1994 was not what you would call a good year to be a wrestling fan. Hulk Hogan had gone over to WCW, but the NWO didn’t exist yet, so he basically brought the same tired schtick with him. Ric Flair was getting older, the World Wrestling Federation was still recovering from a steroid distribution trial that forced them to rethink their entire booking process, and the upstart ECW was not yet E-C-DUB! E-C-DUB!
All that meant that fans were basically left with terrible gimmicks like Adam Bomb (from Three Mile Island, no less!), goofy storylines like the Lex Express (Lex Luger riding around America in a star-spangled bus), and terrible matches like Jerry Lawler and a team of midgets against Doink the Clown and another team of midgets. You’d think it’d be borderline impossible to comb through that wreckage and make a good game out of it, but LJN of of all people managed to, giving us WWF Raw in 1994.
Raw is the last of the LJN WWF trifecta, and as such, is the best of the three. It’s fundamentally similar to Royal Rumble, especially in terms of gameplay, but there’s a few new wrinkles and such to keep it somewhat fresh. First of all, the roster has been extensively overhauled from Royal Rumble; gone are such names as Ric Flair, Macho Man Randy Savage, and Mr. Perfect, replaced with luminaries as Bam Bam Bigelow, Owen Hart, and yes, Luna Vachon for whatever reason. The roster’s still relatively small at 12 characters, but given the era, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone else at the time you’d want to use. Some favorites also return from Royal Rumble, like Bret Hart and the Undertaker. Also, each wrestler has stats in different categories, so smaller wrestlers move faster than their larger counterparts, but don’t do as mch damage with their attacks.
Pretty much all the game modes made it to Raw, although the Triple Tag Team match has been upgraded to the Survivor Series, a 4-on-4 elimination-style tag match. Much like the original 6-man tag match, you can cycle through your available partners with Select, allowing you to keep a tired teammate out of harm’s way to recover. The classic singles and traditional tag matches are available, as well as the 12-man (or person, in this case) Royal Rumble match.
New to Raw, though, are Bedlam matches, a 2-on-2 match, similar to tag team, but with all four wrestoers in the ring at the same time, and the RAW ENDURANCE MATCH (which sounds a lot cooler if you read it in Vince McMahon’s voice), in which two teams of six square off in one-on-one matches, if you pin your opponent, the next member of their team immediately takes their place without giving you a breather. In a neat little touch, in team matches, you can pass on adding new members at anytime, so you could say, give an unskilled opponent a 4-on-2 advantage in a Survivor Series match.
Gameplay is largely unchanged from Royal Rumble. It’s still a button masher, but at least this time there’s a little bit of variety in the movesets. Some guys do back body drops instead of hiptosses, big boots to the face instead of clotheslines, and some guys even do screwdrivers instead of vertical suplexes. You can whip your opponent into the top turnbuckles, run and crash into him, and even do the classic spot where you climb on him and punch him ten times while the game even counts along, complete with a satisfying faceplant, Greg “The Hammer” Valentine style afterwards. Finishers are still there (although in this game, CPU wrestlers NEVER actually use them for whatever reason), and require you to drive your opponent’s energy to the red, and yes, a bit of wrestling knowledge might be needed, because if you don’t know what the Sharpshooter actually IS, you probably won’t know how to set it up. And speaking of the Sharpshooter, this time, if you empty your opponent’s health bar entirely and then apply it, your opponent will actually submit. Very cool. Not only that, but the bigger wrestlers have a special pin where they sit on their fallen foe triumphantly instead of going for a more conventional cover.
Also new this time around is the inclusion of Mega Moves, which require an elaborate button combo to be performed, but allow you to perform superhuman attacks like Bam Bam Bigelow’s torpedo headbutt that launches him all the way across the ring or Owen Hart turning into a human tornado. However, the coolest of these has to be Doink the Clown’s, where he scrunches the opponent into a ball and kicks them out of the ring like a football (he even makes the “it’s good” signal afterwards). Eye gouges and chokes are still illegal and have to be done without a referee’s presence, but you can still floor the ref if you want, and awesomely enough, if you drop him enough times, he will literally say “fuck it” and bail on the match altogether, effectively turning the match into a Brawl. The folding chairs from Royal Rumble are back, but you can now also poke at your opponent with them before slamming it over their head. There’s also a bucket that can be dropped and re-used, and you can whip your opponent into the ring bell and make a sweet clanging noise.
Presentation here is improved a bit from Rumble. The game’s intro does a fairly decent job of recreating the original Monday Night Raw intro, given the Super Nintendo’s limitations, the wrestler select screen has a weird VCR motif, where cycling through your choices rewinds and fast-forwards, and the pictures of each wrestler do a good job of making them look heroic or evil. Each wrestler’s theme music plays over their spot, although quite frankly, a lot of them are pretty lousy, and not because of the Super Nintendo’s hardware; Diesel’s theme is literally truck engine noises and a truck horn. That’s it. Before each match, you’ll see Vince McMahon and Jerry Lawler at the commentary table running down the match type and the wrestlers, and afterwards, the winner’s logo appears on a video board from Raw’s early days. Some moves got a bit of a facelift, too. Now, when you bust out an atomic drop, you’ll hold your adversary up for a few seconds, giving the impression that it’s going to hurt just that much more, and you actually hook the leg when you go for pins.
However, I do need to make mention of one thing that will stick out to you very quickly if you pop this game in. There is a LOT of grunting. There’s more grunting going on here than at a women’s tennis match with a ’70s porn movie playing in the background. You’ll either have to learn to tune it out or play with the game on mute, because there’s no other way around it, and literally every attack is met with at least one, if not more “ugghs” or “ahhs”. Aside from that, the in-game sounds are passable; slams sound properly meaty and the crowd pops big for finishers and Mega Moves. You’ll even see Vince and The King wildly gesticulating at ringside, to add a bit of realism.
I’m still amazed LJN managed to make a good game, let alone a good wrestling game, and I’m downright dumbfounded they managed to take a good wrestling game and improve on it without managing to screw something up, but the proof’s in the pudding. Yeah, putting in Luna Vachon was a strange choice, and it’s still predominantly a button-masher, but this was still a rough time for the company and the button-mashing worked in the last game, so I can’t fault them too hard for things like that. Again, there’s no story mode or any kind of backstage antics going on, but for some arcade-style wrestling action, Raw certainly delivers. Oh, and one last thing: CarlMarksGuy, if you’re reading this, this game is potentially chock-full of source material for you.
Probably the best Super Nintendo wrestling game NOT named Fire Pro.
Realistically, only 11 wrestlers you’d care to choose from, movesets still overlap a bit too much, and still a frantic button-masher.