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THQ Wrestling Games: End of an Era

200px-THQ_logo_2011.svgJust last week an auction took place in which all of the assets held by video game publisher/developer THQ were sold off as part of a bankruptcy filing.  Several games the company was known for will either cease to be or exist in a new form and smaller developers now find themselves being assimilated into much larger publishers.  Not to be forgotten are all the jobs that will be lost either by THQ no longer existing or by layoffs from the purchasing parties.  As someone who has been part of an acquisition I can say it’s not a fun experience and there’s lots of uncertainty for those involved.

What’s is certain is that THQ will no longer be in business, and as such, it’s partnership with World Wrestling Entertainment has come to an end.  THQ’s involvement with wrestling games predates the WWE license acquisition and fans have been enjoying THQ branded wrestling games for well over a decade at this point.  For the WWE, its license is now in the hands of Take-Two and 2K Sports who will only be the third publisher to hold the much coveted property.  What remains uncertain, is if developer Yukes will have any involvement with future games.  It’s entirely possible that Take-Two won’t want to ruin a profitable arrangement and hire Yukes to develop the successor to WWE ’13.

Such questions will be answered eventually, most likely at E3 if not sooner, but now is a time for reflection.  THQ’s wrestling games provided hours upon hours of enjoyment for myself and other gamers out there, but which games will THQ be remembered most for?  And also, which were the best and most ground-breaking titles?  The following is one man’s opinion on the five best wrestling games released by THQ:

WCW_vs._nWo_-_World_Tour_Coverart5. WCW vs nWo: World Tour (1997)

For most gamers, myself included, this was the first wrestling game any of us experienced that made us feel like we were part of the action.  Developed by Asmik Ace Entertainment and AKI, World Tour introduced to American audiences a whole new way to experience a wrestling game.  Prior games were little more than brawlers with a few noticeable moves and contemporary games like WCW Nitro and WWF Warzone were overly complicated and seemed inauthentic.  World Tour sacrificed some realism for entertaining gameplay and made use of a grapple system that allowed players to access various moves.  The whole system was rather simple and each wrestler essentially controlled the same, but the experience was truly captivating and horribly addicting.  I never owned this game for I didn’t own a Nintendo 64 at the time, but I rented it several times and always had a blast with it.  The sequel, WCW vs nWo:  Revenge is basically the same game just with a fresher coat of paint, so World Tour gets the nod on this list for being the originator.  This was the start of a very profitable relationship for AKI and THQ.

4. WWF Smackdown:  Here Comes the Pain (2003)

The console wars of the 32 bit era never approached the fever pitch that was the 16 bit era, but Playstation vs N64 was still a pretty solid rivalry.  Playstation tended to have the more mature games while the N64 had the classic Nintendo franchises to keep people happy.  One thing N64 gamers had over PSX gamers was wrestling games as the ones put out by THQ easily trumped the best Acclaim had to offer.  This rivalry extended into the wrestling word as it pitted WCW vs WWF who were in a dogfight to establish supremacy over television thru the now famous Monday Night Wars.  Eventually, WWF would overtake WCW and soon THQ would jump ship and partner with WWF to bring the WWF experience to console gamers.  THQ handed the license over to AKI and basically told them to turn Revenge into a WWF game, while Playstation gamers were asked to trust in a mostly unknown developer called Yukes.  Yukes was popular in Japan for its wrestling games over there, and soon their fast-paced brand of wrestling action was available state-side as WWF Smackdown.  Smackdown was an instant success and offered an almost completely different experience from the slower-paced AKI games.  The first game was rather bare bones while the second introduced a robust single player game and create-a-wrestler.  The series really cemented itself though with the Playstation 2 title Here Comes the Pain.

Previous Smackdown titles eschewed the grapple mechanics of the AKI games and opted to allow players to skip the grapple and initiate moves from a standing position.  Here Comes the Pain slowed things down just a touch and brought in a linking grapple system that helped lend a new level of authenticity to the matches and open up the move-sets.  This major addition to the gameplay combined with a wide selection of match type makes Here Comes the Pain the best of the original Smackdown series.

In Day of Reckoning 2, submission holds did more than just inflict pain.

In Day of Reckoning 2, submission holds did more than just inflict pain.

3.  WWE Day of Reckoning 2 (2005)

Into the era of the Playstation 2, Xbox, and Gamecube, THQ continued to opt for a different WWE themed franchise for each console.  While the Playstation brand held onto the Smackdown series, new ones were created for Xbox and Gamecube.  Xbox was given the lackluster Raw games while Gamecube got a new Wrestlemania themed one.  It wasn’t much better, but eventually it would be scrapped and Yukes would be called upon to create a new themed franchise which was dubbed Day of Reckoning.  Day of Reckoning was sort of the spiritual successor to the popular AKI games from the N64 days.  DoR put the emphasis on grapples and introduced a new system where submission moves took on new meaning.  This was the result of the inclusion of a stamina meter and limb-targeting.  The single player was also the most involved of any to date and even carried over (in a narrative sense) from the first game.  The game also looked excellent and sported an excellent create-a-wrestler mode.  If it was lacking in anything it was a defining match type.  Still, this one is a dark horse candidate for best of all time.

2.  WWF No Mercy (2001)

Some fans, to this day, still proclaim WWF No Mercy the best wrestling game ever created.  That’s high praise, especially if one steps outside the WWF/WWE/WCW games and includes the excellent Fire Pro series.  Undeniably, a huge reason for such claims is nostalgia and the good memories many have of the game.  No Mercy was the sequel to the first WWF/THQ game Wrestlemania 2000, which was basically WCW vs nWo: Revenge with a palette swap.  No Mercy brought a more robust single player game, new match types, and still retained the same tried and true gameplay that just wouldn’t get old.  There was also a nice rivalry between this game and Smackdown 2.  Fans of Smackdown pointed out how their game had Hell in a Cell and TLC match types while No Mercy fans held fast to the simulation cred the AKI games had garnered.  Whatever side you were on, you had a great game and No Mercy is still a fun experience today.  If you want more thoughts from me on No Mercy, check out this entry I made last year on the subject.

1.  WWE Smackdown vs Raw 2006 (2005)

The Buried Alive match was something fans had been asking for for a long time.

The Buried Alive match was something fans had been asking for for a long time.

The Smackdown vs Raw games were part of a new directive from THQ.  Someone wisely figured out that THQ was only competing against itself by putting out multiple WWE games a year.  While hardcore fans loved it and may have bought multiple games, most picked a series and stuck with it and the development costs just didn’t make it worthwhile.  So it was a sad day when franchises like Day of Reckoning came to an end with the Smackdown vs Raw series taking over.  It was basically a continuation of the standard Smackdown series, but overtime that game became more sophisticated, more varied, to the point where it resembled the original titles in the series in name only.  The gameplay was still quicker than the sluggish AKI games, but not cartoonishly so.  Each wrestler had various different grapples they could initiate which was just the starting point for unleashing pain upon the opposition.  Now games truly started to emulate the television product.  Yukes found a way to make a realistic wrestling sim while also keeping it fun to play.  A bunch of new takes on old matches, and new additions like the Buried Alive match, also enhanced the fun factor.  The GM Mode, while never truly realized, was also a fun diversion and the create-a-belt feature is superior to the current one in WWE ’13.

So have all of the games to follow these been inferior?  Not necessarily.  If I lined them all up and played them for an hour each I’m not sure which game I’d enjoy the most, it’s just that the current games have done little to advance the genre.  In that respect, maybe it’s a good thing for gamers that the WWE license is changing hands.  It might be nice to see what a developer new to the franchise could come up with.  If Take-Two intends on releasing a WWE themed game this year, it may opt to reach an agreement with Yukes for at least one more game since development on WWE ’14 was likely already underway.  And in turn, Take-Two could hand the license off to one of its development teams to get cracking on a game for 2014.  Time will tell, but Take-Two has its hands full if it wants to make fans forget about the glory days of THQ.

WWE ’13 – The Attitude Era

WWE '13 (2012)

WWE ’13 (2012)

Let it be known, nostalgia sells!  Too many of us overgrown children have disposable income to throw at DVD collections and old toys and publishers are well aware of this.  Just look no further than this year’s entry in the WWE video game catalog:  WWE ’13.  Now, there’s nothing nostalgic about the title but the focus of the game’s single player mode is the now much celebrated Attitude Era of the WWE.  I’ve spoken fondly of it in the past, but that’s definitely my favorite era for the then WWF, even surpassing Hulkamania for me in terms of pure enjoyment.  Vince McMahon’s promotion was arguably never more popular or culturally significant at any other point in time, including today.  It made a lot of sense to revisit it (even if it seems strange to almost ignore the current product by doing so) and without it I’m not certain I would have purchased the game.

This review is going to mostly focus on the Attitude Era mode, but before diving into it I will provide an overview of the rest of the game.  This is the second game since THQ/Yukes dropped the Smackdown vs Raw title and refined the gameplay.  I didn’t play last year’s game, but the differences from the last Smackdown vs Raw and this one are minor.  They brought back the limb targeting system and modified the chain grapple slightly.  The changes are mostly superficial, but not to the detriment of the gameplay.  The havok engine the game makes use of was overhauled to a point as well.  The ring now reacts better to what’s going on, as do objects in the field of play.  Though overall, the visual quality looks to have taken a slight step back.  The audio is kind of all over the place in terms of levels, and the new dynamic camera system is wretched (but thankfully something you can turn off).  The create modes are unchanged.  Some moves have been returned to the game and some have disappeared.  It’s pretty disappointing that the create-a-finisher mode is still as limited as it was when it first debuted several years ago now.  There’s also a create-an-arena that is new but not very exciting.  I haven’t checked out the create-a-scenario but I suspect it hasn’t been improved upon much, if at all.  WWE Universe mode is also back for the third year in a row.  Expect more of the same.

Fans get to relive some of the biggest feuds from the Attitude Era, including Hart vs Michaels.

Fans get to relive some of the biggest feuds from the Attitude Era, including Hart vs Michaels.

The gameplay is solid enough, and it’s probably one of the better grapplers put out by Yukes, but I’m only interested in the Attitude Era.  The Attitude Era mode basically replaces the single player storylines from past games.  It’s divided into multiple parts that put the focus on a different wrestler from the era.  The scenarios are:  DX, Stone Cold, The Brothers of Destruction, The Rock, Mankind, and Wrestlemania XV.  The first scenario starts off in the summer of 1997 and the scenario ends after Wrestlemania XV.  Once complete though, some bonus challenges open up featuring wrestlers such as Edge, The Godfather, and Lita.  I was rather impressed with how many old wrestlers were included in this mode considering some of them are no longer with the company.  Expect to take on the British Bulldog, the Road Warriors, and even Vader as you progress through the scenario.  During each match, the game will also assign special objectives that unlock additional content along the way.  Most of these objectives refer back to the real match and encourage you to recreate it as best as possible.  None stand out to me as being particularly challenging so expect to unlock them all with little trouble.

Since the Attitude Era has, until now really, been something only fans recognize it makes it difficult to get a consensus on when it started and ended.  Some think it started as far back as “Austin 3:16,” while others maintain it was the infamous Montreal Screwjob.  THQ decided to go with the formation of Degeneration X when Shawn Michaels and Triple H turned their backstage “Kliq” into an actual onscreen stable.  The game also constantly references the Monday Night Wars, the ratings battle between WWF’s Raw and WCW’s Nitro, as an ongoing storyline throughout the Attitude Era.  DX ends up being pretty well represented in the game, with the only notable exclusion being Chyna (probably due to her being an adult film actress now).  Even Mike Tyson is present for Wrestlemania XIV, which makes sense given that he was inducted into the WWE’s Hall of Fame earlier this year.

The roster includes expected stars such as The Rock, as well as some of the era's lesser stars like Ken Shamrock.

The roster includes expected stars such as The Rock, as well as some of the era’s lesser stars like Ken Shamrock.

The characters THQ chose to focus on for the era were logical.  They were certainly the most recognizable  from the era.  A lot of the big matches are covered including Michaels vs Hart at Survivor Series ’97, the inaugural Hell in a Cell match, the more famous Undertaker vs Mankind Hell in a Cell match, and the mode culminates in Austin vs Rock.  The only matches I missed that weren’t included was the Monday night match between Mick Foley and Terry Funk (who’s not included in the game unless you want to pay for him as Chainsaw Charlie) which took place in between the Austin vs Dude Love Pay-Per-View bouts; and the Austin vs Undertaker Buried Alive match at Rock Bottom ’98.  In the case of the second one, Yukes probably didn’t feel like coming up with a Buried Alive match again (they did at least bring back the I Quit match for the Rock vs Mankind feud) or the WWE felt like it wasn’t appropriate for their audience.  That last excuse seems unlikely as the game doesn’t shy away much from the content of the era.  There are some annoying inconsistencies though with the liberties taken by THQ.  For instance, Billy Gun is able to use his Bad Ass gimmick but Road Dogg can’t say the word “ass” as part of his intro.  The raunch is mostly absent though beyond a few utterances of the phrase “suck it.”  Austin’s middle finder is annoyingly censored, and the audio is as well whenever a character says “WWF” (it sounds like a lot of the audio was lifted directly from broadcast tapes excepting Jim Ross and Jerry Lawler’s commentary) which is distracting, but not as distracting as if they were saying WWE instead.

Current stars, like Triple H, are also depicted as their Attitude Era selves.

Current stars, like Triple H, are also depicted as their Attitude Era selves.

The game mode makes frequent references to WCW and its Nitro program but focuses solely on Raw.  It would have been cool to bounce back and forth considering WWE owns all of the WCW stuff at this point, plus a lot of WCW’s wrestlers from that era eventually ended up in WWE.  Perhaps THQ will one day give fans a WWE vs WCW game.  It’s also a little disappointing that the scenario ends before the end of the Attitude Era.  Like the start date, the end is hard to define but most everyone would agree that Wrestlemani XV is not the endpoint.  It’s more logical end would either be the start of the Invasion storyline, the introduction of the nWo into WWE programming, or Wrestlemania XIX where Stone Cold wrestled his final match.  Perhaps THQ is saving that for future downloadable content, a sequel, or maybe it was just too burdensome to pull off.  In order to accurately depict that era wrestlers such as the Dudley Boys, Hardys, and Kurt Angle would have to be included and all are currently with TNA Impact Wrestling.  TNA has in the past allowed its wrestlers to appear on WWE programs, usually limited to Hall of Fame related stuff, so maybe those guys could appear in a WWE game, but maybe at an unattractive price for THQ.

Regardless of the mode’s shortcomings, it was by and large a fun experience for me to take a trip down memory lane with some of my favorite characters from yesterday.  The mode got a lot right, and I appreciated the subtle details such as making all of Foley’s alter-egos their own selectable character, same for making the Hunter Hearst Helmsley character different from Triple H.  There is quite a bit of content in the scenario, though probably not enough to make purchasing the game solely for the Attitude Era mode a wise one.  I think I’ll get enough mileage out of the rest of the game to make it worthwhile, but I still have yet to fully dive into the other modes.  I’m glad to see the WWE and THQ recognizing that there’s a large market for the Attitude Era and hopefully this isn’t the last we see of it.

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