As we await more news on the upcoming AEW video game, let’s look back on the popular genre and its turbulent history.
Professional wrestling and video games should go together like a single leg takedown into an ankle lock. After all, one-on-one fighting has been compellingly depicted in video games ever since Street Fighter II blazed a trail through the arcade scene in the early 90s. Right now, I should be able to regale you with a lengthy list of sublime wrestling games, each one lifting the genre to new heights of awesomeness. But I can’t. Because the bottom line is that most games in the professional wrestling genre absolutely suck. And that doesn’t require Stone Cold Steve Austin to say so, as it’s an objective fact. There’s really only a mere handful of wrestling games that are decent and, arguably, only a finger’s worth that are actually great.
Take the two most recent pro wrestling games released by 2K as an example. WWE 2K20, the latest annual release in the long running series, was an unfinished mess. This was followed up by the absolute stinker of an arcade brawler that was 2K Battlegrounds. A game that failed in every conceivable way to capture what can be so great about wrestling – or video games for that matter. The performance of these two games has clearly had an impact on 2K as they won’t be launching a WWE title this year. Hopefully, by giving the developers some extra ring time, WWE 2K22 will steer the franchise back on track.
A new challenger
If this game fails then it’s left then to the AEW video game to rescue this genre from obscurity. Founded in 2019, AEW has proved a soothing balm to ease the hives of any wrestling fan allergic to WWE. However, despite their initial promises, AEW hasn’t reinvented the wrestling landscape. Instead they’ve settled on ‘just’ creating a good wrestling show. One with coherent storylines, sensible booking, enjoyable promos and a high-standard of wrestling. In these aspects they are often the anti-WWE. Could it be that the success AEW has achieved is indicative of how far WWE has fallen? Despite making record profits, WWE consistently fail to create an enjoyable few hours of television – bar a few notable exceptions. Perhaps, just as AEW has reignited fan passions for the pro wrestling scene, the recently announced, and still untitled, ‘AEW Console Game’ might achieve the same goal for pro wrestling video games.
There’s certainly reason to be hopeful. Yuke’s – who have made several decent WWE games in the past – are behind the development of this AEW video game. Though, most excitingly, it is the involvement of Hideyuki ‘Geta’ Iwashita that has wrestling fans salivating. Why so much spittle? That’s because Hideyuki was behind the greatest wrestling game of all time: ‘WWF No Mercy’, released on the beloved N64 way back in the year 2000. His involvement makes sense; the little information we have been provided about the AEW console game suggests that WWF: No Mercy is informing the inspiration behind its development. That and the PS2 game ‘WWF Here Comes the Pain’. Now, I can take or leave ‘Here Comes the Pain’, just like I can take or leave an invisible Brock Lesner title reign, but if the AEW console game can become a pseudo sequel to WWF No Mercy, then I’ll be a very happy Bunny – and Butcher and Blade – indeed. What is it that I hope Yuke’s will take from WWF No Mercy in order to make the greatest wrestling game of all time? Let me tell you.
Wrestling is all about the “selling”. It’s the bit that compels us to keep watching; where the wrestler pretends to be hurt after absorbing the impact of a devastating move from their opponent. Or when they scream in pain and frustration as they desperately scramble to escape an agonising submission hold. Selling is what gives wrestling meaning. Without it, pro wrestling is just a bunch of spandex clad and ludicrously muscled girls and boys performing gymnastics. Selling provides story, it creates a sense of believability and it can – when done properly – have an audience of tens of thousands on their feet, cheering or booing. Which makes it very odd is that selling is entirely absent from most wrestling games. It’s like they haven’t got the time for it. In several WWE games you can powerbomb The Rock off the side of a Hell in the Cell and he’ll just roly-poly to his feet and no-sell the move. It was as if Triple H circa the year 2000 was informing the game design. Sure, in recent years, little icons were used to depict which areas of a wrestler’s body was damaged but this had little meaningful impact on visuals and gameplay. It just meant the stupid mini-games you had to perform to escape a pin fall were harder to achieve.
WWF No Mercy was better at selling even better than Shawn Michael in his prime. Which is absolutely astonishing, particularly when you consider No Mercy’s blocky and basic N64 visuals. As your wrestler absorbed punishment they slowed down, they moved as if in agonising pain, they barely kicked out to beat a pin. Which made it all the more exciting when you mounted an epic comeback against a cocksure opponent – hitting a finisher from “outta nowhere” to score an upset. The crowd went wild and your mate lobbed his controller in frustration. It was magical. It was like you got to book your own wrestling match and tell a story of cathartic violence that you would want to see on the telly in WWF, WCW or ECW. If the AEW console game wants to connect with wrestling fans, then the inclusion of actual believable selling, instead of damage indicators and copious mini-games, is absolutely vital.
I can only assume that I’m not alone in thinking the gimmick matches in WWE 2K games hardly ever worked? Try to chokeslam an opponent through a table and they’d just as soon rebound off the ropes instead. This would send the ropes into a jelly-like bouncing spasm, resulting in a twitching and glitching mess of wrestler’s limbs as the game engine struggled to figure out what the heck was going on. And don’t even get me started on ladder matches – what was wrong with those ladders? They never stayed up for long and seemed to fall over when someone just as soon as looked at them. Then there’s the inclusion of weapon shots; smacking a foe with a steel chair should be a moment of high drama, instead it was more often an inept and clumsy strike that would miss entirely or comedically hit the wrong person.
WWF No Mercy, on the other hand, managed to achieve the seemingly simple task that WWE 2K games found impossible – it just worked. Setting up someone on a table and then elbow dropping them through it from the top rope succeeded. Every time. Unless they reversed it and stumbled out of the way that is. Hitting someone with a chair shot not only made contact but it looked like it hurt too. Astonishingly the wrestler actually held the chair in their hand too, rather than using their psychic powers to levitate the object inches from their fingers as demonstrated in the WWE 2K games. What I’m saying, if I’m saying anything at all, is that WWF No Mercy wasn’t a glitchy mess. The AEW video game needs to work out the box, on day one. A cornucopia of patches days and weeks after the release just won’t cut it. Fortunately, AEW champ Kenny Omega agrees, telling WrestleTalk: “We don’t want a Street Fighter V launch, we don’t want a Cyberpunk launch. So we’re going to create something that will be fun to play from day one, but it will be ever-evolving as our roster is.”
Now, this one isn’t really the fault of wrestling game developers. Taking WWE as the inspiration, was it any wonder that the storylines included in these games were often an incomprehensible mess? Some WWE 2K’s storylines worked, but most ended up as a series of meaningless beatdowns that failed to capture any sense of drama or excitement. Wrestler and commentary voice over work felt more stilted and scripted than a Baron Corbin promo. In short, storyline modes were flat, rarely creating the iconic moments that wrestling fans craved. Preferring instead to lurch from narrative beat to narrative beat with little focus or intention. What’s the point of creating your own wrestler if they aren’t given compelling storylines to be a part of?
WWF No Mercy kept its approach to storylines simple. Rather than tell a million stories poorly, it cherry-picked the best plots from WWF television and allowed the player to take on and perform the roles within them. Getting to play out the brutal feud between Cactus Jack and Triple H was a delight that I often returned to. Now, over twenty years later, we expect more from video game narratives, and it’s correct to do so. But the AEW video game would do well to focus on delivering well told storylines that feel like they matter, are cohesive, have a narrative flow and not only make sense but also satisfy the player. AEW are doing that better than anyone every week on AEW Dynamite, so I see no reason why they can’t deliver decent stories in video game form too.
Will the AEW video game be capable of matching the promises that have been made? Will it be able to channel the glorious wrestling video games of the past to make the quintessential wrestling game of tomorrow? Only time will tell. One thing’s for certain though, I’ll be there on launch day to find out.