Let’s remember wrestling games. Let’s remember those rare, fleeting moments in video game history when those games were ‘good’.
The times you pumped loose change into WWF Wrestlefest in the arcades, the time you spent playing WWF Wrestlemania on the NES.
That was when? The late 80s? Early 90s? Glorious times. Glorious times indeed.
Then, for some reason, wrestling games sucked for a while.
Then all of a sudden they didn’t suck. Wrestling games were relevant again. They were important. They were ‘good’. In fact, for a short period of time during the Nintendo 64/PlayStation 1 era, wrestling video games weren’t just ‘good’, they were amongst the best games on their respective systems. Games like No Mercy or WCW vs NWO. These games were popular, not just with wrestling fans, but across the board. They graced the covers of magazines, we discussed them enthusiastically. No Mercy was being mentioned in the same breath as other multiplayer classics like Goldeneye or Mario Kart 64. No Mercy was a big deal.
Then, once again, wrestling games sucked for a while, right?
Well, not exactly.
Let’s look at those two peak periods for wrestling video games. Let’s make a few connections.
WWF Wrestlemania was released in 1989 and WWF Wrestlefest hit arcades around 1991. That’s the first era. That’s when wrestling video games were first seen as something worth playing, in the west at least.
The second period hit almost a decade later. WCW vs NWO World Tour was released in 1997 and WWE No Mercy was released in 2000. A number of other equally successful sequels and spin offs were released inbetween those two releases. The successful WWE Smackdown series on the original PlayStation was also launched during this time.
These two eras are typically seen as the two ‘golden ages’ for wrestling video games: 1989-1991 and 1997-2000.
What a coincidence: those two time periods coincide with two of the most successful periods in wrestling history in terms of mainstream popularity and drawing power. 1989-1991 being the ‘Golden Era’ when wrestlers like Hulk Hogan, The Ultimate Warrior and Ric Flair became household names. 1997-2000 being smack bang in the middle of the ‘Attitude Era’, when The Rock, Stone Cold Steve Austin and the NWO complete reinvented the wrestling product for a new generation of fans.
Here’s my argument: games like No Mercy and WWF Wrestlefest are retrospectively discussed as classic examples of the genre, not necessarily because they were great video games, but because that was the precise moment in time when the vast majority of the gaming audience loved professional wrestling.
Those were the time periods when the Wrestling business was ‘hot’. That was the time period when Wrestling was relevant and felt important. When it was popular enough amongst specific demographics to actually sell video game magazines, to sell video games in droves. When it was a mainstream phenomenon.
The wrestling business is notoriously cyclical. Those dead periods? Those moments when wrestling video games were being ignored by mainstream audiences, and tended to review poorly? Those moments coincided with a downturn in the wrestling audience, coincided with the moments when wrestling moved back into its shell, awaiting the next moment when it would gather momentum and steam again. It coincided with moments when we simply just didn’t really care about wrestling.
It can’t be coincidental: the moments when we, as a collective, are most excited and enthusiastic about wrestling video games are linked to the moments when we are excited about wrestling as a product, and our perception of the quality of the games is inextricably tied to that.
I’d argue that wrestling video games haven’t really improved over the last decade, but they haven’t really decreased in quality either. For the most part they’ve kept pace with technology, with the expectations of what a wrestling video game should provide for its audience. They’ve made slow progress in some areas, revolutionised in others, but for the most part I’d claim that wrestling games (when compared to other games in other genres) haven’t slipped, they haven’t gotten worse, we’ve just been – in general – less interested in wrestling as an overall product.
But that’s all about to change.
As a lapsed wrestling fan I’ve noticed a sea change over the last few months. The growth of the audience, the hype leading up to WrestleMania XXX, the slow burn process of Daniel Bryan transforming into the ‘next big thing’. Wrestling is in the early beginnings of becoming ‘cool’ again. It’s part organic/part genius and it’s being led, I’d argue, by one of the most forward thinking moves any form of entertainment has made in years: the WWE Network.
In short: people are talking about wrestling again, and pretty soon we’re going to be excited about wrestling video games again. Our perception of their quality will change and in 10 years time we’ll reminisce about how good WWE 2k16 was; we’ll ask ourselves, ‘what the hell happened to wrestling games? Remember when they used to be good?’
Wrestling games are about to be ‘good’ again. Whatever that means. They are about to become ‘good’ because, as a community, we’re in the process of beginning to care about wrestling, investing in the characters, in the matches. They’re about to become ‘good’ again because we’re about to decide, as a group, that wrestling is ‘good’.
Such a strange dynamic but, for some reason, I’m excited by it. I’m part of it. Wrestling is about to become important again. Wrestling video games, by association, will be a part of that change.