One of the common complaints about sports videogames is that they barely change from year to year. Consumers are asked to pay full price for what often amounts to a roster update. That’s also true with fake sports videogames—there’s a new WWE wrestling game every year. The latest, WWE 2K14, is out today (read our review from yesterday), and even though it’s essentially the same game as last year, its broad historical focus makes it one of the better wrestling games in recent memory. It prompted us to consider the history of not just the sport but of the wrestling game genre itself, which of course turned into a gentlemanly debate over how we’d rank the contenders for the title of the best wrestling game ever made. The results might surprise you.
10. WCW Wrestling
Nichibitsu / FCI Inc
Nintendo Entertainment System
A guilty pleasure for fans of the NWA, 1990’s WCW Wrestling features both the best real-life roster of any NES-era wrestling game and the only customizable move-set of the era. Sure, that last option is incredibly limited, and technical glitches can make this one a little too frustrating to play at times, but the opportunity to play as Ric Flair, Sting or “Dr. Death” Steve Williams was monumentally exciting to young fans who preferred the Southern-style wrestling on TBS to the lumbering bodybuilders of the WWF.
9. Pro Wrestling
Nintendo Entertainment System
The enduring popularity of Nintendo’s Pro Wrestling isn’t due simply to nostalgia. It features the basics you’d expect from a wrestling game: an exotic cast of characters with distinct moves spread equally between striking and grappling, with Irish whips and top rope moves for higher impact. You can even take the fight outside the ring, and perform suicide dives with certain wrestlers. It’s not just the depth of realistic features that make Pro Wrestling stand up still today, though, but also how smoothly and crisply the game pulls these moves off. Pro Wrestling runs on what amounts to ancient technology these days, but it still recreates the distinctive back-and-forth drama of a real wrestling match.
8. Def Jam Vendetta
AKI / EA Sports
PlayStation 2 / Nintendo GameCube
What do you do when you want to make a wrestling game but don’t have a wrestling company to partner up with? In the past you’d fill out the roster with thinly veiled knock-offs of famous wrestlers with goofy names like King Slender and Fighter Hayabusa. If you’re EA in the early oughts, though, bereft of a wrestling partner after the death of WCW, you’d turn to the iconic rap label Def Jam and make Def Jam Vendetta. This collision of two already over-the-top pop culture domains resulted in one of the most awesomely absurd games ever made. Beyond the ridiculousness of Ludacris flooring DMX with a DDT, Vendetta holds up as a fantastic wrestling game thanks to the classic AKI wrestling engine.
7. King of Colosseum 2
Japanese wrestling is a different beast than the American version. It’s more physical, more dangerous and more serious. It’s treated more like a real sport over there, with fans admiring the athleticism needed to perform at a high level even though they know the finish is predetermined. The beloved Fire Pro Wrestling series reflected that in its presentation and intricate, timing-based play. King of Colosseum 2 is the 3D successor to the Fire Pro series, and although the grappling is slightly different, the brutally tough action and massive roster still capture the thrill and scope of Japanese wrestling.
6. Virtual Pro Wrestling 2
AKI / Asmik
AKI made the best wrestling games, and that is all the people need to know. Virtual Pro Wrestling 2 is a Japanese-only game with the same engine as AKI’s beloved WCW and WWF titles for the Nintendo 64. It’s affiliated with All Japan Pro Wrestling, which historically is one of the two major Japanese promotions, but one that has dwindled in prominence since 2000 after two different major talent walkouts. Virtual Pro Wrestling 2 is the same basic game as WWF WrestleMania 2000, but the showmanship is stripped down and the focus is squarely on in-ring action. The roster is packed with top turn-of-the-century Japanese talent, although (like the Japanese wrestlers in WCW / nWo Revenge, and most wrestlers in the Fire Pro series) fake names and slightly altered appearances are used for the wrestlers who weren’t under contract with All Japan at the time. The differences between Virtual Pro Wrestling 2 and WWF WrestleMania 2000 sum up the differences between Japanese and American wrestling—one tries to present itself as a serious sport, whereas the other bills itself as “sports entertainment”.
5. WWF WrestleFest
Before consoles caught up to arcades in the 90s, the WWF coin-op machines made by Technos were the best games in the biz. The large, colorful sprites look more like our ring heroes than anything on the NES, and instead of the generic move-sets typical of the day each wrestler has his own signature moves. The tag team tournament structure lets you play as two superstars for a single quarter (although honestly most arcades had already graduated to the 50 cent buy-in by this point), with a broad cross-section of the early 90s WWF roster available (although the absence of Randy Savage is a true heart-breaker.) It also introduced the Royal Rumble to videogames, that beloved gauntlet match where every hand on the roster gets a chance to shine, from scrub to main eventer. WrestleFest is more difficult than most console games (it’s designed to be a top earner, in the parlance of the amusement industry), but for a few years it was the greatest wrestling game of all time.
4. WWF WrestleMania 2000
In 1999 WCW, which was the biggest wrestling group in America the previous three years, jumped to EA Sports, the dominant force in sports videogames. Their old publisher, THQ hooked up with the WWF, bringing along the expert wrestling designers at AKI and their peerless wrestling engine. WWF WrestleMania 2000 was the first fruit of this marriage. It expanded greatly on AKI’s WCW games, introducing the designer’s first create-a-character mode and a wider diversity of match types. Its memory might have receded in the years since its release, as it didn’t have the revelatory impact of WCW / nWo Revenge, and the subsequent WWF No Mercy refined and perfected AKI’s approach to wrestling games. It’s still a crucial step on the annual iteration of the greatest wrestling series ever made.
3. WCW / nWo Revenge
AKI’s last WCW game is bittersweet for Southern wrestling fans. It’s a fantastic game that captures World Championship Wrestling at the peak of its success, right before the company embarked on two years of catastrophic booking that drove it out of business. It’s a videogame snapshot of the American wrestling industry before it became a veritable monopoly under WWE, from a time when WCW had the deepest and most stylistically varied roster in the business. This is the game where AKI truly established themselves as the masters of videogame wrestling, with a fast-paced and easy to understand system of grapples and reversals that captured the rhythm of real wrestling and set the standard for every game to follow. WCW left THQ for EA after this, releasing a few of the worst wrestling games ever en route to a sad end. And although WCW / nWo Revenge is the last gasp of the company’s final glory days, it can also be seen as a symbol of the turmoil to come: Ric Flair, the most popular and enduring icon from WCW and the NWA, was left off the roster due to a legal fight with the company’s executives. This game might be the last thing WCW did right, and they still got it wrong in one major way.
2. Fire Pro Wrestling Returns
The Fire Pro Wrestling series has always existed as the studious, stern-faced, 2D counterpart to AKI’s wrestling games. It’s brutally difficult, with a complex timing-based system that’s far more difficult to grasp than AKI’s grapples and reversals. Once you understand how it works, though, Fire Pro offers perhaps the most realistic and satisfying wrestling experience in games. And whereas AKI’s American releases were confined to American promotions (or rap labels), Fire Pro tried to encompass the entire scope of the industry, with over a hundred wrestlers obviously based on real-life competitors from organizations throughout the world. And if you couldn’t find the barely disguised Terry Gordy of your dreams, you could always make him in the game’s exhaustive create-a-character mode, which let you make up to 500 wrestlers. 2007’s Fire Pro Wrestling Returns was the last true Fire Pro, and one of the few to hit the States. Its difficulty can be frustrating, but your patience will be rewarded.
1. WWF No Mercy
It should be no surprise that No Mercy tops our list. It’s the best wrestling game AKI ever made, with the deepest create-a-character feature, the best championship mode and the smoothest grappling and reversal systems. It also features an absurdly great roster of all-time in-ring competitors—beyond such stalwarts as Steve Austin, the Rock and Mick Foley, it’s the only AKI game with Kurt Angle, Chris Jericho, Eddie Guerrero and (a pre-family-murdering) Chris Benoit , who are all on the short list for best all-around workers of the era. So it’s the best wrestling system combined with the best Western roster, and thus the best wrestling game of all time.