I want to tell you about my friend.
He could punch your head off. He can dunk the piss out of a basketball. He's a Champions League medal winner, three-time NHL Stanley Cup champion, seventeen-time WWE Heavyweight Champion and former President of the United States of America, despite being born in Romania and therefore being ineligible to stand for that position.
His name is Jake McPake, and he's been a part of my life for 17 years now, even though I've never met him or even spoken to him. Because he isn't real. As if that wasn't already obvious.
As gaming evolved from sprite-based to polygonal graphics during the mid 1990s, it opened up a wide range of new possibilities that would have been too time-consuming or outright impossible for developers to implement in the past. One of these was character creation.
The ability to create or customise characters in games had been around to some extent in the past, but it was usually limited to changing colours or choosing from a handful of parts. With sprite-based games, adding the option to change a character's outfit or physical appearance would mean the developers having to draw whole new animation sets for each variable.
Polygonal graphics engines changed this, and let developers simply create a bunch of objects that could be attached to a standard body as if they were dressing a mannequin, using the same set of animations.
Some games – mainly wrestling ones, for some reason – started adding comprehensive character creation modes, letting you design the hero of your own story. And my hero was born in 1999.
The game was WWF WrestleMania 2000, the first of THQ and developer Yuke's famed Nintendo 64 wrestling games to feature the WWF licence. Although games like Acclaim's WWF Attitude had a detailed character creation mode with hundreds of outfits to choose from, WrestleMania 2000's selection was more modest.
Still, as a 15-year-old in search of hijinks, I decided to make the most ridiculous-looking character I could using the limited selection available to me.
The result was Jake McPake, a man with maximum stats in height (7'11") and weight (599lbs). He had a big bright red afro, a lumberjack beard and sunglasses. I dubbed him "the Romanian Muscle" for reasons I don't really understand to this day – I have no connection with Romania and, with respect to it, no real urge to ever go there.
"However he looked, he was always my Jake. I was a father living vicariously through his successful son."
Although he was just supposed to be a bit of fun, for some reason something about Jake McPake clicked with me. Although he was inhumanly tall and obscenely obese, the game's standard middle finger and crotch chop taunts somehow suited him even better than the Steve Austins and Triple Hs of the game.
In my head, I was forming a backstory. This was a man who'd been bullied all his life for the way he looked, and so it drove him even further to be not just the best wrestler, but the best footballer, the best basketball player, the best assassin. The best.
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What had been a comedy experiment to pass the time one weekend had become an obsession. At school I'd draw pictures of Jake in my notebooks, draped with a Romanian flag and ably supported by a little speech bubble saying his catchphrase: "Romania-mania is running wild, ya wee prrrrrrrrick."
When I moved on to the game's sequel, the iconic WWF No Mercy, Jake duly followed. I recreated him before I even made a version of myself. This was the guy I wanted to be. The freak who showed the world that he wasn't abnormal, he was just the best and everyone else simply hadn't evolved to his standard yet.
Jake soon became a regular part of my gaming life. Every time a game – wrestling or otherwise – offered the chance to create a character, more often than not I'd bring Jake off the sidelines and chuck him into the action again.
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His usefulness soon went beyond just being the ultimate role model. He became a helpful way of testing each new game's character creation limits. Often he had to go without his giant bright red afro or his sunglasses because a specific game didn't offer that option. Other times he wasn't able to reach his usual 7'11" height or look morbidly obese.
Despite this, however he looked, he was always my Jake. I felt something different playing as him that I didn't feel when I created myself in games. I knew I could never play for Celtic or the Toronto Raptors, so having Chris Scullion in a game felt a little hokey. But somehow, doing it with this daft big dick with the bright red hair felt more believable to me. Now I was a father living vicariously through his successful son.
When the brilliant WWF Smackdown 2: Know Your Role launched on PlayStation, Jake effortlessly made the jump from Nintendo to Sony. When Pro Evolution Soccer dominated my life during the PS2 era, Jake was always in my Master League team, his enormous size making him a beast when it came to heading in crosses from corners.
Eventually, my lifelong love for gaming found its way into my working life and I became a games journalist for Official Nintendo Magazine, shortly before the Wii launched. Forced to leave my friends and family behind in Scotland and move to London, it was a terrifying new beginning for a 23 year old (especially because I was living in a shitehole flat in Turnpike Lane). But as my entire life changed, one constant remained: Jake McPake, now in Mii form, was there.
"At first I played as him because it was funny, then eventually it was because of what he stood for: someone who was judged for looking different but showed he could rock the face off everyone if he wanted to."
I even managed to get a feature about Jake published in the magazine, disguised as an article about all the different Wii games with Mii character support. Guess which Mii I used.
Jake's purpose has evolved over the years. At first I played as him because it was funny, then eventually it was because of what he stood for: someone who was judged for looking different but showed he could rock the face off everyone if he wanted to. Ever since I moved to London, though, he's been a connection to my childhood: a reminder that even though my mind and body are now 33 years old, the 15-year-old me still lives in my heart.
These days Jake's still going strong and continuing to do Romania proud while looking more realistic than ever. He's been the star of the MyPlayer mode in the NBA 2K13, 2K14 and 2K15 games, and just last night I created him in the NHL 17 beta (the most handsome version of him yet, if I do say so, partly because EA's creation tools don't let him look too ridiculous).
He's always been a wrestler first and foremost, though, and when WWE 2K17 launches this October the first thing I'll be doing is adding Jake McPake to the roster. And as I sit there, tinkering with his hair sliders on my 55" 4K TV, I'll suddenly be 15 years old again, squinting at my 13" CRT telly in my bedroom, chuckling away to myself as I choose just the right brightness of red for my friend Jake's hair.
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