Who’s got two thumbs and has been a pro wrestling fan since he was six years old? That would be me, your fellow Replayer MSG. Ever since watching the 1992 Royal Rumble of the World Wrestling Federation, I have been a proud fan of the madness that is professional wrestling. I dreamed of being a titan of the ring and holding a championship belt high above my head to the roar of a crowd. The closest I could come to that reality, however, was in the decade's worth of video games that allowed me to battle it out for grappler supremacy. Here are the ones that will always be in my personal Hall of Fame of the greatest pro wrestling video games. Let’s get ready to rumble!
In 1995, when arcades still existed and a roll of quarters was your gateway into total escapism, this game was the first one on my playlist. Midway Games was riding high off the success of Mortal Kombat. With the WWF license in hand, they brought Mortal Kombat’s digitized photographic fighter graphics and gave you the power to play as the greatest wrestlers of the time. Granted, there were only 8 available wrestlers to choose from in the game, but it was action-packed nonetheless.
By no means was this game meant to be "realistic" in terms of recreating your favorite matches from television. The fighting style was quite cartoonish. Razor Ramon’s arm would transform into a blade. Doink the Clown would smash opponents with a giant hammer. Bam Bam Bigelow’s fist would light his opponent on fire. You could still hit someone with the Tombstone Piledriver if you played as the Undertaker, but be prepared for some spooky graphics from beyond the grave!
What’s better than playing as your favorite wrestler? Making your own! The sequel to the 2000 THQ PlayStation hit game Know Your Role introduced the advanced "Create-A-Wrestler" mode. That quite literally changed the game for future entries. Instead of randomizing templates pre-crafted by the designers, players could pick and choose every feature of their customized superstar. Hardcore fans started using every fine-tuning feature to make their favorite real-life wrestlers who weren’t featured in the game or weren’t even in the same wrestling company. In my case, I instantly searched online for the instructions to make my favorite WCW wrestler, Sting. Soon after, every dream match I wanted was coming to life.
What makes this video game’s customization unique isn’t just being able to make your own wrestler but also your own manager, move set, taunt, and stable (pro wrestling lingo for "faction"). I spent hours making dream teams of wrestlers that would have either never teamed up, had teamed up once in the past or were just a super team of the greatest wrestlers of all time from different eras. Customization was king in Smackdown 2, and it set the bar for user-created characters in many other sports games that came after.
In 1998, World Championship Wrestling was THE hottest professional wrestling company in the world. It had the number one show on cable with WCW Monday Nitro and an average of 5 million viewers on a weekly basis. Along with great television, WCW and THQ brought their best to the Nintendo 64 console with WCW/nWo Revenge. While previous wrestling games on consoles had more of an arcade fighter vibe, Revenge was out to show the world what a pro wrestling simulator looked like. Not only would you be able to fight with an expanded roster, but you would also have access to fully rendered recreations of both their arena sets from television and their pay-per-view events.
Atmosphere can only add so much to a game, though. That's why THQ made sure in-game simulation would have brand new animations for several variations of the same type of move. One wrestler’s powerbomb would look different than another who used it in their arsenal. Counters and timed reversals made competition between players even more exciting as accuracy counted more than button mashing. Revenge set the bar very high with so many simulated features done in-game like unique ring entrances, championship competitions, strategic movement with the N64 controller’s joystick feature, and a lot of customizable options to create their own wrestler.
Revenge took wrestling games to new heights, but No Mercy set an even higher bar that all wrestling games afterward attempted to reach. For years, whenever a pro wrestling video game debuted onto new consoles, No Mercy was the game that was its litmus test. Why is this game so revered? Mainly because it brought simplicity to the table without insulting its audience.
The accessibility factor was a huge step up from all prior wrestling games. Maneuvering around the ring and pulling off dynamic moves were made simple and fun with the ease of the N64’s controller. A directional combination allowed for a more arcade-like fighting experience while still blending in the simulation of a televised show. Much like in the Goldeneye video game, multiplayer was a big selling point. Friends could face off against each other with their favorite wrestlers of WWF’s "Attitude Era" with a very deep roster.
One of the most memorable aspects of this game was their "Championship Mode," challenging players to fight their way through the different narrative branches and win any or all of the championship belts. To become the grand slam champion with anyone in the roster became a satisfying goal to achieve and with so many to select it afforded a lot of replayability.
So there you have it, Replayers! Let me know in the comments if you’ve ever played any of these games or if there are others you think deserve a place in this list. You might end up seeing them in a follow-up article.