On Thursday, video game publisher 2K will release the PC version WWE 2K16, the latest edition in series that traces its lineage to WWF SmackDown on the original PlayStation. But while the big-budget games in the SmackDown series largely come and go, it's WWF NoMercy, released at the tail end of the Nintendo 64's lifespan in November 2000, that went on legendary status among wrestling fans, and is still actively being played by dedicated communities on the likes of Facebook, Reddit, and YouTube.
How is it that this decidedly old school brawler still resonates so strongly after all of these years, and who are the people who continue to play it? After all, unlike the WWE 2K games that are trotted out every year, No Mercy doesn't have any of the trappings of modern, AAA games: there's no online multiplayer, the graphics can be charitably described as a blurry mess, and there are no commercials starring Arnold Schwarzenegger to promote its existence to the millions of fans who watch Monday Night Raw.
Is this merely nostalgia at work, or did Japanese developer AKI manage to create the perfect wrestling game on the N64 all those years ago?
"You will never find a ranking of top wrestling games that doesn't have No Mercy or one of its predecessors in contention for the top spot," said /r/N64WrestlingGames moderator homer62 (whose first name is Dan), who created the subreddit less than a year ago to create a centralized location where fans could discuss No Mercy and its progenitors like WCW Revenge and the Japan-only Virtual Pro Wrestling 64. "A common trope in isolating what makes a great game is that it is easy to pick up by hard to master. These games define this concept."
The gameplay of No Mercy is easy enough to explain: Players assume the role of nearly 100 wrestlers like The Rock, Stone Cold Steve Austin, and Triple H, and then face off against as many as three opponents in the ring simultaneously. Rather than chip away at a health meter like in traditional fighting games,players in No Mercy instead build up momentum (called "Attitude") as they connect basic strikes and bodyslams. Build up enough momentum and you're able to perform a flashy, high-impact finishing move (think Stone Cold Stunner or Tombstone Piledriver) that knocks out your opponent, leaving them open for a pinfall.
While that may sound dizzying to anyone unfamiliar with video games or pro wrestling, one of No Mercy's key strengths is its accessibility: because there aren't complicated button combinations to remember, a novice can pick up the controller and immediately be competitive against the CPU or his or her friends. Compare that to 1998's WWF WarZone and 1999's WWF Attitude, which required strict memorization of byzantine button combinations to pull off everything from a hip toss to a hurricanrana.
At the same time, No Mercy offers an incredible depth that fans say has yet to be matched by any of the 2K games. This depth is best exemplified by the create-a-wrestler-option (CAW) that fans routinely use to create wrestlers as soon as they join Vince McMahon's travelling circus. With this CAW mode, fans can mix and match hundreds upon hundreds of moves, taunts, and outfits to create their ideal wrestler.
And thanks to the rise of emulation (which lets players boot up old N64 games using nothing more than a smartphone or laptop), fans can now easily "mod" No Mercy to include entirely different rosters and arenas with little effort.
"There are many many mods [for the game]" said prominent No Mercy YouTuber sebaaxvy, noting there are mods for different promotions, like Ring of Honor and Lucha Underground, and mods for different time periods, like the Attitude Era (covering the late 1990s and early 2000s) and Ruthless Aggression (through about 2008). These mods swap out No Mercy's dated, November 2000 roster with more modern wrestlers like John Cena and Randy Orton. One mod released earlier this month, called No Mercy 2K16 + NXT, piggybacks off the popularity of NXT, a recently launched sub-brand of WWE that features wrestlers like Finn Balor and Shinsuke Nakamura who were previously only known to the most hardcore of fans, many of whom are openly nostalgic about how much better wrestling used to be. (Yes, there's a Trump hat to that effect.)
"Part of it is probably that the late-90's era of wrestling is widely considered the best era in wrestling history, and I'd imagine most guys still playing these games are in their 20s-30s and have fond memories of that time," said fellow /r/N64WrestlingGames moderator BAWguy (whose first name is Casey). "It's so hard to put a finger on and put into words, but I think maybe the biggest thing is that AKI made its games to play to simulate the 'sport' of pro wrestling, and 2K made its games to simulate the 'spectacle' of WWE."
A couple of times per year, I will clear hours from my weekend schedule to dive into the wonderful world of video game emulation, revisiting the PlayStation, Super Nintendo, Nintendo 64 games that defined my youth. After a quick check-in with the likes of Super Mario World and Metal Gear Solid, I invariably return to No Mercy to have the same damn match: Triple H (me) vs. The Rock. Why this match? Back in 2000 I was the biggest Triple H fan around (I liked, and continue to like, bad guys in wrestling), and his seminal opponent back then was The Rock. But unlike the recent 2K games, which can feel more like disparate rounds of Street Fighter II, playing No Mercy feels more like storyboarding a film.
"Momentum dictated who was in control in the N64 games and the resulting pacing captured much more of the drama associated with 'sports entertainment', noted Dan, the /r/N64WrestlingGames mod. "I felt like I could control the pace and the story of the match and really, that is the essence of pro wrestling."