In Your House. Revenge and even World Tour made Nitro an afterthought for both THQ and the N64 in ‘99, and that the port was green-lit still baffles me to this day.
Acclaim, meanwhile, brought WWF Attitude to market in August of ’99 for the PS1, N64, and Sega’s new Dreamcast console, and it sold fairly well heading into the holiday season. For me, the lasting impact of the game is both the tribute to Owen Hart (who tragically passed away in May of that year) at the opening of the game, and the fact that it would be the last time he appeared as a playable character in a WWE game. (His only appearances since then have been in two later Acclaim wrestling games Legends of Wrestling II in 2002 and its follow-up, Showdown: Legends of Wrestling in 2004) The game itself played like WWF War Zone, but it had a larger roster, a few more features, and a sleeker appearance. If you’re going to play one of the three Acclaim wrestling games for the Nintendo 64, this one is probably the go-to for the best overall experience.
WCW, desperate for a holder of their video game license that wasn’t Acclaim, quickly signed on with Electronic Arts, or EA Games. Given EA’s success as both a publisher and a developer, this seemed like a no-brainer of an idea. (In those days, anyway) If anyone had the tools and the knowledge to make a game that would be competitive with the AKI Corporation’s engine, it would surely be the makers of the best selling sports games in North America, right?
Oh, how I wish that were the case.
EA decided that development of WCW’s next game should not be done in house by say, EA Sports, but rather, by an upstart company called Kodiak Interactive Software Studios Inc. The developers would be short lived, and there’s little information to be found on them. From what I could determine, though, it seems that they had one game prior to being tasked with making WCW’s games. Was it a wrestling game? No, sir. Maybe a fighting game? Nope, try again. Uh… A beat-em-up game, at the very least? Yeah, still no. It was a real-time strategy/aerial combat PC game called Stratosphere: Conquest of the Skies.
I’d be genuinely curious to know how EA came to the conclusion that Kodiak was the company to make a wrestling game. There must be something that made EA, a company with its own in-house development teams (yes teams, plural), decide that a still-valuable license like WCW should be handled by an outside company with zero experience in making anything besides one RTS game. It’s not even remotely the same genre or game style.
Perhaps EA simply didn’t care whether or not the WCW game was even remotely playable or perhaps there was something that Kodiak was putting forward that gave EA reason to believe in them. I mean, every video game developer had to start somewhere, after all. AKI Corporation, for instance, had no other games to their name when they premiered their famous game engine with WCW vs. nWo World Tour, and that had become a screaming success that gave way to two smash hit Nintendo 64 games by that point. So, maybe there was some reason to believe that Kodiak could at least make a decent game?
You know what? If they had more time, I believe Kodiak might have been able to at least do that much. WCW Mayhem, though, had only about a year of development before it was released for both the Nintendo 64 and the PlayStation in September of ’99.
WCW Mayhem was, in a word, flawed. I owned this game by late 2000, getting it used from a local game store with the box and all for very little. When I first played it, I couldn’t help but think that it was… Off. The pieces were there for this to be a solid game, and I tried to get the most out of it, but if I’m being honest, it never rose to being anything more than just okay. Upon trying it again for this piece, it felt like hot garbage. Whatever made me think it had potential back then, I’ll never know. It’s functional, that much I can say about it. It was also the first WCW game to feature a Create-A-Wrestler feature. What stands out to me now is that for some reason, all the wrestlers hold their arms in front of themselves as if it was some sort of rib where everyone was pretending they were a T-Rex. I’d put it at par with Acclaim’s three N64 wrestling games, but again, I’m not giving it much credit. I dunno, there’s not much else to say about it. Play it to say you did, but don’t stick around expecting WCW/nWo Revenge 2.
Trivia: WCW Mayhem came with a Pay-Per-View mode, where you could put together your own cards and then play through them from start to finish. Along with this mode was an option to input codes that would then generate a card identical to whatever actual pay-per-view WCW was holding at that exact moment. Despite how nifty and cutting-edge this mode might have seemed, the codes stopped coming about three months into Mayhem’s release. Why? I refer you back to that exodus I mentioned a while ago. Yep, WCW’s roster changed so rapidly and dramatically around this time that the game’s roster was too outdated to simulate WCW’s pay-per-view cards at only the three-month mark into the experiment. Admittedly, Mayhem’s roster itself had been finalised well before the game’s release, but the trivia still stands.
As for Revenge 2, it hit shelves in November of ’99, after both of Acclaim’s and EA’s games had already tried to make their mark. Oh, and it was called WWF WrestleMania 2000.
For that niche of WWE diehards who owned an N64 and simply would not give WCW the time of day, there was finally an AKI wrestling game for them. Visually, the game looked like a re-skinned version of WCW/nWo Revenge, and in many respects, it played the same. Yet, under the hood, there were quite a number of changes. This was no mere WCW game with a fresh coat of WWE paint; this was its own thing.
For one, the AI had definitely been re-tooled, or at least, their bag of tricks had been refilled, because AI opponents actually felt smarter than they had in Revenge. You could now find yourself in the sitting and kneeling positions, providing new positions of attack to perform strikes and holds. Speaking of strikes and holds, there was a huge upgrade on that front and the rosters’ movesets showed even more variety.
The roster also received an expected total overhaul. Chris Jericho and the Giant, now known as the Big Show, were the lone holdovers from Revenge. X-Pac was also in his second AKI appearance, with the first being as Syxx in World Tour. Everyone else was making their AKI N64 debuts, and this time, it was complete with their own theme songs. Even if those theme songs were highly condensed and just barely above MIDI quality. Overall, WrestleMania 2000 contained 57 characters, which was down from Revenge’s 63. They also featured a roster of women wrestlers for the first time, and the substitutes for Japanese wrestling stars were gone.
However, AKI made up for the slightly smaller roster with one HUGE replacement: Create-A-Wrestler.
Oh yeah, that’s right, AKI finally made an editing suite.
Though I had played both WWF War Zone and WWF Attitude by this point (WCW Mayhem came later) and had seen the Create-A-Wrestler suites in those games, WM 2000 blew them out of the water. There was nothing quite like being able to build your own wrestlers in an AKI wrestling game, ya know? There just wasn’t. The Acclaim games were a taste of create-a-wrestler, at best. Sure, there were a host of options for a pair of games by developers that were just trying to figure this stuff out for the first time, but with how lacklustre the Acclaim games generally were, editing things just didn’t feel satisfying. Having creation options in AKI wrestling games, though? That was a whole other league. I will admit that the aesthetic portion felt a little basic; it was mostly just mixing and matching the parts of the real wrestlers to make something different, but man, it seemed like such a huge deal to me at the time. It was creative freedom in the best wrestling game around, and I ate it up. Assigning your wrestler’s move set was the real bread and butter, though, and that process left nothing out. It could take a solid hour if you took the time to go through each move and scenario. In some scenarios, like grappling an opponent who was standing on an apron while you were in the ring, there were only one or two options. But still, that you had some measure of choice over what your created wrestler could do in any given situation at least felt liberating.
Once you had created a wrestler, what were you to do with them then? For starters, you could send them into battle in one-on-one steel cage matches. Yep. AKI added their first Steel Cage match to WM 2000 too. This one got my attention immediately. Yeah, sure, it’s another facet that Acclaim did first, but again, it meant more in an AKI game.
This was also the first AKI game to add Triple Threat Matches as an option. Oddly, the two WCW AKI games did have 1-on-2 matches, tag team matches, and battle royals, but it took until AKI’s third instalment to add triple threat matches. It might be because it wasn’t a popular match variant up to that point, and I can’t recall WCW even having any triple threat matches until near the end of the company’s run. Perhaps there’s more to it than that, though. For all I know, it might have been a nightmare to program into the games.
The 8-person, single elimination tournament returned from World Tour, and naturally, it was now called it the King of the Ring mode. The gauntlet Battle Royal mode got renamed as well, appropriately taking on the Royal Rumble moniker. Belts also turned up again, but unlike in Revenge, they could be challenged for in exhibition mode. You could technically “create” championships, but all it entailed was picking one of the existing WWE belts and putting your own name on it. One nice touch though, was that as the created belts changed hands, their own, unique histories were written. Brand new to the game was a Pay-Per-View mode, where you could put together your own card, and then play through it. In hindsight, this mode required a bit of imagination to derive extended enjoyment from it, but it was neat at the time.
The meat of the game, though, and certainly the part which was hyped the most in the lead-up to its release, was the Road to WrestleMania mode.
In Road to WrestleMania, players took their created wrestler, or their favourite star, from the bottom of the card to the top in the span of a year, with the end goal being to be the main event of wrestling’s biggest night of the year. It could be a long road, especially once you won more than one championship, as it could mean at least one match in each division every week, not to mention having to play nearly every match on a Pay-Per-View. Despite the perhaps overstayed welcome of the mode, it had its moments, such as the feuds it could generate between the player and the various opponents you came up against. It was also the only way to unlock hidden wrestlers, and sometimes that might take several play-throughs as different wrestlers. (Usually not for more than an in-game month for any specific wrestler, though)
WrestleMania 2000 seemed to bring it all and left fans wanting for little. It would be the last of four wrestling game to be released for the Nintendo 64 that year, and for the five year span of the console, ’99 would be the busiest year for wrestling games. It wasn’t the last year for them, though.
The year 2000 started with a Japan-only release that can’t go without mentioning in this article. You see, as AKI was sending WrestleMania 2000 out into the world, they were also working on a re-skin/re-tool of the game engine for Japanese audiences. The project, titled Virtual Pro Wrestling 2, removed all of the WWE wrestlers and replaced them with a plethora of the top stars and legends from across all the major Japanese promotions at the time. The guts of the game were nearly identical to WrestleMania 2000, but the roster, and a few other tweaks and additions, made it a unique addition to the Nintendo 64’s library.
Current wrestling stars like AJ Styles, Samoa Joe, Cody Rhodes, and Kenny Omega have all spoke at length about the impact of Virtual Pro 2, and many of them have even listed it as their favourite wrestling game. The appeal of it, and the lack of a localised version for North America, has led to Virtual Pro 2 being among the most imported Nintendo 64 games from Japan to North America. It has even sparked a robust translation and modding community online, one that’s rivalled only by the AKI Corporation’s final Nintendo 64 game.
Virtual Pro 2 kicked off the new millennium for wrestling games, finding its way into homes in Japan in January of that year. Fans in North America however, started 2000 on a… Well… A unique note.
The first wrestling game of the new millennium in North America came not from WCW or WWE, but from a different company altogether: Extreme Championship Wrestling. The brainchild of former WCW manager Paul Heyman, (known there as Paul E. Dangerously) ECW started off as a Pennsylvania territory of the faltering NWA, then known as Eastern Championship Wrestling. By the late 90’s, with the E changed from Eastern to Extreme, it had established itself as a place where brilliant wrestlers like Lance Storm and Jerry Lynn met masochistic practitioners of hardcore wrestling like Sabu and New Jack for a counter-culture revolution that rippled all throughout the industry.
The grungy aesthetic and extreme antics of ECW not only inspired the big two, both companies readily lifted ideas wholesale from ECW. Suffice it to say, the Attitude Era that brought both WCW and WWE to untold heights of popularity came in no small part thanks to ECW. Regardless, ECW was never more than a distant third to the big two companies. Though they had rabid fan bases in Philadelphia and New York, expansion beyond those markets remained difficult. Even when they secured a Friday night TV deal with The Nashville Network and pay-per-view broadcast deals with the major providers, ECW just could not compete with the ratings and profits of WWE and WCW. Further complicating matters, WCW and WWE used their deep pockets to lure away ECW’s top stars as fast as Heyman could make them, robbing them of key players like Raven, Bam Bam Bigelow, the Dudley Boys, Taz, and Mike Awesome just as each were hitting their zeniths in ECW.
Regardless of these setbacks, ECW was still hanging on, and looking for any way to gain a foothold in the major wrestling landscape that WWE and WCW were in a tug-of-war over. Enter Acclaim, who just so happened to have a ready-to-go engine for wrestling games that neither of the Big Two wanted. It seemed like an ideal pairing for both parties: Acclaim saw money in making wrestling games, even if their engine was doing little to win over gamers. For Heyman, simply having a game of any quality with his company’s name on it allowed ECW to break into a medium that was utterly unattainable to most wrestling companies. The result of this partnership between our duo of determined underdogs was ECW Hardcore Revolution.
Like Attitude before it, Hardcore Revolution was released for the PS1, Dreamcast, and N64 simultaneously. Also like both of its predecessors, it wasn’t overly good. Hardcore Revolution stripped away all the WWE branding, but the game still looked and played identically to Attitude. All of the modes and match types from Attitude returned with only the names changed to suit ECW’s terminology and vibe. The only major addition to the new installment was the barbed wire ropes match. At its core, the new match type simply meant that whipping your opponent into the ropes did damage and caused them to fall down instead of return to you. Apart from running yourself into the barbed wire, there was absolutely no other way to interact with the new environment.
Everything else in the game was merely ECW-branded window dressing, and the novelty of playing as ECW’s 1999 roster is the lone reason to play the game today. A follow-up titled ECW Anarchy Rulz was made for the Sega Dreamcast and the PlayStation and was released by August of that same year, only six months separated from the previous game. Anarchy Rulz was basically Hardcore Revolution 1.5, providing just enough of an update to warrant a new title. That game would prove to be both the last outing for the original ECW entity in the video game market and the last game to be made with that particular wrestling engine.
For the PlayStation owners, two decent wrestling games were inbound in 2000. WWF SmackDown! and WWF SmackDown! 2: Know Your Role were released within eight months of one another, arriving in March and November respectively. Just as they had done with their WCW titles after World Tour and WCW vs. the World, THQ hired a different developer to handle their PlayStation WWE games. Following the “meh” reception to WCW/nWo Thunder, Inland Productions were quietly dropped from THQ’s PlayStation projects and a ringer was brought in: That little company I mentioned earlier named Yuke’s, who had not only Power Move Pro Wrestling on their resume, but six games based on New Japan Pro Wrestling, known as the Shin Nippon series. If anyone could punch out a few wrestling games in short order for the PS1, THQ was betting that Yuke’s were the ones to do it. Yuke’s, in turn, said “Challenge accepted”.
The first two SmackDown! games, while maybe not quite as playable as the AKI games are today, do provide a frenzied, arcade-style level of fun that no other wrestling games from this era quite have. Seriously, with a multi-tap to allow for four players, either SmackDown! game made for some serious party fun (even with the often ridiculous loading times). The CD quality soundtrack, full motion videos, and season mode further helped both games stand out from what AKI was doing on the N64. One feature I always liked, that started in the SmackDown! games, was the ability to store finishers. There was nothing quite like banking five finishers with Steve Austin only to quickly unleash stunner after stunner on your opponent. It was as much a troll move on your friends as stealing a star in the Mario Party games. The second SmackDown! game was also the first to introduce the Hell in the Cell match option, although it was slightly inaccurate to the real thing. In fact, Hell in the Cell in SmackDown 2 was simply a standard steel cage with a top and a few breakable panels on the roof and sides. Still, though, the attempt to replicate the hellish structure was there, and that certainly meant something.
I could go on about the SmackDown! games, but I think I’ll hold off, as that might be an entry for another time. Let’s move on instead to WCW, who provided the last game of 2000. If you know what’s coming up, I apologise in advance. I know a certain other game came out a month before it, and I’m going to get to it, but let’s get this one out of the way before then. I’ll try to be brief; I know everyone’s getting impatient.
For the follow up to WCW Mayhem, Kodiak Entertainment was tasked with bringing WCW’s recent mimicry of ECW’s hardcore style to the TV. The resulting game was every bit as convoluted as that previous sentence. WCW Backstage Assault, released in December of 2000, took the most notable physical asset of pro wrestling, the ring, and removed it entirely from the game. The whole experience of Backstage Assault takes place within the bowels of an arena, allowing you to move about and interact with such spaces as the parking lot, the production room, and the locker room. In these hazardous environments, you’re pitted in constant extreme rules matches starring such hardcore wrestling luminaries as wrestling boy band Three Count.
My only take away from the game now is my memory of my first time playing it at a friends’ house. I still have the recollection of playing alongside these two brothers while the three of us all tried vainly to find the ring, feeling certain that it was hidden in the game somewhere. It played in the same rough manner that Mayhem did, but with every bit of potential sucked out of it by the asinine decision to have the player wrestle everywhere in the arena BUT the ring. I know, I know, Backstage Assault is the title, but I naively believed that it would merely feature a robust backstage setting, not that it would only feature the backstage areas.
I still maintain that had Kodiak been left alone to just build on the first game and build an actual successor to WCW Mayhem then they might have been able to make a decent game. Alternatively, if Backstage Assault had never been made, and Mayhem was given two full years to develop, that too might have allowed Kodiak to make something worth playing. I mean, the bare bones structure of a functioning wrestling engine was there, it just never had the chance to be properly fleshed out.
While both the ECW and WCW brands made for mediocre bookends to what AKI had cooking, the sins of both could be forgotten, for the year 2000 for Nintendo-64-owning-wrestling fans was defined by one game, and one game alone.
WWF No Mercy.
The hype leading up to this game had wrestling fans everywhere worked up, and I was definitely not unique in that sense. It was seemingly promising everything BUT a Hell in the Cell mode, and many still held out hope that there would be one. With three hits in three years under its belt, AKI had a reputation of delivering the next level in wrestling gaming up to this point, so the pressure was there with No Mercy to really bring something that topped even those three games. Could they do that?
Yes. They absolutely could, and then some.
I had my copy not long after its release, choosing to spend all my birthday money so that I could be among the first to have it. The memory of booting it up for the first time is still vivid, and the hours I spent playing it afterwards are uncountable now. I don’t know that there’s been a more satisfying initial wrestling game experience for me before or since. Maybe WWF Royal Rumble, for no other reason than it was my first SNES game, and I was younger and more excitable then than I was by 2000. But, even then, No Mercy might still top it. World Tour, likewise, impressed me for being the first 3D wrestling game I had ever played. It was the start of the whole thing, after all. By No Mercy, the genre and AKI had come a long way with their games. That they managed such a massive upgrade for this game was, in itself, every bit as impressive as the initial feat.
To start, there was a major graphical overhaul of everything. The polygonal appearance of the wrestlers was greatly smoothened out for more realistic proportions, the facial features were more prominent and didn’t look entirely flat anymore, and details like tattoos and ring gear were sharpened considerably. The arena itself got an upgrade, and it never looked more like the real thing. For example, turnbuckle pads actually looked like turnbuckle pads and not just triangular shapes. The ring steps became not just a part of the scenery, but were now a usable asset to either climb or use as a weapon. Even the announcer’s table was here, complete with ability to be destroyed by slamming your opponent through it.
The sound effects were revamped, and the bumps and thuds of the slams had a distinct, new sound to them that was even more satisfying than before. Due to the Nintendo 64’s cartridge limitations, the music was the same, condensed, tinny sound as found in WrestleMania 2000, but it was acceptable, and AKI made it work. One neat little thing to note in that regard was that as you switched between the various headings on the main menu, the music changed subtly. The underlying bass line remained the same, but the overlaying track would change accordingly as you went. It was a unique feature that you really didn’t see too often. I will say though, that on my most recent play for this piece, I found No Mercy’s music to be straining the speakers of the old tube TV I use for my retro consoles. The other AKI games, or any other games I played for this, don’t stress it out at all, so I thought it odd that No Mercy was so screechy. Maybe it’s the TV, as it wasn’t something I can recall on other TVs over the years. Either way, I thought it worth mentioning here.
The meat of No Mercy though, lay in the breadth of options available to the player. Steel cage was back, and looked much cleaner than before. Gone was the old, steel bar cage, replaced instead with the chain-link fencing WWE now used. They also made the wall closest to the camera transparent when not climbing it, and that allowed for a better view into the ring. New match types included guest referee, (try playing this in multiplayer, you’ll be begging for the star-stealing antics of Mario Party) the iron man match, and the much-anticipated ladder match.
In nearly any of these new match types, apart from the cage match, you could take the fight into the entranceway. You might be saying, “Duh, Chris, we could do that in Revenge and WrestleMania 2000.” No, I mean that when you whipped your opponent toward the ramp, you switched to a whole, new screen with a fully detailed entranceway of that arena. From there, a toss of an opponent to the curtain could send you both to a backstage hallway with even more doors. You could then take the battle to the boiler room, the parking lot, the locker room, and… a bar. This might seem odd until you remember that the APA tag team of Farooq and Bradshaw frequently hosted their promos from a makeshift bar and had barroom brawls. It works, and the breakable pool table was always a neat feature. Unlike Backstage Assault, AKI made the backstage area a fun deviation from the norm, with the added bonus of, you know, still having a ring.
Beyond that, AKI totally revamped their creation suite, which they now placed under the heading “Commissioner”, since it was popular at the time to label on-screen authority figures as the commissioner. Creating wrestlers was easier than ever thanks to a streamlined layout from WrestleMania 2000. There were a few major additions to the list of available moves, and the physical options for building a wrestler was beefed up too.
An added touch was that you could move around the layout of how the existing wrestlers and created wrestlers appeared in the character selection mode. Entirely superficial, sure, but it was a neat addition that allowed players the freedom to arrange the game to their personal tastes.
Adding a No Mercy slot on a controller pack gave you alternate storage for your creations, as well. Now, you could bring your created wrestlers with you to your friends’ carts, or just have backups in case the game cart initialised on itself. Which was a problem, but I’ll get into that a little later.
From commissioner mode, you could also spend your in-game cash on unlockable attire, weapons, arenas, and wrestlers. But wait, how did you get that dough? That brings us to the two primary game modes: championship mode and Survival mode.
The former mode replaced WrestleMania 2000’s Road to WrestleMania. In the new and improved championship mode, you picked a championship belt and an applicable superstar to challenge for it. For example, only light heavyweights could challenge for the Light Heavyweight Championship, only women could challenge for the Women’s Championship, and so forth. Actually, now that I think about it, those are the only two restricted championships. Anyway, once you’ve selected your championship and the wrestler that’s going for it, you’re faced with a series of matches. In each match, there’s either a condition to win the match, or you’re free to win or lose. How you achieve victory in these unrestricted matches sways your position on the storyline tree, giving you different encounters and matches and providing a whole different narrative depending on how you played. Each belt had its own, unique storyline tree, and most were based on feuds and storylines from the previous year or two in WWE’s history. I spent hours upon hours in this mode trying to unlock every last storyline branch. Losing matches was never so much fun as when you were trying to lose by different methods to get different storyline paths. Of course, being an N64 game, there was no spoken dialogue, but AKI did a great job emulating the various storylines and feuds for the game with comic-book style speech balloons. I thought it turned out great, and it’s still fun to play today.
Lastly, there’s Survival mode, and it’s the best way to rack up the big bucks for unlocking things. It’s also the only way to unlock several wrestlers. In Survival mode, you pick one wrestler and start at the #1 spot in a royal rumble with altered rules. First major rule change: there’s 100 wrestlers. Now, there’s not even that many in the game, but they make up for this. Once you’ve cleared through the whole roster, the back half of the battle royal sees a return of the same wrestlers, this time in their second attire slot. I suppose if you wanted to shake things up you could change the name and appearance of the second attire slot of each wrestler so that it looks like you have a 100 different wrestlers in one match. Second rule change: you could not only throw your opponent out of the ring, but also KO, pin, or submit your opponents to get them out of the match. The method by which you eliminated your opponents, and how many you eliminated by each method, determined how much money you made at the end of the match. The difficulty mode in Survival is automatically set to Normal, so you best be ready to hang ‘er tough if you step into that one.
No Mercy was the peak of AKI’s body of work to that point, and it left an indelible mark on wrestling fans that remains to this day. Everything that’s come after it has inevitably been compared to it, and so few games ever seem to even come close to matching up to it. What, if anything, can be said in the negative on such a monolithic title?
Well, I do have two points of contention. The first is the least egregious to the two: lag. In any match type with four wrestlers in the ring, besides survival mode, the game lags. Tag team, battle royal, one-on-one with managers present, doesn’t matter; the game slows down to the point where it’s quite noticeable. You have to adjust your timing for reversing holds and strikes, especially if you’re playing against higher difficulty AI, as they obviously require no adjustment time to the slower speed. That’s how noticeable it gets. Having an expansion pack doesn’t help, either, though you’d think that AKI would have taken advantage of the extra memory and coded it accordingly.
Second issue and the worst part of No Mercy, which I briefly touched on earlier: the random erasure of the cartridge’s save file. Every time you start No Mercy, it’s a little game of Russian roulette. Will my cart start normally? Or will everything I’ve unlocked and all my created wrestlers by cast into the void? Who knows! More often than not, you’re fine, but every now and again, out of the blue, BAM, the cart’s wiped clean. There’s nothing you can do about it, either. However, it is a known bug in the coding of the game. AKI were aware of it, and they did fix it, sorta. Being that these were the days before mainstream internet connectivity to consoles, there was no such thing as patching games once they were released, as I covered earlier. This potentially game-breaking bug became so problematic that THQ and AKI even came up with a unique solution that only happened once in the Nintendo 64 library: you could send in your cart and have it swapped out for a new version that fixed the bug. They also, for some reason, removed blood from the game in this updated version. You could still technically bloody your opponent, and they’d go through the same frames of animation that happen when a wrestler gets bloodied, but there was no blood to be seen. Weird trade off, but it was the only way to not have your game blank on you.
I still have an original cart, and mine actually blanked out a save file that had existed for over a decade or more only recently. I hadn’t played the game in an age, but still, it was a bummer to be sure to lose the 100% unlocked game and have to start from scratch.
Lastly, and this might be a “me” problem, but going into and exiting a match, the screen flashes to white, and I have to either close my eyes or look away in these instances. The flashes of No Mercy are more likely to give me a migraine than anything else I have encountered anywhere in my life. Duke Nukem: Zero Hour on the N64 gave me my first ever migraine, but No Mercy introduced me to a whole new world of hurt until I zeroed in on the white flashes being the problem. Again, this might be a “me” problem, but it certainly deters me from wanting to play as I get older and more prone to migraines. If I go for an AKI game now, the migraine issue alone makes me want to pick something other than No Mercy.
Apart from those three things, it’s as close to perfect as a wrestling game could ever come. Even playing it for this piece, I found it incredibly enjoyable. Then again, I could say the same for the other three AKI games too. There’s a unique quality to them that’s been impossible to replicate by what’s come after. You know what, though? If you’re a developer and you’re reading this, it’s probably best to stay away from trying to replicate it. Much of what has come after in terms of wrestling games has promised to be the “Next No Mercy” and none of them have achieved that. There’s one company who holds the original code to that engine, and they aren’t making wrestling games anymore. So, unless you can convince them to start making wrestling games again, with enough of the original development team to oversee the project, there will never be a No Mercy 2.
That brings us to the epilogue of this story. Some of you might even be thinking “Wait, Chris, if AKI aren’t making wrestling games anymore, then what are they doing?” The short answer is that they make fashion games now.
THQ and AKI parted ways after No Mercy, and THQ tapped Yuke’s, the makers of the SmackDown! series, to continue working on WWE video games. The SmackDown! series continued for the PlayStation 2 from 2001 to 2003, producing three games titled Just Bring It, Shut Your Mouth, and the one game that might have matched No Mercy’s popularity: Here Comes the Pain.
The successor to the Nintendo 64, the Nintendo GameCube, got its own, unique games from Yuke’s starting with WrestleMania X8 and WrestleMania XIX and ending with the two Day of Reckoning games. The GameCube games attempted to emulate the spirit of the AKI games with their own engine that was unique from the SmackDown! engine, but none of them quite added up to it, though they were enjoyable for what they offered.
Microsoft’s shiny new X-Box got three WWE games, none of which were developed by Yuke’s. WWE RAW and RAW 2 were handled by Anchor Studios, and the third X-Box WWE game, titled WrestleMania 21, was handled by Studio Gigante. Like Kodiak and Inland Productions before them, Anchor and Studio Gigante didn’t last too long. The first RAW and WrestleMania 21 don’t hold up well, but if you wanted to pick one X-Box WWE game, I’d go with RAW 2. It’s invariably the best of the three and is still pretty playable today.
THQ kept publishing Yuke’s efforts under the SmackDown! vs. RAW brand starting in 2004, releasing yearly new titles with only the calendar year at the end of the title to distinguish them. They also began porting them to both the X-Box 360 (starting with SvR 2007) and the PS3 (starting with SvR 2008). After SvR 2011, THQ dropped the the SvR branding and just began calling their games WWE followed by the last two digits of the year. This lasted for only WWE ’12 and ’13, though, as big changes happened. Namely, THQ went under.
The WWE games had kept THQ alive longer than any critics of theirs in the SNES days would have guessed, but the bell finally tolled for them in 2012. It was the end of a little company that either stumbled into a WCW licensing deal, or perhaps saw potential in it, and had the intestinal fortitude to hitch their wagon to an unknown developer called The Man Breeze in hopes that they could make a wrestling game together. THQ took a chance, which was their modus operandi anyway, but in this case, it not only paid off, it delivered some of the very best games in the 64-bit generation of gaming. When THQ went down, it was the end of a wild ride that really could have gone either way from the start. You’ll be missed, you crazy diamonds.
In the liquidation auction of THQ’s assets, 2K games, known best for their NBA 2K franchise, swooped in for the save for the WWE series. They retained Yuke’s’ services, and though they changed the series name to WWE 2K, the games remained basically the same. This relationship between 2K and Yuke’s seemed to be working out for the following years, until Yuke’s pulled the plug late into development of WWE 2K20. The result of 2K20 is a debacle of its own, and I won’t get into it, but it forced 2K games to rethink their aim of making yearly instalments. Visual Concepts, a co-developer with Yuke’s, were forced to rebuild the engine from scratch by themselves in a ludicrously tight timeline, resulting in a rushed and largely unplayable game.
Yuke’s was last seen developing a game for WWE’s chief rival: All-Elite Wrestling or AEW. The game has yet to see the day of light, but progress reports are continually forthcoming, indicating that they are indeed working on it. No Mercy’s director, Hideyuki Iwashita, is even attached to the project, so look out for that.
Then there’s AKI. After their relationship ended with THQ, they initially had plans to keep making wrestling games. EA announced a sequel to WCW Mayhem, though all that remain of that project are a few working screen shots of a Goldberg model in a ring-less fighting environment in PS2-esque graphics. AKI were allegedly the company tapped as the developers, and despite being a sequel to WCW Mayhem, we know from AKI’s involvement that it would have in fact been a return to WCW’s roster via the No Mercy engine. The WCW deal was rendered moot when WCW themselves were bought out by WWE, leaving a half-finished game with no company to base it on.
While nothing tangible but the screenshots exist of Mayhem 2, AKI did develop a wrestling game released in 2003 by EA Sports Big called Def Jam Vendetta. The game, released for the Nintendo GameCube and the PlayStation 2, definitely has the AKI engine behind it, though it’s stripped down considerably from No Mercy. It’s light on modes, but big on over-the-top arcade-style fun starring a roster of real and fictional rappers and fighters like Method Man and Ludacris. While you won’t find any branching championship mode or even a steel cage match, the story and barebones exhibition mode do offer some replay value.
Vendetta had one more AKI-developed sequel in 2004 called Def Jam: Fight for New York. It plays close to the No Mercy engine, but focuses more on the street fighting than the wrestling aspect. In fact, many of the fighting arenas dispense with the ring altogether, but I will say that this choice fits with the theme, and it’s not jarring like in Backstage Assault. It’s a great game in its own right, with a compelling story mode, and some pretty wild fight scenarios. I recommend playing both games if you can. Vendetta is fairly reasonably priced these days, but Fight for NY can be on the pricy side. Luckily, neither one is terribly hard to find. Odds are that your local second-hand video game store can hook you up.
At the same time that they were making the Def Jam games, AKI also teamed up with Bandai to give the Ultimate Muscle, or Kinnikuman, franchise the AKI treatment. Ultimate Muscle: Legends vs. New Generation for the GameCube arrived first in 2003. The second game, Galactic Wrestling Featuring Ultimate Muscle arrived in 2004 for the PlayStation 2. I’ve yet to play either one, but from the footage I’ve seen, it certainly seems familiar to AKI’s other wrestling games, albeit with that wild, extremely exaggerated Kinnikuman style. Both are on the harder side to find these days, and tend to be pricy, with the GameCube one alone typically going for $100 in complete condition (that means to have the case and manual). I can’t recommend them one way or the other as I haven’t played either one, but as I said before, they at least appear to have that AKI feel to them.
After these last few wrestling games, AKI lifted their creation suite from the wrestling engine and instead turned their focus to making fashion games for the Japanese market under a new company name: syn Sophia. While it’s highly unlikely that they’ll delve into the world of wrestling again, we can at least be happy with the games we did get for the Nintendo 64 and even the Def Jam and Kinnikuman games. Their wrestling game engine almost had no business being as good as it was. These were games, starting with World Tour, that made even Nintendo take notice. Until then, wrestling games in North America were a handful of button mashers and one forgotten Nintendo IP that seemed suited to die-hard wrestling fans. AKI though, they made something that everyone wanted to play on the Nintendo 64, and more importantly, they made something that stands the test of time and endures within the upper echelon of Nintendo 64’s top games. If syn Sophia never make another wrestling game, they can do so knowing that they went out on top, as the champions of the genre. Who else can say that?
If you’re looking for World Tour, Revenge, WrestleMania 2000, or No Mercy, the first three are usually available in the $10 range. No Mercy is the only one that can be pricy, as it usually sells for around $40. The rare, non-glitch version I mentioned earlier will set you back about $400 or more, if you can find it, but there’s no need to spend that much for No Mercy. Go with the regular version and take your chances, I say.
That’s it for the longest review I’ve done to date. What do you think? Do you agree or disagree with my assessment of the games? Have a memory of your own to share? Feel free to comment here or wherever the links for the article are shared and let us know. Got a suggestion for a game or series I should review? Feel free to email us at thegoldandsteelsaga”at”gmail.com and tell us about it.
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