Hey folks, it’s time again to get impossibly nerdy and talk wrestling and video games all at once. As I mentioned in previous Game vs. Reality articles, wrestling games were once locked into covering a specific, narrow chunks of whatever promotion they had managed to license — a game that came out around Christmas might, if you were lucky, be based on the characters and storylines from the first three-to-six months of that year.
So, rather than simply reviewing old wrestling titles, I’m going back, comparing the wrestling game to the specific time period it was covering, and declaring an ultimate and definitive winner. The soul-wrenching decisions continue…
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WWF WrestleFest (Arcade)
During the 80s and early-90s, wrestling games were plentiful on home consoles, but most of them were of the unlicensed NES Pro Wrestling variety. Sure, if you squinted hard and activated your still-lively youthful imagination King Slender sort of looked like Hulk Hogan, but if you wanted the genuine article, you had to go to the arcade. The “real” wrestling games were only available to kids willing to part with their allowances a quarter at a time.
WWF’s classic arcade games were the work of Technos, the Japanese company behind such classics as Double Dragon and River City Ransom. Needless to say, a WWF game was right up Technos’ “beefy men pummelling each other” alley.
WWF WrestleFest was Technos’ second and best-known wrestling game, and much like their previous title, WWF Superstars, the game is entirely tag-team based. Sort of an odd choice, but I suppose the idea was that tag teams would get more kids crowding around the machines spending their tokens. The game featured two modes, a rarity for arcade games at the time — Saturday Night’s Main Event, a basic arcade mode where you take a tag team through a series of maches leading up to a title bout with the muthaf*cking Legion of Doom, and Royal Rumble, in which you play through a rather atypical Royal Rumble featuring guys being eliminated and returning multiple times and pinfalls.
Apparently Hulkster got drunk off his ass after the news that he’d been demoted to the tag division.
WWF WrestleFest actually had a remarkable amount of stuff going on, particularly compared to most other arcade games of the era, which were typically about flashy colorful things that go boom and kill you quickly as opposed to depth. Years before THQ and AKI’s N64 wrestling games, WrestleFest had a simple grappling system (emphasis on simple). You’d grab onto your opponent, mash buttons and pray the Gods of video game AI would grant you a good attack. Pushing the punch button while in a grapple may give you a Perfectplex or it may give you a snap mare, you could never be sure. Moves weren’t entirely random though — snapmares and bodyslams would occur more frequently near the beginning of the match, and suplexes and finishes were more common toward the end, so matches felt like they were building in a natural way (something wrestling games still struggle with to this day).
The game also has all sorts of extra little features you might not expect. There’s a cage match! And outside the ring brawling! And digitized Mike McGuirk announcing! One of my favorite features is that if your tag team partner ends up stranded on the apron for a certain amount of time, they’ll be powered up once they’re finally tagged in — as far as I know this is pretty much the only wrestling game to actually simulate hot tags.
Aside from playing well, WWF WrestleFest looked amazing. The game was bursting with color and personality, and all the wrestlers felt unique and specific — no just swapping the hair and trunks on the same muscleman model. Guys like Bossman were appropriately husky and Earthquake had a special chubzo body-type all of his own. Also, every guy had their own unique animations, right down to Sgt. Slaughter’s atomic noogie.
Digital Mike McGuirk!
WWF WrestleFest was far from the feature fetishist’s dream that modern pro-graps titles are, but it’s clear a huge amount of care and hard work went into every aspect of the game. Back in 1991 this was premium, triple-A gaming, and nearly 25 years later the love WWF WrestleFest was obviously made with still shines though and warms my bitter old heart.
WWF (September – December, 1990)
WWF WrestleFest would seem to be based on late-1990 WWF — SummerSlam through to around the end of the year specifically. The Legion of Doom are tag champs in the game, and they only showed up in WWF in July of 1990, and won the straps at SummerSlam 1991 (so the game was prognosticating a bit). The game also features the lame Smash and Crush version of Demolition, which debuted at SummerSlam 1990 if I recall, so that’s our starting point. The cut-off is harder to identify, but I’m saying it’s around Royal Rumble based on the lack of Randy Savage in the game. Savage’s career was on the skids throughout 1990, but it briefly picked up in a big way in early 1991 leading into his retirement match with Ultimate Warrior at Wrestlemania VII. If the cut-off for WrestleFest were any later than the end of 1990, the exclusion of Randy Savage would have been rather perplexing.
Actually, the lack of Randy Savage is still perplexing.
Around 1990 is when my childhood interest in wrestling began to fade (to later be replaced by a nerdy adult obsession). I was no hardcore fan during the 80s, but I was certainly well aware of WWF. I watched the Saturday morning cartoon and my friend’s Coliseum tapes and knew who Hulk Hogan, Randy Savage and the rest were. I wasn’t obsessed with it, but it was part of that formative 80s entertainment soup along with Transformers, Fraggle Rock and copious Reading Rainbow re-runs.
As the 90s dawned the Transformers and LeVar Burton remained more or less the same, but the supermen of the WWE were getting a bit weathered. Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage were starting to look old and not as larger than life as they once were. Ultimate Warrior was clearly supposed to be the Hogan replacement, but I wasn’t buying it. Hogan would take a lengthy vacation following Wrestlemania VI due to ASS-BASED OFFENSE from Earthquake and then returned to feud with him throughout the fall. Hogan had bested the likes of Randy Savage, Roddy Piper and Mr. Wonderful in the past, and now we were supposed to buy Earthquake as a threat? Then, to make matters worse moved onto Sgt. Slaughter. Give me a gosh-darned break my already cynical 10-year brain cried.
Earthquake squashing my 80s fandom.
Things would pick up again as the early-90s rolled on, with Ric Flair coming in, Randy Savage returning and Bret Hart ascending to the top of the card, but the damage was already done. The magic was gone, and it was this late 1990 period that really pulled the curtain back for me.
And Your Winner Is…
Pretty easy call this week. WWF WrestleFest was a work of love made by a developer who was at the top of their game at the time. On the other hand, late 1990 saw the WWF sputtering along with the fuel gauge on empty as they tried to figure out how they were going to adapt to this new decade.
The Undisputed Unified Champion (This Week): WWF WrestleFest
Feel free to share your own memories of early 90s WWF or any of the Technos arcade wrasslin’ games below!