Hell Yeah: These Are the Best Goddam Wrestling Games Ever
From SmackDown! to something entirely more wild, here's the best of the games based on those men and women who like to cuddle each other aggressively.
Before I start, three things:
1. This list is objectively right.
2. Just one game per console generation, plus the arcades.
3. Suck it!
You can skip over these introductory words if you like, straight to the list, but if you're a real wrestling fan, you'll want the two minutes of backstory that always comes before the big match, eh?
SummerSlam's impending, folks – and if you don't know what that is, leave! Brock Lesnar – a man who looks like an angry dumpling – is about to battle the legendary Undertaker, who used to be a zombie, but now just looks like one.
Yep, folks – we're talking pro wrestling, the subject that splits people into two categories: Wrestling Fans and People Who Are Boring And Should Be Wrestling Fans.
Wrasslin' is a very strange journey for its fans. I've loved the stuff since 1991, which means all my heroes are either dead (Ultimate Warrior), damaged (Ric Flair) or have been illegally filmed having sex with a friend's wife (while a horrible invasion of his privacy, Hulk Hogan's sex tape was, to be fair, much more physically vigorous than most of his matches).
It's a glorious world – only wrestling could have a match refereed by the former Governor of Minnesota, Jesse Ventura, where the three competitors are a New York Times bestselling author (Mick Foley), a Hollywood superstar (The Rock) and a bad-ass named after something his wife said about a cup of tea ('Stone Cold' Steve Austin... and that's actually true).
Now, video games.
Since pro wrestling is the strangest world in entertainment – real people fight in battles where the outcome is predetermined – its video games end up very odd indeed. They are unreal versions of real people fighting in simulations of predetermined battles, but the outcome can't be predetermined, otherwise the game would be shit.
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The fight mechanics are mind-boggling – wrestling is realistic-looking fantasy combat performed by real people, whereas video games is the medium that make you believe Batman can do a flying kick in all that rubber. Skill in any Mortal Kombat looks like effective fighting followed by a decapitation. Skill in a wrestling game looks like a series of stunts, all of which seem unnecessarily elaborate and tricky. Scorpion has combos that can juggle his opponent around the screen, but real patience is knocking your opponent down, and then getting a table...
Then getting another table...
Then stacking those tables...
Then setting them on fire...
Then taking your opponent to the top rope...
And then dropping them through both those tables, the ones that are on fire.
(And let's not forget, since the wrestlers in these game are mostly real people, their personal histories feed into their digital avatars. So say what you will about the Street Fighter V beta, but at least Ryu was never filmed boning Ken Master's wife.)
Right! The backstory montage is over! Here's our main event.
Pro Wrestling – NES, 1986
The title that brought us "A Winner Is You", Pro Wrestling is a Japanese game that goes straight for fun and dropkicks copyright in the head. You'll fight a bevy of familiar figures with unfamiliar names, including Great Puma (Tiger Mask), King Slender (Ric Flair, who gets off lightly here, given he's "Dick Slender" in another game) and The Amazon (it's clearly the Creature from the Black Lagoon, because 1980s Japanese kids just loved 1960s American sci-fi.) The presentation is great, with a referee in the ring, a cameraman outside and everybody's moves are strong-style Japanese stuff: American wrestlers wouldn't learn how to do spinning kicks until the Great Body Oil Shortage of 1998 meant skinny blokes in T-shirts could have careers, too.
WWF WrestleFest – Arcade, 1991
The sequel to 1990's WWF Superstars, WWF WrestleFest is the best of late-1980s Saturday morning cartoon wrestling, and you played it in the arcades – the only place on earth sweatier than a wrestling ring. Chunky, colourful sprites and huge character models make you feel like a Day-Glo superhero – and the roster of 12 wrestlers is nostalgia for the dads and pure fear for the children.
Everyone's moves are right – Hulk Hogan does a devastating leg-drop, The Legion of Doom can tear your head off with their Doomsday Device – and the presentation is better than the real world (cool as he was, Jake "The Snake" Roberts never, ever had visible abs). There's a tag-team tournament with a steel cage match in the middle – and the Royal Rumble Mode is a finger-breaking adrenaline rush.
(Also, half the folks you'll wrestle as are dead, in rehab, out of rehab, or have converted to born-again Christianity at one point or another, but don't let that worry you.)
Honourable Mention: Saturday Night Slam Masters
Super Fire Pro Wrestling X Premium – SNES/Super Famicom, 1996
The finest wrestling game of the 16bit generation. (WWF Raw doesn't come close, even if you can make a sumo wrestler cannonball the ring and knock out five men.) With over 60 characters to pick, a create-a-wrestler mode (on the Super Nintendo! What witchcraft is this?) and just about every move in wrestling represented, SFPWXP is flat-out genius, plus its acronym looks like a normal wrestling company name, but concussed, which is pretty appropriate.
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WWF No Mercy – Nintendo 64, 2000
If you're a wrestling gamer, you likely cry yourself to sleep wondering what happened to the THQ/AKI engine from all their games on the N64. Get nostalgic! "I tell ya, kids... graphics so ugly your big beefy boys sometimes looked like angry origami, but a fighting system so good that it didn't matter that everybody's heads were square."
No Mercy is the tricked-out apogee of the form – huge roster, create-a-wrestler, all the moves from every wrestling game THQ/AKI had ever made – and the first-ever ladder match on a home console. As my grandfather said: "That is brutal! John, I was in the Second World War... and nobody ever hit me with a ladder."
Honourable Mentions: WCW/nWo Revenge, Virtual Pro Wrestling 2, Def Jam Vendetta
WWF SmackDown! Here Comes the Pain – PS2, 2003
Finally, finally, the gameplay gets fast. The best in the SmackDown! series (on any console), Here Comes the Pain is arcade-quick, hyper-violent and doesn't give a damn about realism. You can throw someone headfirst off the side of a building, then elbow-drop them from a passing helicopter. This is wrestling as hell, where everybody is permanently injured, but unable to die.
It's also the last WWF/WWE game where you can: one, have inter-gender hardcore matches (in case you wanted to see a lady in high heels smash a palooka's face with a garbage can); two, have an Iron Man Match that works properly; and three, if you pick up a steel chair, your character will keep holding it until you get hit (in later games, you get three smashes, then the chair breaks). I hate to recommend this to anyone, but if you want to have real fun: PICK UP A CHAIR AND KEEP SWINGING.
(Trivia: who's that playable chap with the missing tooth? This is one of the games featuring Chris Benoit, who committed a double homicide. The WWE pretends he never worked for them, a fate they sometimes dish out to former employees who've "misbehaved" – or, in Benoit's case, killed people, before himself. See also: Hulk Hogan, who was illegally filmed having sex, and is occasionally a bit racist when he's near a microphone; and Chyna, who began her post-WWF career in pornography with a wrestler named X-Pac. She was subsequently banned from the company, while X-Pac still works there. So have some fun: make the Hulkster and Chyna in the create-a-wrestler mode and put them against Chris Benoit in an Old Man Opinions And Lady Sex Are As Bad As Murder Match.)
Honourable Mentions: Fire Pro Wrestling Returns, Fire ProWrestling D, Legends of Wrestling
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WWE All-Stars – Xbox 360/PlayStation 3, 2011
I brought this home to my discerning family of bearded nerds back in 2011, along with a copy of Marvel Vs Capcom 3. We agreed that All-Stars is a ludicrous, physics-breaking Technicolor fever-dream, but Marvel vs Capcom 3 was just silly. This is multiplayer genius... that was bad acid at a crap rave.
All-Stars is wrestling the way it felt when you were a child, with finishing moves so powerful THEY SLOW DOWN TIME and END IN A SHOCKWAVE NOT SEEN SINCE THE RUSSIANS DETONATED THE TSAR BOMBA DURING THE COLD WAR.
There's not a lot of match types, or any storylines to speak of, but this is pure joy – and all the wrestlers return to what they always were, the best action figures you could ever want. And for the first, and only, time, Sgt Slaughter plays like someone with that name should.
WWE 2K15 – Xbox One/PlayStation 4, 2014
Last year's model of the longest-running wrestling franchise in gaming (starts with SmackDown!, becomes SmackDown! vs Raw, becomes WWE "NUMBER", then, after the death of THQ, WWE 2KYEAR), this makes the list because it's the one wrestling game currently out on "next"-gen consoles. Until, of course, WWE 2K16 comes out in about tens seconds (well, October 27th).
WWE 2K15 worked on the tried-and-true formula of "Remember last year's game? We changed three animations". Harnessing all that NEXT-GEN POWER, you can now do a running stomp to a downed opponent (you always could, but the collision detection is better) and all the wrestlers look disturbingly thin. It was solid, but unspectacular – and the chairs kept breaking.
On the plus side, it did have Hulk Hogan in it. He's not in this year's – but he was going to be...
...And that's what makes wrestling games so interesting – what real-life dramas are going to stop me being able to play as my childhood hero today? Who'll go on a racist rant on Twitter? Who's blamed their concussions on their workplace? You just don't get this trouble with any other kind of fighting game.
John does comedy, and is currently performing at the Edinburgh Festival. Click here for details and tickets. More from VICE Gaming: