Anyone that knows me will know that if there’s one form of entertainment that can challenge video games as my number one interest it’s professional wrestling. I’ve been a fan since the mid 90’s and my love for the theatrical sports-based entertainment has never waned.
I grew up throughout my teenage years loving the crash TV of the WWF Attitude era. I loved more the absurdity of the stories being told rather than the actual in-ring action. But in the subsequent years since I’ve grown to appreciate the work rate and match quality more, which is thanks to exposure to more independent and Japanese wrestling.
As I have evolved and grown as a person, wrestling has been a mainstay constant in my life, possibly to the point of obsession. I am sure it will be a passion of mine that will never dwindle. So when a wresting video game is released I have a more than a substantial interest in it. Regardless of technical advancements in game development there is a set of games released specifically for one previous generation console that stands tall. These games are still considered the best wrestling games of all time, and more intriguingly they cross rivalling promotions.
Monday Night Wars
During the mid to late 90’s a ratings-war between promotions WCW (World Championship Wrestling) and the WWF (World Wrestling Federation), which is now WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment), dominated Monday-night cable viewership in the United States. These two companies, attempting to one up each other for supremacy in viewership, led to the creation of the so-called Monday Night Wars.
WCW’s Eric Bischoff, fuelled by the funds of billionaire mogul Ted Turner, and WWF’s Vince McMahon went up against each other in an attempt to become the only major wrestling company in the United States. Both companies were at the top of their games in terms of storytelling. This caused huge match quality, character development and pop culture referencing to garner fans towards their subsequent products. As always, attempted domination over your rivals meant you needed to be very prevalent with merchandising. Of course that meant video games were a prime foray.
When you’re NWO, you’re NWO for life
WCW vs nWo: World Tour was developed by AKI Corporation and published by THQ in late 1997. It was a spiritual sequel to WCW vs the World on the Sony PlayStation which was a western localisation of the Japanese game Virtual Pro Wrestling.
In comparison to the other wrestling games that preceded it, WCW vs nWo: World Tour was less frantic and reliant on button-bashing and relied on more slower-paced grapple-based gameplay. The tight controls and impressive graphics were unlike anything that had happened before in wrestling games. The roster was impressive too, with some of the biggest names in the company at the time being playable characters. Hollywood Hogan, Kevin Nash, Ric Flair, Sting among others, filled out a nicely-sized roster.
However, just like the aforementioned WCW vs the World and Virtual Pro Wrestling, WCW vs nWo: World Tour needed to be altered in Japan to accommodate the differences in viewership between Japan and the US. Being an American company, WCW catered towards an American audience and wasn’t as widely viewed in Japan, so the game had to be altered for that region.
The excellence of execution
Virtual Pro Wrestling 64 was released less than a month later and was exclusive to Japan. As well as the WCW wrestlers it also featured legendary wrestlers from Japanese wrestling such as Mitsuharu Misawa, Kenta Kobashi, Giant Baba, Jushin Liger and Antonio Inoki. The game featured rosters from promotions All Japan, New Japan, UWFI, FMW and Michinoku Pro, although a lot of the names were changed due to copyright legislations.
The following year WCW/nWo Revenge was released, this time as a stand alone sequel under the WCW banner with no Japanese variant. The game was met with critical acclaim.
Within this time period the WWF released the games WWF War Zone and WWF Attitude via Acclaim and these were met with mixed reviews. Just like the TV ratings in America WCW was previously winning the video game war over the WWF branded titles. But WWF soon gained traction over WCW due to its edgier programming and the use of new talented wrestlers. WCW was still relying on more well-known stars from their franchise. The likes of Stone Cold Steve Austin, The Rock, Triple H, Mankind, Kane and a whole host of strong undercard talent pushed the WWF to new heights whilst WCW started to flail in its mediocrity.
Rest in peace
WCW soon lost their video game licence with THQ, and it was quickly obtained by the WWF who prepped their killed blow. The WWF published two gaming series under THQ. This comprised of the much loved Smackdown! series on the PlayStation and WWF Wrestlemania 2000 on the Nintendo 64. The latter used the AKI Engine which was previously used on the WCW and Virtual Pro games.
Both series were smash hits when they were released between 1999 and 2000. They created an even bigger surge in popularity for the company whilst the WCW licence was picked up by EA. Unfortunately the games were seen as mediocre at best.
WWF Wrestlemania 2000 aesthetically changed everything in contrast to its engine predecessor WCW/nWo Revenge. Small tweaks and additions didn’t really add too much to the game, but because it was now under the more popular WWF banner, with popular wrestling names, the game was a smash hit. During this period Virtual Pro Wrestling 2 was released in Japan using the same engine as WWF Wrestlemania 2000. Unlike the WCW gaming variants WWF Wrestlemania 2000 was also released in Japan, giving the WWF publicity to the eastern markets more so than WCW ever had.
The best there is, the best there was, and the best there ever will be
At the end of 2000 the WWF released a game that, to this day, is, by some, seen as the pinnacle of wrestling video games. The sequel to WWF Wrestlemania 2000 was the much heralded and beloved WWF No Mercy. The game featured improved graphics, bigger rosters, an engaging story mode, major character customisation and fluid gameplay. This was AKI Corporations ultimate edition to it’s gaming evolution.
This game came out at the absolute zenith of popularity the WWF had over WCW. Despite the popularity of the WWF, their games never outsold WCW titles worldwide, with both WCW/nWo Revenge and WCW vs. nWo: World Tour being in the top 40 best-selling games on the Nintendo 64. However, just a few months after the release of WWF No Mercy, WCW folded as a company and its assets were bought by Vince McMahon.
The return of Yukes
After the lifespan of the Nintendo 64 ended, and the subsequent generation of consoles began, the AKI/THQ games ceased as an entity. However THQ’s Smackdown! series continued on well into the next decade on the PlayStation series of consoles. Games made by the now renamed WWE were released by different developers on other varying consoles to mixed reviews. None of these games were seen as any sort of improvement to the games on the Nintendo 64. The AKI game engine is still used today by the modding community to use in creating different independent wrestling promotions.
New promotion AEW (All Elite Wrestling) announced in late 2020 that they are making a video game developed by Yukes who, up until 2019, was responsible for the development of WWE games on the PlayStation consoles. This development will be directed by Hideyuki Iwashita, the person responsible for directing WWF No Mercy. It is rumoured to use a similar engine to what AKI used 20 years prior.
This shows a major signal of intent by AEW to go up against the established veterans in the WWE for supremacy. They have even taken a spot on WCW’s former tv home of TNT in America.
A new challenger approaches
Just like the WWF vs WCW rivalry, we are now at the forefront of another war in wrestling that will surely use video games as a primary weapon in their respective arsenals against each other. Time will tell if this new period in wrestling will be as interesting as the Monday Night War era, but competition brings out creativity in those who are motivated. I’m personally excited to see what happens and I’m excited for the future of wrestling games.
Nostalgia junkie, retro reminiscer and always immersing himself in his own perception of reality. Mike Leigh is a proud author, journalist and content creator for Fing’rs & Thu’ums.