The Lazy, Tumbling, Decline Of Wrestling Video Games
Disclaimer: This is about wrestling video games in the United States and does not reflect the success of such games that are exclusive to Japan and other countries. In other words, yes, despite its controls, Fire Pro Wrestling is awesome, and the AKI engine is responsible for all that is good in modern grappling gaming, but we don't have time for a Ken Burns version of this article.
Does it feel like a decade since you've played a really good pro wrestling video game? That's because you're right. Back in my day (and I'm old, like born-before-The-Simpsons old), you had both wrestling and non-wrestling fans alike hyped to play WWF No Mercy on our N64s between sessions of GoldenEye. Just one Google search of "WWF No Mercy + best" will provide you listicle upon listicle and article upon article singing its praises.
Behold: The Holy Grail of Digital Grappling.
But if you've been gaming for the past decade, you're likely finding yourself itching for that sweet powerbomb-off-the-ladder-onto-a-flimsy-table fix from your current-gen console. Why is that? It's likely because there has been a significant decline in quality grappling games being presented to the masses, culminating with WWE 2K20, which buried wrestling gaming with a DDT (deeply disappointing time).
How did it get this bad?
It's straight-up untrue to say that there hasn't been a good wrestling game since WWF No Mercy. Other great wrestling games emerged from the WWE landscape, specifically the Playstation/PS2 WWF Smackdown! series entries Just Bring It and Here Comes The Pain by Yukes. But much like how the business of pro wrestling cooled down after the Monday Night Wars, so did the quality of wrestling games.
Their digital decline mirrored how the real WWE suffered without competition, as World Championship Wrestling and Extreme Championship Wrestling got absorbed into the WWE in 2001; there were fewer available licenses for gaming companies to connect with to create games based on their rosters. While ECW's games didn't set the world on fire, and WCW World Tour was a predecessor to the WWF Wrestlemania 2000 and WWF No Mercy games, they at least created the motivation to make sure WWF games were more than "passable" but "good to great." Without WCW World Tour being a hit, the highly praised No Mercy would never have existed, and we'd be stuck with WWF War Zone.
Imagine being stuck with gorilla-butted grapplers holding in farts and cupping their hands
before doing yet another bodyslam regardless of what buttons you pushed.
After WCW folded, WWE games were still doing pretty okay critically but arguably peaked at WWE '13. WWE '13 not only had a stacked roster and good gameplay but had tons of match modes, let you use licensed MP3s for your wrestlers' theme, Create-A-Wrestler/Entrance/Finisher/ANYTHING. If you wanted to venture outside of the WWE Universe, there were plenty of methods to let players enjoy the game with amazingly created NJPW stars like Hiroshi Tanahashi, old school wrasslers like Bruiser Brody, or random characters like Super Mario, Goku, Batman, and damn near anyone your pop-culture-choked imagination desired. Oh, and you. You could make a realistic or fantastical you if you wanted. But be honest, you wanted a more Saturday Morning Slugfest, didn't you?
Wanna put Cobra Commander in a Cobra Clutch? WWE ‘13 lets ya say, “Yo, Joe!”
But as soon as THQ was absorbed into 2K Sports after WWE '13's release, each annual WWE game felt lazy, getting okay to mixed reviews, removing some features here and there, allowing bugs to pass through until the bottom finally dropped with WWE 2K20, which was so bad upon release that Sony issued refunds and WWE canceled WWE 2K21.
While some non-WWE games featured other promotions' rosters like TNA Impact! and Lucha Libre AAA: Héroes del Ring, they also struggled to set up a table to powerbomb the gaming market through with incoming revenue. There are several reasons why, but chief among them would be that American mainstream audiences barely knew their products, and the games themselves were built like clones of previously ho-hummed WWE titles based on their game controls and graphics.
There are even some great wrestling indie games out there today, such as the nostalgic RetroMania Wrestling and fantasy booking simulators like Journey of Wrestling. Still, most of those games are niche in terms of mainstream interest and gameplay. Plus, the majority of them are supported through word of mouth and direct funding from a very devoted fan base, just like independent wrestling itself.
Licensing for certain wrestlers to appear in games is murky at best, and smaller gaming companies don't have the time or resources to invest fully in wrestling titles without big stars. Sometimes they go in the other direction to paste a big name on a terrible game like Hulk Hogan's Main Event. That game used the Kinect on the Xbox 360 because if any wrestler embodies fun in-ring movement and action, it's the Hulkster.
WWE still has had trouble bouncing back from 2K20. Even though the WWE 2K Battlegrounds seemed to embrace the goofiness of wrestling and bring the action to more arcade-style gameplay, it brought a smaller movelist, cheap CAW, and a feature no gamer ever wanted or asked for: microtransactions. Microtransactions forced players to pay more money on top of the $50 game to play as the more popular characters on the WWE roster.
But there is possible hope. All Elite Wrestling, specifically wrestlers/gamers Kenny Omega, Aubrey Edwards, Dr. Britt Baker, and Cody Rhodes, are currently working with Yukes, the company behind those Playstation Smackdown! games, to develop an AEW console game. Helping out with the project is Hideyuki "Geta" Iwashita, who directed, you guessed it, WWF No Mercy. Given the money being invested, the more well-known roster of AEW compared to other wrestling organizations and dropping announcements like the inclusion of Owen Hart as playable characters, there is promise for this game. However, the biggest thing is that AEW is seemingly taking their time to make sure the game is GOOD rather than try to churn out a half-baked, half-nelsoned title on an annual basis.
So what's the takeaway here? Basically, good wrestling games happen when there is good wrestling out there. Legitimate competition forges quality entertainment and products. It's synergistic like that, and it feels gross, but hey, we're forced to team up with capitalism, so we might as well reach out for a hot tag whenever we can.
Top Image: 2KGames