Much like video games, professional wrestling was something I grew up with and will stick up for, regardless of how foolish or ass-backwards it can be at times. Indeed, the circus known as WWF/E was almost like a family member to me; sometimes you love it, sometimes you hate it, sometimes you look across the table at it during Thanksgiving and just want to tell it to GET ITS SHIT TOGETHER, but at the end of the day, you know it’s always there for you when you need it. Coincidentally, much like video games, I also tend to take the old fogie’s stance on wrestling that it was just so much better back in the day (hey, there’s a reason I write for Just Games Retro and not Just Games Current), and without question, the pinnacle of video game wrestling nostalgia is today’s game, 1991’s WWF Wrestlefest, by Technos Japan.
Mention Wrestlefest to any wrestling fan who was around in the heyday of arcades and no doubt, their eyes will light up and they will begin describing it in a glowing, reverential tone, talking about that time where them and their buddy finally managed to win the tag belts after having to plunk down eight bucks in the process, or the time they managed to win the Royal Rumble off of just one credit. Now, Wrestlefest wasn’t the first WWF arcade game, being predated by a couple of years by Superstars, nor was it the last, as Wrestlemania and Royal Rumble would come out later, so why is it, then, that so many of us look back so fondly on this particular game? Well, the answer is because it happened to combine the Golden Age of WWF with rock-solid arcade gameplay.
The roster here is a pretty good snapshot of the WWF at the time; featuring wrestlers like the Million Dollar Man Ted DiBiase, Big Boss Man, Mr. Perfect, Sgt. Slaughter, Notable LSU Alum Earthquake, Ultimate Warrior,and of course, Hulk Hogan. The only truly glaring omission I could think of here is Macho Man Randy Savage, but depending on when exactly this game was released, that might be because Savage was written off television for a while after Wrestlemania VII.
There are only two game modes here, Royal Rumble, where you attempt to throw everyone else out of the ring, and Saturday Night’s Main Event, where you team up with a buddy or a CPU wrestler and try to run the gauntlet of other tag teams, culminating with a tag title match against the Legion of Doom. Keeping with the simplistic arcade gameplay, there are only two buttons and a joystick here, and that’s really all you need. You can punch, kick, grapple with and opponent, and while in the grapple, the punch button triggers different moves, while the kick button whips them into the ropes, and of course, you can stomp on or try to pin grounded foes.
As you begin to whittle your opponent’s health down, you’ll notice your moves changing, going from simple moves like snapmares and slams to heavier attacks like suplexes and piledrivers, and depending on who you’re playing as, you’ll be able to launch your character’s finisher out of the grapple. Other finishers, like Hulk Hogan’s leg drop or Earthquake’s splash can be triggered when your opponent is down and conveniently positioned longways on the mat. In a nice piece of realism, the wrestlers perform their signature mannerisms before hitting their big moves, like Jake Roberts doing that weird finger spin thing before the DDT, which was something we weren’t seeing in other contemporary wrestling titles.
In fact, I’d argue that part of the reason Wrestlefest resonated with fans so well is that it very much captures the spirit of that particular timeframe of the WWF; everything is big, bold, bright, and spangly, the character sprites have that arcade chunkiness to them and stomp around the ring, and even relatively smaller wrestlers like Ted DiBiase and Mr. Perfect look jacked to the point where they probably just finished an appointment with Dr. Zahorian (this is a reference only my fellow wrestling nerds will get).
Everything about the presentation here seems to be designed to grab your attention, from the commentator (sadly, it’s just some generic guy and not someone awesome like Bobby Heenan and Gorilla Monsoon or even Vince McMahon in his bombastic BAAAAAAAACK BODY DROP commentary phase) calling the action to the visage of the Hulkster telling you “INSERT COIN MORE POWER” when your health bar is running low, and much like the Fire Pro games, I definitely suspect at least a couple of the designers were wrestling fans that wanted to recreate the televised product as best they could.
This being an arcade game, the big question remains: how bound and determined is Wrestlefest to squeeze every last quarter out of you? Well, I’m happy to report that the answer is “not very”. Wrestlefest is pretty fair on the whole, there’s very little in the way of shenanigans designed to get you to keep plunking money into it; unlike games like NBA Jam where you had to pay for each quarter in each game and pay for overtime as well, here, you play until you actually lose or the timer runs out, which, to be frank, is probably how a lot of attempts at the Royal Rumble ended.
As I said, when your energy runs low, the Hulkster pops up to remind you you can insert a coin to regain health, and to Wrestlefest’s credit, they are pretty generous about it, you’re not popping in a quarter to regain 10% of your stamina. On the tag team side of the coin, your opponents do get harder as you progress towards the title match, and the champions (the Legion of Doom) are tough as nails, but to be fair, they were always presented as ass-kicking machines, so it’s not surprising they’re so strong here. Also, during tag matches, whichever partner is on the apron can regain health, and if you tag them in while they have POWER UP on their health bars, they will be overpowered for a short time, so smart use of tags can save a little bit of money.
There are a few little things I wish were a bit different with Wrestlefest. For one, oddly enough, there’s no regular tourney fighter beat-everyone-one-by-one mode. Yes, quite possibly the most basic game mode imaginable is not present. It’s not a dealbreaker by any stretch, but the Royal Rumble, while plenty of fun, doesn’t quite have the gravity of that big one-on-one final boss battle; even the title match with the Legion of Doom doesn’t quite have that same gravitas. Second, sadly, you’re not allowed to play as the Legion of Doom in tag mode. Granted, they’re the final boss on that end, but I don’t think it would’ve been that hard to make them available and make Demolition the final bosses if you picked the LoD. Third, I’m a little surprised they didn’t try to get more speech from the wrestlers themselves in the game; a couple of pre-match taunts or something along those lines would’ve been a nice little addition.
Ultimately, though, those are nitpicks, for the most part. WWF Wrestlefest is a classic and for good reason. The gameplay is extremely accessible for anyone, and the presentation is very true to the spirit of the source material. And even though the most obvious game mode is absent, there is enough variety in the two available modes to keep gamers pumping in their hard-earned change. Not to mention that Wrestlefest is actually rather nice to you when it comes to not being out to pillage your pockets. I definitely give WWF Wrestlefest my stamp of approval, and if you’ll excuse me, I’m gonna go romp ass with Earthquake again, because it’s hard not to like a big fat guy whose finisher consists of stomping around and then jumping on your chest.
Intuitive gameplay, great roster, awesome presentation, won’t gulp down your quarters like water.
No single-player tournament mode, a glaring lack of the Macho Man.