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 Wrestlemania (NES)
When most people think NES wrestling games, their minds immediately leap to good ol’ generic Pro Wrestling, but that was never my jam back in my rude dude single-digit days. WWF Wrestlemania had Hulk Hogan on the front, and I came to the NES games a little late, getting my machine in, I believe, 1988, so I was a little wary of the classic Nintendo black box games. Those were old games and I was into the new hotness like Ninja Turtles, Mario 3 and Battletoads. In fact, years later when I first got on the Internet and witnessed people discussing NES Pro Wrestling, I just assumed they were talking about WWF Wrestlemania, because what other NES wrestling game would you be talking about? I always wondered how I missed the guy with the star on his face when I played as a kid.
The short-lived “lengthy rambling quote from a kid in tight jeans” method of advertising.
And I played a pretty fair amount of WWF Wrestlemania as a kid. I didn’t own it, but then I barely owned anything (when I finally upgraded to a 16-bit machine in 1993 I think I had a sum total of six NES games) — I sure rented it a lot though. I feel like I enjoyed it too. It had actual wrestlers who looked like their real-life counterparts! Well, sort of. The Hulk Hogan on the title screen kinda looks like a confused old woman tearing his/her shawl off in a Safeway or maybe a long-haired orange cat. Pretty sexy either way. In game, all the wrestlers are charmingly chubby and when they walk around their arms stay glued to their sides while their stumpy little legs march around in adorable fashion. They kind of remind me of classic anime characters – like they should have been designed by Osamu Tezuka or something, which is odd, because the game was actually made by British developer Rare. Yes, the guys behind Banjo-Kazooie and GoldenEye made WWF Wrestlemania.
As long as a game looked okay and was, in the broadest terms possible, basically functional, young me was going to be pretty into it, but after revisiting the game years later, I can assure that WWF Wrestlemania was no f*cking good. There were six guys in the game (Hogan, Andre, Ted DiBiase, Randy Savage, Bam Bam and Honky Tonk Man) but they were all more or less the same. You walked around, you punched and kicked and that was about it. Each character did have a couple special moves (only a few of which corresponded to the real moves any of these guys did) but they required special button combinations that only worked around 25% of the time, and they weren’t really worth it even when you could pull them off. Worse, even basic stuff like pinning somebody required elaborate button combos, and not everybody used the same combo. So, in other words, pinning a guy with Hulk Hogan required you to press different buttons than pinning a guy with, say, Randy Savage. That, my friends, is a pretty clear sign the game you’re playing was designed by a madman.
Ultimately though, the most broken aspect of the game was the health system. You have a life bar that, of course, depletes when you’re hit, but it also depletes when you throw an attack. Punching depletes almost as much life as getting punched, so the life bar quickly becomes meaningless. It goes down, it goes up, and you just have to submit to its capricious whims – the only constant is that the AI character almost always had a higher life bar than you. Speaking of AI, it comes in two flavors – infuriatingly stupid and infuriatingly impossible. When you’re playing through the game’s main Tournament mode, early easy guys like Ted DiBiase just wander around the ring like they’re trying to awkwardly mingle at a bad party, while the later guys, well, I’m pretty sure they’re literally unbeatable.
Bam Bam’s cartwheel was the easiest move to do in the game, and also the best.
WWF Wrestlemania was nearly unplayable, and yet, again, I still have to throw a bone to its overall presentation. I mean, have I mentioned its music yet? It’s composed by David Wise, the guy behind the Donkey Kong Country soundtracks, and it’s pretty great. I still consider this game’s version of the Honky Tonk Man’s theme the definitive version of the tune…
So yeah, I just can’t seem wash the sticky film of WWF Wrestlemania nostalgia off my brain, but objectively speaking, all copies of this game should be burned. Burned with fire.
WWF (June – December, 1987)
Even though WWF Wrestlemania came out in early 1989, it seems like it’s largely inspired by what was happening in the WWF in late 1987. I’m mostly basing this on the inclusion of Bam Bam Bigelow and Honky Tonk Man. Bam Bam was already on the decline in early 1988, and practically out the door even before Wrestlemania IV – if this game was drawing on 1988, I just don’t see Bam Bam being part of the game’s very limited roster. So, our cut-off point is the end of 1987. The fact that the game includes The Honky Tonk Man also indicates that they were drawing from the latter half of 1987, because until Honky won the IC title in June of ’87 there would have been no reason for including him over, say, somebody like Jake Roberts.
Late ’87 was when I first became a wrestling fan. Not a super hardcore fan mind you (that would come later), but a fan in the sense that I knew the stories, had favorites, and tried to watch when I could. The spark that ignited my fandom was, of course, Wrestlemania III – Hulk Hogan body slammed the 9-foot-tall, 5000 pound, solid stone Andre the Giant straight through the mat and into hell in early ’87 and by late ’87 I was keeping pretty close tabs on this Hogan fellow.
Yup, this guy is clearly super cool — 7-year-old me.
Looking through results from late ’87, you might come to the conclusion that the company was in a holding pattern – there just wasn’t a whole lot actually happening. Hogan didn’t have any iconic new rivalry and there weren’t any really any big twists or storyline developments. We got the first Survivor Series, but let’s be honest, it’s always been the quintessential filler PPV. That said, not a lot really needed to happen, because late ’87 was the WWF/WWE Platonic Ideal. Sure, there might be other eras and promotions you like better, but 1987 was when Vince McMahon’s vision of pro wrestling hit it’s peak. Everyone is massive, sweaty and packed to the gills with coked-up energy, and all the important guys just are cruising along at the top of their games.
Hulk Hogan has been champion over 1000 days and just beaten the unbeatable giant. There are all these guys from the past three years like Andre, Bundy and Piper still lurking around, while new guys like DiBiase and Savage are nipping at his heels – there’s a faint sense that Hogan may be getting vulnerable, but for the most part he’s still in crazy 80s superhuman mode. Meanwhile, Honky Tonk Man is embarking on the best weaselly heel championship run in history, Ted DiBiase is being the best arrogant bad guy ever, the crowd is turning Randy Savage face because he’s so awesome night in and night out, and hey, some guy named the Ultimate Dingo Warrior or something just debuted. Also, Piledriver: The Wrestling Album 2 came out…
Whenever WWE gets all nostalgic about how darn great the 80s were, 1987 is the specific year they’re talking about, and I’m not about to argue with them.
And Your Winner Is…
I have a lot of affection for both the game and the wrestling it was based on this week, but one is very much a guilty pleasure and the other is, well, a somewhat less guilty pleasure. So, the win goes to…
The Undisputed Unified Champion (This Week): WWF (June – December, 1987)
Feel free to share your own memories of WWF Wrestlemania for the NES or 1987 WWF below! Liked this article and want to read more like it? Here’s some past Wrestling Game vs. Wrestling Reality installments…