Ah, wrestling… one of our oldest guilty pleasures. That peculiar sport / reality show / soap opera is filled with ups and downs and this pattern is somewhat mirrored by its video game counterparts. After dusting off the trusty GameCube and taking a look at the extensive number of wrestling games of its library, we can't help but be amazed at the amount of great grappling content (exclusive or otherwise) that ended up on that lovely plastic Cube. So here are some of our nostalgic conclusions from playing these games over the past few months.
The Jobbers Division: Acclaim
The once great Acclaim Entertainment was beginning to show some cracks by the time the sixth generation of consoles arrived. It didn't help that the company had lost the lucrative WWE license to rival THQ. So was this the end of its wrestling game series? Not quite. Acclaim acquired a large number of individual wrestling legends from the '70s, '80s and '90s and Legends of Wrestling was born. Released early in 2001, it was the very first wrestling game released on the GameCube, predating Yuke's Wrestlemania X8 by several months, ensuring it had a clean run at the market. The playable roster was very impressive and a major selling point for the entire series, with this début title featuring the likes of Hulk Hogan, Bret Hart, The Dynamite Kid and many other names that would immediately take players back the early years of sports entertainment. Despite some great improvements over previous generation's titles, the gameplay was sadly not up to standard, and the whole package felt a bit rushed. This is a shame, because it still manages to be fun if you have three like-minded friends to play along with (a point that is common to all titles described in the rest of this article) and there's a lot of content to unlock, which provides a solid incentive to keep playing.
The first sequel Legends of Wrestling II also made it to the Cube, offering an even more impressive roster, all-new ladder matches and amazing 4v4 tag team matches. Add the referee to the ring and that's a total of 9 characters running around at the same time, bringing the ever-chaotic nature of Royal Rumbles into your TV. It was still sadly not an ideal gameplay experience but as far as sequels go, it was a good one. Don't feel too bad about the fact that the third and final entry - Showdown: Legends of Wrestling - didn't make it to the GameCube. Despite its titanic roster that included names such as Sting, Randy Savage and The Ultimate Warrior, it was rushed and is a notoriously buggy mess. A sad yet expected end to Acclaim Entertainment, it was the last title the firm ever published before filing for bankruptcy.
Old Superstars, All New Tricks: AKI Corporation
There is just no way around it: AKI Corporation (nowadays known as Syn Sophia, the studio behind the Style Savvy series) created the de facto model for the 3D wrestling game and is still nowadays often imitated but never duplicated. But back in the GameCube era, AKI was no longer producing top brand wrestling games for the WWE license holder THQ. So what could AKI do with their extensive knowledge of 3D wrestling? They tag-teamed with Electronic Arts and became gangster rappers.
Def Jam Vendetta replaces all your favorite wrestling super stars with all your favourite rap artists from the Def Jam label. AKI used its experience from the Nintendo 64 Japan-only Virtual Pro Wrestling titles which added slightly more mixed martial arts style kick and punch combinations (a trademark of Japanese puroresu) to the regular wrestling moves. Sadly this title lacks any sort of "Create-a-Wrestler" features, instead offering four original characters for you to pick and play trough story mode where you would face several Def Jam artists. As soon as you get into the ring, this feels very much like an evolution of the Nintendo 64 titles, but now with over-the-top finishers that are quite painful to watch.
Nothing could really prepare us for the sequel, Def Jam: Fight for NY. The wrestling ring is still around, but so are night clubs, subway stations, junkyards, pits, parking lots… truly AKI dialed this up to eleven on everything! Although the GameCube suffers a bit due to the lack of space on the smaller disc format when compared to the PS2 and Xbox versions (there is only one voice for your character, but it's OK because it's Raphael from the TMNT!), there's tons of content in the game to unlock, including an impressive forty fighter roster, interactive venues and an even bigger, more extreme finishing moves. You do get a Create-a-Character this time, cleverly disguised in the beginning of Story mode as you help a police sketcher draw your alter ego. But not your individual moves - instead you get to pick one of five different fighting styles that will give you a set of moves. You can pick Wrestling and have all sort of traditional moves, but you do not need to be limited to one style, with the ability to add two extra styles to your base style opening up some very interesting combination of move sets
This adds a lot of replay value as mixing and matching different styles will always be an alluring reason to pick this game up again. As you progress in Story mode, you will be able to further customize your character with clothing, jewelry, tattoos, haircuts and beard style that offer far more than just visual flare. The more "bling" on you, the faster you get "blazing" (the equivalent of the spirit meter "Special" from of previous AKI games) and unleash one of your four possible Blazing Moves that pretty much decide the match in favor of the player who pulls them off first. There are several memorable moments in story mode such as (SPOILER ALERT) going Frank Underwood on Danny "Machete" Trejo in the subway station, bashing Henry Rollins' (your trainer!) head into a cage, dating Carmen Electra, busting Busta Rhymes on his car and sending Snoop Dog flying out of a window. Another thing that caught me off guard was the Fight Club feeling of the fight venues, with interactive audience that is surely the evolution of Atari's Pit Fighter. It might not be a traditional wrestling game with so much street fighting / mixed martial arts content, but it hard to pass this one by. AKI truly made a unique genre fighting game that is still an absolute riot to play alone or with your friends.
Note: From this point of the article onwards, every title is a GameCube exclusive.
From Rated M to Pegi 3+, AKI Corporation was truly a master of adaptation. With the WWE license out of its reach, it would still manage to produce one of the finest wrestling games by tagging along with Bandai. It's a real shame Ultimate Muscle: Legends vs. New Generation was only released in Japan and America because we missed it the first time, but have since become huge fans of both the game and the manga / anime from which it originated. Kinnikuman began its manga run in 1979 and its unique combination of puroresu and wackiness ensured it had a strong, favourable following. The anime series was inevitable, bringing the adventures of King Muscle to the TV and eventually into video games (the Famicom game is neat, the Super Famicom game is terrible). It was still a surprise to find that AKI would be developing a game based on the series, combining both wrestlers from the original series and the more recent "New Generation" series. As such, the game features wrestlers from both series: King Muscle tags along with Terryman, Ramenman, Bufalloman, Robin Mask, Brocken Jr. and super heel Sunshine while his son Kid Muscle struts along with Terry "The Grand" Kenyon, fan favourite Wally Tusket, the greatest name ever to feature in a video game Dik-Dik Van-Dik (much better than its original but accurate Japanese name: Gazelleman), Kevin Mask, Jeager and aptly-named Checkmate. These guys are not only an extremely fun bunch to look at and play with, but would not be amiss in any Mega Man game.
There are of course secret characters to unlock by completing each wrestler's original (and hilarious) story mode - penned by the original show writers no less - or by collecting set numbers of Gashapon toys. It also has a peculiar Create-a-Wrestler mode will allow you to make original characters by picking three traits and choosing individual parts, opening up a huge amount of possible combinations. But it's only when you hit the ring that you understand why this is the most insane, borderline craziest wrestling game ever made. Things might start off in a very classic AKI style, with button presses or holds determining weak or strong strikes and grapples, but once you hit combinations of the L button with strikes and grapples, gravity goes out the window. The ultimate level special moves are so over the top that they make Def Jam's blazing finishers look tame in comparison. Some characters even have tag team super specials; people flying dozens of meters in the air before being buried into the canvas is just a regular day in the Muscle League. Add to the whole package excellent dialogue spoken by the original American voice actors, including hilarious in-ring commentary (something that is sadly lacking in every other GameCube game of this genre) and it's hard not to recommend this cel-shaded wrestlefest even today.
AKI Corporation has not produced any Wrestling games since this hardware generation, something that truly sparks our curiosity. What would / could Syn Sophia do in current Nintendo hardware?
Where The Big Boys Play: Yuke's Future Media Creators
After WWE bought WCW in 2001, the options for fans were limited as there was now only one official American license available to base games on. And let's not kid ourselves: regardless of the final product quality, a WWE logo on the cover will make a game shift thousands of copies for that fact alone. As previously mentioned, in 2000 THQ acquired the publishing rights to WWE in a move that would become one of the final nails in the coffin of Acclaim. Its first release was in 2000 when the PlayStation game WWF SmackDown! was received with positive reviews thanks to the solid game mechanics fashioned by developer Yuke's. The Japanese company is still to this day responsible for making WWE games, despite THQ (ironically just like Acclaim) no longer existing. In 2002, with just a few WWE wrestling games under its belt, Yuke's finally stepped into the Nintendo arena.
WrestleMania X8 arrived a few months after Acclaim's Legends of Wrestling. Despite being the weakest of Yuke's offerings on the GameCube, is still way more satisfying than any of Acclaim's wrestling games. The playable roster offered impressive range and went beyond the usual WWE suspects. Tag team sensations like The Dudley Boyz, The Hardy Boyz, Edge and Christian and The APA were all included, and this is the only title on the GameCube to include the N.W.O. (Hollywood Hogan, Kevin Nash and Scott Hall), making it a title to own for Monday Night Wars-era fans. Players were not only spoiled for choice in the roster but also where and how to play with their virtual athletes: First you had to choose the match type from Standard, Hardcore, Tables, Ladders, TLC, Battle Royal, Steel Cage, Hell in a Cell and Ironman for either singles, tag team, handicap, Triple Threat, Fatal Four-Way, Battle Royal or even a full blown Royal Rumble. The gameplay felt a little wonky, with wrestlers feeling as if they were floating instead of walking around the ring. Finishing maneuvers were also slightly few and far between thanks to the need to fill the special meter and having no way to stock them (something that was quickly remedied in later games). It was a sign of things to come and a good foundation for Yuke's GameCube exclusive wrestling titles.
Enter WrestleMania XIX. Every problem with the previous title: fixed. RKOs out of nowhere courtesy of the rookie Randy Orton? Check! Goldberg versus Brock Lesnar in a Cell? You got it! Triple H going insane and beating up security personnel, construction workers and even police officers on the mall? You bet! Wait, what!? WrestleMania XIX not only came with all the modes from the previous title, but also the brand new, original Revenge Mode. After choosing a wrestler or one of your own creations, Vince McHahon fires you prior to WrestleMania and his daughter Stephanie picks you up and hires you to disrupt everything from the set construction to merchandise sales, parking lots of rampages (wouldn't be the Attitude era without some of that!) and even sea port sabotage. Revenge not only provides a unique gameplay twist on the old wrestling mechanic, it turns the game into a sort of three dimensional Final Fight and rewards players with money that can be used at Stacy Keibler's shop. Speaking of mechanics, the game fully mirrored the classic AKI Nintendo 64 control scheme, with press or hold of A controlling weak or strong grapples while B will perform strikes. L and R counter or block respectively. It works rather well and ensures matches flow nicely. This title is a very complete package filled with enough variety to ensure you and your friends will be hooked in front of the GameCube for many entertaining hours.
In 2004 while everyone was looking forwards to WrestleMania XX, Yuke's decided to scrap everything and start for the ground up. WWE Day of Reckoning - much like its namesake - is quite a departure from previous titles in every department. Even by today's HD standards, the player models look amazing and sometimes eerily close to their real life counterparts. Gone is "Revenge Mode" replaced with "Story Mode" where you must pick one of your original created wrestlers and move up in the ranks from dark matches in development territory to your first televised match on Heat and pick between RAW or the SmackDown! brand to enroll. It nicely emulates an entire year in the life of a rookie wrestler that eventually leads to the grand finale in WrestleMania. All your matches are now ranked according to how much of a show you put on out there, so mixing it up while properly countering and playing the crowd with your taunts and special moves are essential steps if you want to get awarded with big points to improve your creation stats. Sadly, the playable roster takes a hit and the selection is not as grand as it was in the previous title, but all the big players from 2004 are present and accounted for - along with five legends, namely Andre The Giant, Bret Hart and even Rowdy Piper. The only notable new gameplay feature is the "Momentum Shift". Get badly beaten up by your opponent and hitting A + B will unleash a desperation move that will reverse the spirit meter of two wrestlers, giving you again a fighting chance. This system can't be abused because you can only do it once per match, so make sure you don't get a second pummeling - you probably won't be getting up after that one. All these refinements - and the fact that the gameplay is spot on - mean that this is not only the best wrestling game on the system, but quite possibly one of the best 3D wrestling games ever made for any format.
Not to let go of its current momentum, Yuke's released WWE Day of Reckoning 2 in 2005. More of an update built on already stellar foundations than a true sequel, it brought along a revised roster (with very welcome Attitude-era legends like Steve Austin, The Rock and Mankind), improved graphics and smoother gameplay. New to the GameCube and taken from the PlayStation 2 series Raw vs SmackDown! is the introduction of wrestler stamina. Yuke's almost shot itself in the foot with this one. In previous games you could spend any amount of time running, jumping and taking your opponents to Suplex City to your heart's content, assuming you had your whole body healthy. However in this sequel, doing so unchecked will quickly lead to your wrestler depleting their stamina and becoming unresponsive and sluggish. This led to players initially building a lot of momentum only to be taken out as soon as their character becomes a huge, non-moving target for your opponent's furious retribution. So you need to plan ahead, keep an eye out on your stamina gauge and go for submission holds where you pick "Rest Hold" from the four possible types (other included are "Taunt", "Drain", or "Submit") and hope your opponent won't pick the right one (resulting in an immediate counter).
That's not all, however - there is another factor that you need to keep in mind: blood. Unlike in previous games where busting up your opponent's face would simply apply a blood texture and take a big hit to their head health, Day of Reckoning 2 handles things differently. There are now three levels of "bloody", from the first stage where you will drip a few drops onto the canvas here and there to the third stage where every hit to your head will result in a crimson mess worthy of horror movie. The more blood you lose, the slower you recuperate stamina and with a badly damaged head, a-soon-to-follow knock-out is on the cards. All of these new mechanics add a lot more depth and strategy to the game, but Yuke's neglected the fact that some of us just love a good arcade wrestling experience and omitted the option to turn stamina off, leaving us to pick between this and the original Day of Reckoning depending on which style you prefer.
You might have noticed we didn't mention the single best feature on every game from Yuke's: The Create-a-Wrestler mode. Each of the four games offers the same mode that has improved with every outing, with extra moves and parts to make your wrestler. It's the same level of customisation that Human's Fire Pro Wrestling series so popular in Japan, but in 3D. It is extremely deep, with the possibility to customize literally everything on your character, from physical features, moves for every situation, clothing and accessories… you name it, they made it. However, if you don't find exactly what you're looking for, it's time to fire up the Paint tool that allows you to create, pixel-by-pixel, any pattern you need and apply it to your creation. Logos to put in your jacket or pants? Done. Hawk, Animal and Sting's face paint? No problem, all you need is a bit of patience and research. There are still hundreds of CAW formulas out there on the Internet for you to make in your game and most of the end results are amazingly accurate - we had trouble convincing people that Sting isn't officially part of the official Day of Reckoning roster. This is all possible because Yuke's included a ton of moves and even equipment from famous wrestling superstars to whom WWE did not have the license at the time. But why stop there? Make yourself into a wrestling superstar and enter the ring! Make all your friends and family and then invite them over for some truly over-the-top multiplayer moments sitting around your GameCube.
Yuke's continued its wrestling proficiency onto the next generation, but while most wrestling fans were expecting WWE Day of Reckoning 3 on the Wii (with 16:9 screen ratio, more moves, more venues and more wrestlers), instead we began getting PlayStation 2 conversions of RAW vs Smackdown! yearly entries that - despite all of their content - simply didn't stack up gameplay wise to any of the Day of Reckoning games. It is a shame, but an understandable brand awareness business decision since that due to user install base, the RAW vs SmackDown! series sold millions while the Day of Reckoning games sold "merely" thousands.
The End of an Era
That's it as far as wrestling on the GameCube goes. Why do we have so much love for the genre? Unlike the real thing, video game wrestling isn't scripted. Every match you enter is a DIY rumble that happens as opportunity arises from circumstances, your placement in the ring, your opponent's behavior and sometimes even interference from outside - or the even the audience. It remains a super fun genre and an absolute riot every time you play with (or against) your friends. There are no injuries or tragedies like in the real thing and none of your childhood heroes ever get old or retire as long as your GameCube lens and discs are in working condition.
But what about what about current generation Nintendo hardware? WWE sold the rights to 2K Sports, which has supported the Wii U with a single title, and like many third parties has dropped support for the console. Yuke's is still soldiering on, currently with mixed results as the hardware transition is proving hard to grapple with. If the Wii U is still a risky proposition for third parties, surely the 3DS would be a good choice for some portable wrestling? Is there truly no audience for wrestling games on Nintendo hardware? It's hard for us to live in an era where there are no wrestling games on current generation Nintendo hardware, but with NX on the horizon, who knows what the future could bring? We'd personally like to see AKI - sorry, Syn Sophia - take a break from the Style Savvy series and get back into the ring.
In memory of "The American Dream" Dusty Rhodes (1945-2015) and "Rowdy" Roddy Piper (1954-2015) who passed away this year.