Despite being born and raised in Good Ol’ ‘Merikuh, I don’t actually know much about wrestling. Contrary to popular belief, U.S. households were not issued yearly VHS copies of Summer Slam in the mail back in the 90s. However, Rik asked nicely, so I’ve done a bit of research on the subject of 16-bit wrasslin’. The one we’re going to look at today obviously doesn’t include the storylines or backstage theatrics that made wrestling famous, but the core fight mechanics is a pretty good run at letting you throw opponents about the ring.
WWF Royal Rumble is the second of four 16-bit wrestlers, all based roughly on standards set by WWF SuperStars and WrestleFest in the arcades. There’s a roster of twelve wrestlers (five of which are different for the SNES), and a decent amount of game type options. At the most basic, you and one opponent will toss and slam each other, with attacks wearing down each others stamina bar. Stamina can not be regenerated. Weakened opponents are vulnerable to being pinned and are also less effective in grapples (more on that in a second). Once you wear your foe down enough, you pin him until the count of three to win the match. If you’re caught in a pin yourself, you’ll mash buttons and hope that your stamina is high enough to allow you to escape.
Gameplay is based on strikes and grapples. Strikes have no variation; there’s simply one button to punch and one to kick. If you’re hit three times in succession, you’ll topple over and be open to a pin or ground stomps and elbow drops. You can initiate a grapple with a third button, or be similarly grabbed by your opponent. There’s no defense against this. Being grappled takes you into a “tug of war” mode. A meter appears above both wrestlers, indicating who is winning the struggle. Your objective is to mash one – and only one – button fast enough to fill your side of the meter. If you win, you’ll perform an appropriately wrestley move (suplexes, back breakers, atomic wedgies) decided by which button you were mashing.
If you win a grapple with the A button, you’ll throw your foe. In the center of the ring, this flings him toward the elastic ropes, where he’ll bounce back toward you and be open for a drop kick or clothesline. If you’re at the edge of the ring, you’ll chuck him over the ropes and onto the floor. Various things happen outside the ring based on the game type you’re playing – in the default mode, you and your opponent have until the count of ten to get back in the ring or face disqualification. You can try to win a match this way, by pile-driving your opponent at the count of 8 and slipping back into the ring so he’s just getting up at the count (you sneaky devil). You can also find folding chairs out here that can be used as damaging weapons.
Royal Rumble also includes illegal moves. You can use specific buttons to choke your foe or rake his eyes. These attacks don’t appear to do much beyond offering slightly more damage. However, in a standard game, these buttons won’t do anything at all until you’ve taken out the referee. You can’t directly attack the ref, but if any of your attacks or throws should find him in the way, you’ll knock him unconscious and unlock illegal moves. The “Brawl” game type cuts the shit and omits the ref from the start, so you can use illegal moves, hit opponents with folding chairs, and scamper around outside the ring to your heart’s content.
I should mention here that Royal Rumble includes support for a 6-button gamepad. Without a doubt, this is the way to play it. Controls aren’t fiendishly complicated by any means, but there are a fairly wide variety of moves for only three buttons, so it helps to have the 6-button pad break almost all of them out to their own individual keys. The 3-button setup relies on button combinations (even for winning struggles) for many basic moves, which isn’t as accurate in a frantic battle, and to me at least, is much, much harder to remember.
These are the basics, and every wrestler shares identical moves – a bit of a disappointment. Fortunately, Royal Rumble does feature one specific special move per character. These “finishers” can only be used when your opponent’s stamina is in the red, and they do at least give consideration to the wrestlers’ differences and signature slams. I can only assume these are authentic – The Undertaker’s “Tombstone Piledriver” and Razor Ramon’s “The Razor’s Edge” sound legit enough to me. In all cases, you hit A+B, but will have to figure out the specific scenario to trigger the move. Some are as easy as winning grapples, others require specific placement in relation to stunned or prone opponents.
Beyond the basic one-on-one events, you also have tag team, triple tag team, tournament, and Royal Rumble. The variants of tag team are simple enough – pick two (or three) wrestlers who will wait ringside. At any time, you can head over to them and tag them in to replace you. The idea here is to manage your wrestlers’ stamina. Stamina recharges slightly ringside, so a fighter who’s getting winded can (and should) trade off for a rested wrestler. Likewise, you want to do everything you can to prevent your opponent from tagging in his teammate. This mode also lets your partner automatically choke-grab an enemy that passes the ropes near him, or join you in some unfair two-on-one beatings if you throw someone out of the ring.
Royal Rumble mode pits your wrestler against everyone else on the roster. Six wrestlers are in the ring at once in a giant free-for-all – luckily your opponents will also fight each other instead of all focusing on you. Whoever leaves the ring is out, so the idea here is to grab weakened opponents and toss them over the ropes. A removed wrestler is replaced by a new opponent until the entire roster is exhausted. Naturally, this is quite the endurance run, so you’ll have to carefully manage your own stamina (with no way to regain any). If you’re the last wrestler standing, you win.
The art is surprisingly well done, and I think the muted colors here work better than the vibrancy of what I’ve seen of the SNES version. Menus are primarily driven by digital stills of the wrestlers, while the in-ring approximations look distinct enough without much fine detail. Animations look a little stiff, but I wonder how much of this comes from trying to replicate the look of actual, fake moves as seen on TV. The eye rake and punch look particularly theatrical. Sound features MIDI versions of each wrestler’s signature riff (if you sit at each character’s select screen long enough), and the slams and thuds during matches sound sufficiently beefy. The crowd’s cheers even get louder at flashy moves.
So is it fun? Yes and no. Once you get familiar with the controls, you can sling opponents around and pull off moves with reasonable precision. You’ll never see the fluidity of the real thing represented here, but you can reasonably execute a plan – grab this guy, throw him into the turnbuckle, climb up it and drop on his head. The problem I had specifically relates to all the button mashing. Does every move really need to be preceded by a tug-of-war struggle? It makes matches surprisingly tiring and tedious.
It’s even worse against the AI – you outright cannot win a grapple past difficulty level 4 (out of 10) – even a turbo pad couldn’t keep up. This cuts your possible moves down significantly, and forces you to spend the early parts – if not most of the match – trying to stick and move with your limited strike attacks. Tournament mode doesn’t let you pick a difficulty, so I found this mode unplayable.
Royal Rumble hits its marks well and offers a clear iteration over the previous Super WrestleMania. Sure, it would be nice to have distinct moves or animations for each wrestler, and some form of “story” mode would pay better service to its live-action inspiration, but the in-ring action is pretty solid. The grapple system and constant button mashing is a bit of a letdown, but I can’t think of a better way to do it, so I guess it gets a pass. The biggest complaints fall to AI difficulty and sheer repetition, but overall, it serves up what you’ve come here for.
Good spread of wrestlers. Royal Rumble mode is a fun addition and tag teams work well. Gameplay is generally fair (between two human players).
Grapple system is based entirely on rapid button mashing, and the AI is faster than you’ll ever be at mid to high difficulties. Certain players locked to specific consoles seems cheap. Only one unique finishing move per character.