Release Date: June 1991
Genre: Pro Wrestling
Developer: Technos Japan
Publisher: Technos Japan
By the mid-’90s, the World Wrestling Federation was on something of a downward spiral.
During the mid-1980s, company CEO Vince McMahon systematically destroyed the then regional wrestling territories by stealing all of their talent and transforming the business into a nationwide, pay-per-view industry. Plunging all of his finances into a make-or-break event known as Wrestlemania, Vince capitalised on the youth-orientated MTV market by enlisting the services of stars such as Cyndi Lauper, and thereby introducing his own larger-than-life stars to an already established audience. By the end of the decade, the WWF was the biggest thing on the planet.
Thanks to a series of sex and drug scandals involving high profile wrestlers such as Hulk Hogan, the WWF would struggle to keep their heads above water during the 1990s, but they would experience one last surge in popularity before the rot truly set in, capitalising on a growing European market by hosting one of their biggest yearly events at a sold out Wembley stadium. Thanks to stars such as The Ultimate Warrior and Macho Man Randy Savage, merchandise would fly off the shelves faster than a flying clothesline.
Of course, this was the era of the cartridge console, and the WWF would release many wrestling games during the late 80s/early 90s boom as a way to further expand their profit margin. Predictably, most of them were crap, as were all wrestling games up to that point. Earlier non-WWF efforts were simply standard fighters, the only difference being that they were surrounded by ring ropes that usually had no bearing on the action. The NES gave us woeful efforts Wrestlemania and Wrestling Challenge, simple punch and kick affairs with a couple of basic moves and a playing longevity of a couple of hours―and that’s if you were a die hard fan.
A couple of years later, the SNES upped the ante by introducing more moves and interactive ropes, but the graphics still sucked beyond comprehension, and as your favourite superstars ran around aimlessly with repetitive moves and crappy soundbites, you began to conclude that wrestling and home consoles were simply incompatible.
Thankfully, for those of us who were lucky enough to holiday somewhere with a machine, Technos Japan were kind enough to release WWF WrestleFest, which was so far ahead of its time to gaze upon it was like a Neanderthal gazing at a futuristic neon metropolis. A huge upgrade on 1989’s coin-op effort WWF Superstars, WrestleFest featured a huge cast of well-known characters, realistic graphics, and the kind of frenetic and rewarding gameplay which left you speechless. This was everything wrestling fans had ever dreamed of in a game, and then some.
I would spend every penny I had on this one machine for three or four years running, and when my credits quickly dried up I would spend hours watching others throw away their money, or if the machine was vacant I would simply stand and soak up the sights and sounds of the game’s brightly- coloured, beautifully presented mayhem. So realistic and engrossing was this game that I would rush home to imitate the action with my wrestling figures. From the moment I first laid eyes on it, it had me under its spell.
Not only did the game look better than anything I had ever seen before, it had so much variety, the antithesis of the bare bone brand tie-ins fans had so far been subjected to. For a start, there were two forms of gameplay. The first allowed you to choose two wrestlers to run a tag-team gauntlet against the Federation’s finest superstars, culminating in a title match with the spiked shoulder pad-sporting Legion of Doom. If that got tiring – which it never did – you could instead go it alone in an over the top rope Royal Rumble. For once, developers had left fans spoilt for choice.
Previous wrestling games had given us little more than two dimensional experiences with animation and move sets that held little or no resemblance to the characters being portrayed. But not anymore. The physical resemblance here was uncanny, from the brightly coloured costumes to the movements and facial expressions, the designers had it down to a tee, while each character went through their own specific repertoire of moves, finally culminating in their signature manoeuvres. You could deliver submission moves to grounded opponents, climb on the top rope, tag in your partner for double moves and even venture outside of the ring where you could utilise a variety of foreign objects as the animated referee counted you out.
The great thing was, the buttons were no more complex than the dismal games you were forced to play at home. You simply tied up with your opponent and bashed the buttons. If you were fast enough you would gain the advantage and perform a different move each time. You could even send your opponent flying into the ropes with an Irish whip and backdrop them ten feet into the air. If you were playing as Hulk Hogan you could even use the Irish Whip to perform the big boot, which was the set-up to his leg drop finisher, while The Ultimate Warrior performed the gorilla press with the option of hitting the ropes and going for the game-ending big splash. This game was something else!
What was most welcome for fans across the globe was Wrestlefest’s painstaking attention to detail. They knew what made the World Wrestling Federation such an engrossing product and packed the game with all the elements that gamers had dreamed of. This had absolutely everything you had ever wanted or talked about or imagined, and even some things you hadn’t considered.
First of all, the wrestlers made their way down the isle to the ring – a huge part of the sport’s spectacle – while an active crowd shook their fists and cheered all around you. You had a commentator calling the action, a referee counting your shoulders. You could interrupt counts, make the ‘hot tag’ to a fresher partner with a power-up. During Royal Rumble mode, you even had animated picture captions alerting you to the next entrant as the ring continued to fill and the action grew more and more frantic.
In the WWF, the drama backstage was just as central to the fun as the action in-ring, and Technos realised this, adding a series of quite incredible backstage sequences, with Hulk Hogan punching his way through a numbered countdown as players made it through each stage. You even had backstage interviewer ‘Mean’ Gene Okerlund holding a microphone for tag team champions The Legion of Doom, who barked and growled their way through an interview.
Never before had a wrestling game given us such character-driven drama. There you were, gripping onto the joystick as you prepared to face the game’s toughest challenge, absolutely mesmerised as the sights and sounds flooded your little body with adrenaline. This was an experience to behold.
So taken with this game was I back in the early 90s that part of the fun of going on holiday was to play WrestleFest, while the inevitable return to everyday life left me craving not for cloudy beaches and candy floss, but for the sights and sounds of one of the most realistic gaming experiences available to wrestling fans of my generation, and perhaps the most satisfying brand tie-in ever produced.
This is really a matter of subjectivity, because each of the twelve characters was just as realistic and as satisfying to play with as the next. Whether you were a Hulkamaniac or a little Warrior, you were guaranteed to have just as much fun, and if you chose to play the game’s tag mode you could play as both. My personal favourite was Jake the Snake because his signature DDT looked and felt so real, although if I were to choose based on an entire move set it would be a toss-up between Earthquake and The Million Dollar Man, with Mr Perfect coming in at a close 2nd.
Though my favourite signature move was the DDT, my favourite standard move was a toss-up between Earthquake’s devastating powerslam and The Million Dollar Man’s falling fist drop, while tagging in for a double team was always something of a novelty that you couldn’t find anywhere else.
Best Technos Detail
While a plethora of big and small details combined to create perhaps the most satisfying arcade experience of my entire life, I will have to go for the Royal Rumble mode’s backstage captions, which alerted you to the identity of the next entrant, ramping up the tension levels as you grappled your way to victory.
Light years ahead of its time, WWF WrestleFest was the first game to truly capture the extravagant glory of professional wrestling, creating a fan experience worthy of our wildest dreams. With exquisitely modelled, larger-than-life characters, frenetic gameplay and enough variety to keep you begging for more, this was the game fans were pining for. An experience worthy of everyday wrestling hyperbole.