|Developed by:||Technos Japan|
The Smackdown! and 2K series may have came to dominate the wrestling game landscape but as with all long running series, they evolved from much humbler origins.
This grappler hit the arcades in 1989 and was the very first game based on the WWF cast of characters. A sequel, WWF WrestleFest would follow two years later.
Coming out somewhere around Wrestlemania IV and V, the storyline takes you back to a period in time where The Million Dollar Man Ted DiBiase attempted to purchase the WWF title, using the mighty Andre The Giant and a fake, twin referee (I’m not making this up you know), leading to a championship tournament won by the Macho Man at Wrestlemania IV. Macho would then team up with Hogan (accompanied by the First Lady of Wrestling, Miss Elizabeth), to take on the Mega Bucks of DiBiase and Andre before the Mega Powers exploded at Wrestlemania V, as Hulk Hogan and the Macho Man battled it out for the coveted title.
Phew, exciting stuff, eh? The storyline isn’t really relevant to the gameplay but this stuff is in my head and sometimes it just needs to come out. All you really need to know is that the Mega Bucks are the tag team champions. Earn a shot at the straps by taking on all comers with your team of choice from Hulk Hogan, Ultimate Warrior, Macho Man, Big Boss Man, Hacksaw Jim Duggan and Honky Tonk Man.
This period of the WWF came shortly after the national expansion, whereby Vince McMahon’s wrestling empire bought out or overran most of the old territory systems and the WWF brand came to define the image of American wrestling.
Hulk Hogan would lead the charge, his All American persona the headline act in what would come to be seen as the ‘cartoon era,’ personalities taking centre stage over old fashioned values such as work rate and legit toughness.
Why am I telling you this? Because remarkably for a game this old, visually it captures the era perfectly. From the opening screens after selecting your team of combatants, you feel like you are on an episode of Saturday Night’s Main Event. Brilliantly the game utilises the entrance carts seen in Wrestlemania IV to transport your team to the ring as they play to the crowd with signature poses.
This style continues in game too. The ring is set up with the old-school red, white and blue ropes, the discontinued WWF logo emblazoned throughout. A picture of the two teams hangs above the ring, the grapplers snarling their best angry face to get you in the mood.
The wrestlers themselves are the stars though. Each character captures the essence of their real life counterpart, from the bruising man mountains of Hogan and Warrior to the more athletic builds of Macho or DiBiase, little touches abound that bring them to life. Hogan for instance will perform his ear-cupping routine to liven up the crowd, Hacksaw will do his big ‘HOOOOO’ thumbs up (tough guy), whilst Honky Tonk Man will give a little shimmy and a shake after performing his finisher. They are neat touches and a level of detail I was surprised to find in a game this old.
There are other flourishes too. Big Boss Man’s eyebrow that moves up and down when he walks; the way the camera shakes when one of the wrestlers executes a power move; some of the characters strange slappy punches; the way their eyes bulge out when they are caught in a headlock and are being repeatedly punched in the face.
All in all it adds up to a package that feels like a lot of time has been spent in getting the presentation and the little details just right.
Regardless of whether you tackle this single or multi-player, there is only one game mode, the assault on the tag team championship, which is a little disappointing but does make for some frenetic match ups and also ensures that you get to see or use most of the characters.
The in-game action itself is about what you would expect. There is an inherent difficulty in capturing in videogame form just what makes wrestling so appealing. Unlike a real combat sport, where each fighter tries to genuinely best their competitor, wrestling is a simulated sport, the two wrestlers cooperating to put on a show. Cynics will scoff as they oh so cleverly point out, ‘You know it’s fake, right?’ (a proclamation they somehow fail to repeat when watching Rocky, 24 or Game of Thrones I suspect) but wrestling done right is an art form. Take for instance a Shawn Michaels or Ric Flair match when each was in their prime. The viewer is taken on a story as the match ebbs and flows with peaks and crescendos, beat downs and come backs, teasing the audience, playing with their emotions, building anticipation for the finish until either pulling the rug out from under them as the bad guy cheats to win or ends on that feel good moment as the fan favourite vanquishes his nefarious foe to rapturous acclaim.
But invariably in videogame form, this aspect of wrestling is lost. Instead it boils down to a spot fest as each player stabs wildly at the buttons, desperately trying to execute a finishing move which your opponent all too frequently kicks out of. This type of gameplay is fine in a one-on-one fighter such as Street Fighter or Tekken, the limited fighting space and health bars in those titles encouraging a frantic, all out assault. But in wrestling games it feels out of place, failing to capture what it is that makes the genre such a unique form of entertainment.
And those same limitations apply here. Each wrestler has a set of moves; standing strikes, grapples, top rope moves, running moves and a finisher. Locking up with your opponent, one of you will gain the advantage, seemingly at random, allowing you to perform a range of moves from a suplex to an atomic drop to a headbutt, or send your opponent flying into the ropes and catch them on the way back with a clothesline.
It is pretty basic stuff and suffers from all the disjointed elements that many wrestling games since have struggled with. There is also the usual lack of realism where weaker characters, such as Honky Tonk Man, seem to effortlessly overpower bigger wrestlers such as Hogan, whilst constant interruptions to the ref’s count make pinfall victories hard to come by.
The roster is a disappointment too. This era of wrestling was rich with characters and it is a shame not to have more of them to choose from. Jake the Snake, Bret Hart, British Bulldogs, Demolition and One Man Gang among many others. Some of these would appear in WrestleFest but they are notable by their absence here.
But that said, there are some nice touches. Each wrestler can execute their signature finishing move, such as Hogan’s leg drop or Warrior’s gorilla press slam. If you are in position, a particularly aggressive slam can see you toss your opponent clear over the top rope to the floor where you can follow him to dish out more punishment, including bashing him over the head with a table. If you’re quick enough you can even scale the turnbuckles and came flying out of the ring with a big elbow or knee to the face.
It’s tough too. Regardless of who you are facing, they take some pretty brutal punishment before they will stay down, whilst Andre and DiBiase are another level of challenge altogether, the big man in particular proving resistant to your normal grapples. You’ll need to sink a good few 10p coins into this one before you get to carry home the gold.
Sadly there is no licenced music but the soundtrack still manages to capture the atmosphere of classic WWF.
Each match starts with a brief ring introduction, although no formal announcement is made of the particular combatants. Some background music plays during the match, a fairly lame electronic piece that could be at home in any number of 80s arcade fighters. The wrestlers grunt appropriately when being stomped into the mud whilst meaty thwacks accompany your strikes and beat downs, opponents slamming into the mat with a weighty splat. There is no commentary, other than an interview with the Mega Bucks before the title fight, but the crowd cheer enthusiastically throughout.
It is a good effort and adds something to the overall presentation.
It feels a bit mean to be too harsh on this. After all, this was one of the earliest wrestling games and the fact that many subsequent games in the genre since have fallen foul of the same gameplay issues present here suggests it is rather more a difficulty executing the concept than a fault of the game itself.
If, like me, you are a long-time wrestling fan, there is some fun to be had here revisiting an iconic cast of characters. You might wish for more, specifically in terms of roster depth and match types, but what is here is good fun nonetheless.
Ultimately though, this is much like a match by the Hulkster himself; fun to start off with but pretty soon you realise you’ve seen all that it has to offer and you come away wanting more.
Fun while it lasts then but those looking for longevity may wish to search elsewhere.