In case you haven’t been keeping tabs on the WWE video game scene, it’s currently in a state of complete anarchy. Ever since THQ went bust and 2K Games took over the licence in 2013, the games have been gathering a steady flow of criticism, which has been rapidly gaining in pace as each instalment is released.
The situation has been particularly grim for Nintendo fans. When 2K took over it completely ignored the Wii and Wii U and only released one game, WWE 2K18, on the Switch. The problem was, this Switch version was more broken than Matt Hardy (don’t worry non-fans, that’s his gimmick: I’m not libelling him) and was absolutely riddled with bugs and slowdown. Rather than fix it, 2K quietly shirked away again and chose not to bring 2K19 or 2K20 to the Switch.
Even fans of other consoles have been discovering what that feels like now. Last year 2K ditched developer Yuke’s – who had been lead developer on the series ever since it started two decades ago – and decided to make WWE 2K20 on its own, before quickly realising it was rubbish at making wrestling games without any help. As such, there will be no WWE 2K21 at all on any system: instead 2K is pausing to reflect on what it’s doing wrong, and is letting its NBA Playgrounds studio Saber Interactive release a cartoonish arcade-style brawler called WWE 2K Battlegrounds instead (hey, at least that one’s coming to Switch).
It’s clear that the WWE 2K series is in some sort of existential limbo as 2K tries to figure out how to revive a series now that it’s punted the team that knew it inside-out. I think I might have the solution, and while it’s something of a bold one I think deep down anyone who’s been playing wrestling games for a long time will know it’s the correct one.
Kill it. Retire it. And bring back No Mercy.
For those not familiar with it, WWF No Mercy was a Nintendo 64 exclusive and was the definitive WWF (as it was known then) game. It had an enormous roster for the time, had a thoroughly entertaining branching story mode and, most importantly, had the most perfect combat system which has yet to be even remotely approached by any other wrestling game since, let alone surpassed.
What made No Mercy such a fun game to play was the tactical element of its control system. On a base level you had two opening gambits: an attack (with the B button) or a grapple (with A). You could tap either button for a quick one that did less damage, or hold it down for a more powerful one that took a while to wind up, telegraphing it to your opponent so anyone reasonably skilled at the game could figure out what’s coming and reverse it accordingly (the L button reversed grapples, the R button reversed attacks).
What this ultimately meant was that if you put two experts against each other the game would actually play out like a real wrestling match. You would never be crazy enough to try to bust out the big moves early on, because your opponent would see you coming a mile off and counter you out of your boots. Instead, your strategy would be to try to chip away at your opponent with quick attacks and grapples, and slowly wear them down. Then, as their stamina depleted, you would be able to pick them up off the floor and leave them stunned for a brief period, finally leaving them wide open to more powerful attacks and grapples.
It’s the closest a WWE game has ever come to feeling like the real thing (and yes, we know it isn’t ‘real’ in that sense, so if you act smart and mention it in the comments everyone will know you didn’t actually read the article). The fact that two decades later nothing has matched it speaks volumes about the current state of the genre: it’s little surprise that there’s an active ROM modding scene with fans making their own modern versions of the game, by taking out the old wrestlers and replacing them with today’s superstars.
What I propose, then, is that 2K call these modders’ bluff and do the same thing. Give No Mercy an HD update, call it WWE No Mercy 2K22 (it’s too late to do it this year), and fill the roster with modern WWE and NXT superstars. Chuck a bunch of legends in there too: the character models are so low poly that you could have hundreds and hundreds of wrestlers in there with fairly little effort. Yes, 2K has a big scanning set-up that it uses to make photo-realistic versions of athletes in its NBA and WWE games, but given that 2K20’s character models were notorious for looking like ropey mannequins from a backstreet Niagara Falls waxworks, we don’t think many would care too much if this HD No Mercy had hundreds of low-poly grapplers in there instead.
Here’s the kicker: there’s already precedent for this. Right before THQ went under it released WWE WrestleFest, an iOS version of the classic 1991 arcade game that retained some of the original roster like Jake ‘the Snake’ Roberts and Macho Man Randy Savage, but also added the likes of John Cena and The Rock. It was planned for Xbox 360 and PS3 but when THQ went to the big squared circle in the sky, so did WrestleFest. It’s no big loss, because it was rubbish, but the point is that taking an old wrestling game and updating its roster isn’t even a revolutionary idea: it’s been done before, just with a game that wasn’t very good in the first place.
There’s a deep irony in the fact that Nintendo fans have been getting slim pickings these days when it comes to wrestling games, whereas 20 years ago Nintendo was the place to be if you wanted the definitive WWE experience. It’s time to correct that hideous injustice and bring the champion out of retirement for one last ride. It’s time to show a modern generation of wrestling fans how a video game representation of sports entertainment is supposed to feel. It’s time to realise that THQ picked the wrong horse to back all those years ago and should have killed the SmackDown! series (which eventually became 2K) instead of the N64 games. Friends, it’s time for No Mercy to make a run-in.