I am, for my sins, an inveterate fan of professional wrestling and have been for as long as I can remember. As a small child I used to rent VHS tapes from a nearby Ritz Video and revel in the matches of the late 80s and early 90s Hulkamania era of WWF. Being a fan of professional wrestling and a fan of videogames I have therefore played a lot of awful wrestling games (and a few decent ones). The fundamental problem with wrestling games to date, ranging from the old WrestleFest arcade cabinets all the way to WWE 2k17, is their inability to address the true nature of professional wrestling.
As I’m sure everyone reading this is aware, wrestling is – for want of a better term – “not real”. However, every mainstream wrestling game ever made has treated the subject matter as a fighting game more in the vein of a Tekken or Street Fighter. The games stress the competitive aspect of the wrestling match and as a result fail absolutely to understand the attraction of professional wrestling. This is especially problematic in those games which introduced health gauges, that great staple of the fighting game, as these have the effect of stifling the against-all-odds comebacks that provide some of wrestling’s finest moments.
The fundamental problem is that professional wrestling is not a competitive sport in the traditional sense. Matches are often planned in advance, sometimes in intricate detail, and therefore wrestling is more akin to performance art or theatre than a boxing match. I don’t want to talk about wrestling itself in too much detail, but it’s fair to say that the majority of wrestling games present wrestling the way wrestling presents itself and not the way wrestling actually is. Even the best wrestling games, for all their qualities, have fallen into the same traps in the past. So the question becomes this: what do we, as wrestling fans, want from our hypothetical future wrestling game?
Video games are primarily about winning. Nobody plays FIFA for the joy of a hard-fought 2-1 defeat, and wrestling requires a loser for the purposes of entertainment. As such the first thing we would need to do is find a way to disconnect winning the game from winning the wrestling match. Certain games, including the most recent version of the WWE game on current generation consoles, have introduced a match rating system, which is supposed to reflect audience enjoyment of your performance, but in practice this comes to mean “variety of moves” and “length of match”, both of which, again, fail to really address the finest aspects of a good wrestling match. As such I can see two possible ways in which wrestling games can seek to reflect the reality of professional wrestling.
The first is to do away with the pretence that the matches are legitimate contests within the game. WWE will never do this due to their key audience of children who do not know the matches aren’t real but another wrestling game, perhaps one from Japan that doesn’t have licencing issues to worry about, could pull this off. This would necessarily limit the audience for the game, but I’m envisioning a sort of Bioware-style, choice driven, branching narrative (but better, you know, one that actually impacts the story and gameplay experience) in which the player is placed in the shoes of a wrestler throughout their actual real “behind the curtain” career and not solely their in-ring career.
This would allow scope for matches where, for example, the player character is required to lose, but to lose well. “Losing well” in this case becomes “winning the game” and so provides the player with the enjoyment and validation I crave, I mean they crave. This is essential because losing is rarely fun, outside the confines of the masochist’s games of choice, Crusader Kings 2, Dwarf Fortress, Rimworld et al.
The second method is to use the magic of the internet for some sort of wrestling MMO, a World of WarGames. I’m not much of a fan of online multiplayer, but an online context for a wrestling game would allow the construction of online based, user operated “promotions”, similar to the old e-fed roleplaying games a certain strain of nerd will remember well. The existence of online promotions would allow players to run a character and could provide a virtual audience of online spectators, especially given the modern popularity of let’s play videos and twitch streaming. This in turn would allow the construction of face\heel dynamics, storylines and matches played out within the engine of a wrestling game with the purpose of entertaining the audience rather than with the purpose of advancing up a leaderboard.
These are, it will be clear, not well thought out ideas and more the rambling of a man who is desperate to play a wrestling video game and not Mortal Kombat feat John Cena. The real hook of professional wrestling is in the story-telling and characters and not in the simple joys of one extremely large man hitting another one until he falls down. If game designers are able to find a way to translate this to video games then this fanboy would be extremely pleased indeed.
In March 2017 Spike Chunsoft announced the upcoming Early Access release of Fire Pro Wrestling World for consoles and Steam. This is the most recent updating of a venerable series of Japanese wrestling games dating back to 1989 and taking in almost every available platform since, including some that I have never heard of. The games were frequently not widely available in the UK and the only version I have played personally was released for the Game Boy Advance in the innocent days of early 2001. This was a game that stood out to me for its extensive customisation options, expansive roster featuring any number of scarcely concealed, copyright baiting expys of familiar American wrestlers, clean, sprite-based graphics and deceptively deep mechanics and movesets.
Fire Pro Wrestling World is launching in Q2 2017 and its Steam page confirms the developers expect the community to make use of the expansive customisation and creation tools to expand the game’s content. It is also apparent that they are providing functionality for online “leagues”. I suspect that online gameplay will, unfortunately, remain anchored in the fighting game style of competition, but Fire Pro Wrestling World may provide the possibility to do things slightly differently. At the moment, in a landscape in which the only wrestling games that aren’t the flagship WWE series are MDickie’s games which could be most charitably described as “interesting” and the in-development-since-time-immemorial Pro Wrestling X, the return of a wrestling game with genuine pedigree, which seeks to do things slightly differently, has me extremely excited.