For plenty of gamers, a sport is only as good as the video games it spawns, and pro wrestling is definitely no different. Some of my best memories involving wrestling have been from a video game. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t looking forward to the Attitude Era story mode of WWE ’13 more than I have any television angle in a long while. Over the years, there have been some classics, some complete duds, and a lot in between; we’re here to figure out which games have been the cream of the crop over the years.
Some quick notes: Firstly, I am going to pick the winner of each generation of video games, starting with the third generation which was of course headlined by the NES, the Sega Master System and the Atari 7800, because to my knowledge there were no wrestling games prior to this generation (at least not ones worth playing, anyway). I’m also going to be choosing home consoles only. I’m sure you loved your Game Boy copy of Superstars when you were a kid, but they’re ineligible for this comparison.
Secondly, I know this will bum out some relic WCW holdouts, but I’m only going to choose from WWF/E video games. I’ve been a WWF/E mark the entire time I’ve been a wrestling fan, so to comment on WCW games would be disingenuous, as I’ve never played them. I did play Acclaim’s ECW title Anarchy Rulz, but…let’s just pretend that maligned pile of garbage code was never compiled. WWF/E games only.
So, onward! Which video game is the BEST IN THE WORLD (…Wrestling Entertainment back catalog of video games)?!
Third Generation Winner: WWF Steel Cage Challenge (1992, NES)
Other competitors: WWF WrestleMania (1989), WWF WrestleMania Challenge (1990), WWF WrestleMania (1991), WWF King of the Ring (1993)
This is the game that started it all for me. Featuring a vast selection of ten wrestlers, you could play this game for tens of minutes without getting bored! The NES and the Sega Master System versions strangely featured different rosters; while they both included Hulk Hogan, Randy Savage, IRS, Ted DiBiase, Undertaker and Bret Hart — the NES version had Jake “The Snake” Roberts, Roddy Piper, Sid Justice, and The Mountie, while the Sega version eschewed those options for the clearly better choices of Ric Flair, Shawn Michaels, Papa Shango and Tatanka (trade me Piper for Tatanka and you’d have the perfect roster with the Sega version).
The game itself left plenty to the imagination, as even finishing moves, a mainstay of wrestling video games, didn’t make the cut. You could punch, clothesline, powerslam, jump off the turnbuckle, and…well, that’s about it. Being called Steel Cage Challenge though, it was the first console game to feature a cage, but cage matches are usually the most boring match you can choose in a game, so it’s a wash. It played more smoothly than its four predecessors, three of which unimaginatively named after WrestleMania (were these named by the WWE Creative Team or something?! How ’bout it! ::rimshot::), and featured some of the most important wrestlers of the day, so in the venerable third generation of video games, WWF Steel Cage Challenge gets the nod.
Fourth Generation Winner: WWF WrestleMania: The Arcade Game (1995)
Other competitors: WWF Royal Rumble (1993), WWF RAW (1994)
I know I’m going against the grain here, and I’m sure purists are going to hate me for it… but I enjoyed WWF WrestleMania The Arcade Game a lot more than the other games of this generation. Royal Rumble and RAW were okay, but even forgetting for a second the fact that they’re pretty much the exact same game, it was just too slow for my puerile, ADD-addled brain. The grappling system in those games were fair…almost too fair. To the point where if you were playing against an equally skilled opponent, you could be looking at this for an hour:
Perfect for creating your own instant classic Bam Bam Bigelow vs. Yokozuna matches.
I did appreciate the weaponry in RAW, as well as the fact that you could knock out the referee to take advantage of them (although, if memory serves, I don’t think the ref really gave a damn one way or another if you were berating your opponent with a chair, or the strangely ever-present mop bucket).
Aye, these games were good, but when it came to having the most wrestling-related fun in the 16 bit era, you had to look to WWF WrestleMania: The Arcade Game. The game has way more in common with fighting games on the era than it does with other wrestling games, namely Midway’s own Mortal Kombat series. And if you grew up in the 90s, you know that’s not a bad thing. It’s not totally MK, though; you won’t see Shawn Michaels tearing Doink the Clown’s still-beating heart straight out of his ribcage with his bare hands, but you will see things that resemble Fatalities; Shawn Michaels will summon a literal Heartbreak Hotel to fall onto his foes Acme anvil style, The Undertaker will somehow materialize actual tombstones in his hands to smash over his opponent’s head, and Bret Hart will do some…strange, completely unthreatening thing involving hearts.
The inclusion of a health bar truly makes this game feel more like a fighter than a wrestling game, but it’s a nice departure. If you’ve never played this game, or its sequel In Your House, check ’em out.
Fifth Generation Winner: WWF No Mercy (2000)
Other competitors: WWF WrestleMania 2000 (2000), WWF SmackDown! (2000), WWF SmackDown! 2: Know Your Role (2000), WWF Royal Rumble (2000)
Holy balls, was 2000 a huge year for wrestling video games, but it’s absolutely no contest here, as WWF: No Mercy is still regarded by most to be the greatest wrestling game ever made. At the time, the roster was insanely granular, including both top names such as The Rock and Triple H as well as lower-card personalities such as Albert, who new wrestling fans will know as “the American guy who’s packaged as Japanese for some reason while the crowd still chants ‘Albert’ at him”. It also cleverly shoved many tertiary characters into the game as alternate costumes of other tertiary characters; for instance referee Earl Hebner’s “alternate costumes” included Howard Finkel, Paul Bearer and Michael Cole.
The graphics at the time were inspiring. They may seem silly and cartoonish now, but in a time where every developer—including Yukes’ WWF efforts on the PlayStation with the then-fledgling SmackDown! series—was striving for photo-realism in an era that just really couldn’t support it yet, the hand-drawn animations and models were a breath of fresh air. You won’t find any motion capture here, and it gives the game its own personality. The game was not without its flaws; the game’s sound suffers from the Nintendo 64’s extremely limited cartridge space, making every theme song a tinny 15-30 second loop, and each TitanTron video less detailed than the average animated GIF, and staple matches such as Hell in a Cell are conspicuously missing.
But the matches that ARE here, such as the Ladder match, are executed to perfection. My friends and I used the Ladder match in No Mercy to settle almost every callow disagreement our 9th grade selves had. So, dare I say…No Mercy saved friendships. It’s that damn good.
Sixth Generation Winner: WWE SmackDown!: Here Comes the Pain (2003)
Other competitors: WWE WrestleMania X8 (2002), WWE RAW (2002), WWE RAW 2 (2003), WWE Day of Reckoning (2004)
Here Comes the Pain was a lot of things. It was the first game in the SmackDown! series to not have a subtitle named directly after The Rock—a strange tradition, but one that would have been sustainable for decades with how many catchphrases The Rock has coined over the years (be on the lookout soon for WWE SmackDown! 15: It Doesn’t Matter What Your Name Is, followed immediately by Know Your Role Boulevard, the first Smackdown! game in the vein of GTA), it was the first game to feature Brock Lesnar (both as competitor and budding posterboy), and it also cut all commentary, ring announcements and all voices altogether save the referees counting the 1-2-3, marking a rare instance in wrestling games where the developers said, “if it can’t be done right, don’t do it at all,” (of course, here we are almost a decade later and commentary is still repetitive and distracting, if passable).
Where this game truly shone though, is in the gameplay. The WWE SmackDown! series was originally a quicker, arcade-style counterpart to the N64 series’ more realistic approach, and the first two PS2 iterations were basically the same gameplay as the PSOne versions with marginally better graphics. Here Comes the Pain marked a departure from that, revamping the grappling system to something more balanced and a bit slower while still maintaining some of the twitch-based gameplay that was actually fun in its predecessors, an evolution the series still strives to perfect to this day.
Seventh Generation Winner: WWE ’13
Other competitors: WWE SmackDown vs. Raw series, WWE ‘12
Well, that was a nice trip down memory lane, but what about wrestling games in the here and now? Well, you don’t really have a hell of a lot of choice nowadays. I didn’t get into them, but in the previous generation, in addition to the SmackDown! series, there was also Raw and Raw 2 on Xbox, which while providing uninspired and buggy gameplay, broke new ground in terms of character creation (custom themes for the first time! Thanks, Xbox HDD!) and presentation, as well as the novel, bizarrely named, oft-forgotten-but-still-enjoyable Dawn of Reckoning series on GameCube. Today, though, you don’t really have much of a choice. If you want to duke it out with digital effigies of your favorite wrestlers on a modern console, you’re kinda stuck playing THQ’s WWE series (née SmackDown! vs. RAW).
The good news is, WWE ’13 is amazing. Really, really amazing. If you’re a wrestling nerd and have been for a while, you’re going to be busy playing this game. The season mode, which has been “Road to WrestleMania” for the past few years, was completely replaced with something called “Attitude Era Mode,” and yes, it’s exactly as mind-blowingly badass as it sounds. You get to recreate and relive the most important matches and moments of the entire Attitude Era—defined in this game as being from 1997 to 2000.
Wrestlers wear the actual gear they were wearing on the night the game is recreating. JR and King do commentary in the Attitude Era mode (in contrast to Cole and King taking the helm in the game’s still-excellent, never-ending Universe mode), and they say a lot of the same things actually said during the actual match, which means when Mike Tyson double-crosses DX, you actually hear a fervent JR exclaim, “TYSON! RIGHT HAND! DOWN GOES MICHAELS!” as Austin’s glass-breaking theme hits. The mode is nothing more than fan service for all of us old, crotchety, jaded wrestling fans who constantly yearn for the blood, guts and boobs days of yore, and it’s fucking perfect.
Add this to a refined grappling system that feels more No Mercy than SmackDown!, excellent weapon physics, and a bevy of characters representing both the Attitude Era and the current WWE landscape (including multiples of some characters; Triple H is represented three fucking times), and you’ve got not only the best wrestling game of the series, but possibly the best wrestling game ever.
It may be heresy to people like me who grew up playing WrestleMania 2000 and No Mercy, but it may also be true. It’s damn true.