Saturday, November 15, 2014

Shades of Resonance: Fond Reminiscence - Memory Log #19

WWF Superstars

My early history with pro-wrestling is a kind of fuzzy. I remember seeing a handful of episodes of Saturday Night's Main Event when I was around the age of 6 or 7, but that was only a passive observer, since my brother, who was a huge wrestling fan at the time, often had control of our den's TV. I'd also seen a few episodes of the cartoon Hulk Hogan's Rock 'n' Wrestling, which comically highlighted the World Wrestling Federation's biggest heroes and villains, but I only gave them a look because my aunt was nice enough to tape them for me one random Saturday morning. 

Yet I was more knowledgeable about the subject than my limited exposure would seem to indicate, since I somehow knew a lot about the WWF beyond even its top stars. Hell--whenever we'd go on vacation with our relatives from Staten Island, my cousin Nick and I would meet up in one our parents' hotel rooms and pass the downtime by pretending to be wrestlers (or the A-Team or resistance members from V or whatever characters were currently popular with us), using the bed as our ring. We'd pretend to be, say, the Islanders, with him portraying the more rugged Haku while I'd play Tama, since I was skinnier and could jump higher.

How was it that I knew so much about a pseudo-sport that didn't really interest me all that much? Why did I collect all of those big rubber wrestling figures when I couldn't identify more than half of them (Billy Jack who?). And why did I make my father buy me all of those "thumb wrestlers" when I could have gotten equal entertainment value by simply drawing some eyes on my Play-Doh?

More pertinently: How was I so intimately familiar with every aspect of WWF Superstars before ever making any kind of physical contact with it? I've never been able to come up with a satisfactory answer to that question, so I'll just say that it was one of the most irresistible arcade machines I'd ever stumbled upon.

I'm not sure where, exactly, I first discovered WWF Superstars (it might have been in one of those Atlantic City hotels, whose arcades always seemed to get certain games in advance of our local establishments), but I remember my friends and I being drawn to the machine in large part due to the colorful images that were plastered all over its cabinet--those attractive profile shots of the WWF's larger-than-life assortment of wrestlers (or "Superstars," as the company calls them in a sad attempt to distant itself from its own ancestry). Viewed from up close, Superstars looked incredible, its characters the most realistic approximations of wrestlers I'd ever seen. 

Granted, I hadn't played every wrestling game on the market--including WWF Wrestlemania for the NES, the WWF's other recently licensed title--but I was pretty sure that Superstars' cast was absolutely lifelike in comparison to those from all of the wrestling-themed games that existed prior.

There were only six wrestlers in total, but we didn't consider that too small a number; at the time, six was still a pretty high character-count for a competitive, action-based arcade game. The cast included Hulk Hogan, who was the face of the company and had long since become the most popular wrestler in the world. The flamboyant, gravelly voiced "Macho Man" Randy Savage, who was regarded as a super athlete but otherwise insane. The painted-up, tassled Ultimate Warrior, who I wasn't much familiar with but understood to be a superman-caliber wrestler in the mold of Hulk Hogan (only more intense and much less stable). 

And then you had secondary players like the intellectually challenged "Hacksaw" Jim Duggan, who was known for shouting "Hoooooo!" and wielding a wooden 2X4 with which he'd whack opponents across the back. The evil Elvis-impersonating Honkey Tonk Man. And the corrupt former corrections officer Big Bossman, who carried a nightstick (a ball and chain, too!). Though, since I wasn't really familiar with the latter three, since they didn't appear in either the Rock 'n' Wrestling cartoon or my action-figure collection, I gravitated mostly toward Hulk, Savage and Warrior.

Superstars' gameplay was tag-team based, so part of the fun was pairing up and fighting against teams that ordinarily wouldn't exist (it was also wild to see unlikely duos like Hulk Hogan and Honkey Tonk Man riding down the aisle together on those specially made ring carts). In our earliest sessions, however, my friends and I would usually select to play as the team of Hogan and Savage, since their partnership as the Mega Powers was currently the big deal in wrestling (well, unless you were an NWA fan). Whenever I'd go at it alone--and after branching out a bit--I'd select to play as Jim Duggan, mostly because I liked abusing his cool-looking running bulldog, which also appeared to be quite damaging.

Playing alone allowed me to be more experimental, but it wasn't as much fun. I'd usually shy away from Superstars when I didn't have a friend by my side, since it wasn't quite the same experience without the silly banter and the goofy commentary we'd provide in lieu of not being able to hear the game's audio (also, the dopey CPU-controlled partner wasn't very effective at breaking up pins, eliminating any reliability factor). There weren't too many instances of such, but Superstars was at its best when two additional players would join the fray and face off against us; four players pounding away at the control pad and rockin' it made for far more entertaining matches than the more-formulaic CPU clashes.

It was in every way a typical arcade game, but Superstars had a clever way of sucking the player in: In any match, the game would always allow you to win the first two grapples, surely providing a false sense that you were in command of action, before wildly swinging the pendulum over to the CPU team. To successfully win matches without going broke required that you learn how to lift downed opponents off the mat and string together series of moves; otherwise, you'd need rely on "advanced" tactics like scoring cheap knockdowns with the wrestlers' standard kick-punch combos, particularly when an opponent in question was apt to reverse your out-of-grapple moves.

The goal was simply to advance by any means necessary--to win three consecutive matches against randomly paired opponents and earn a shot at tag-team champions Ted Dibiase and Andre the Giant, who could be seen along with manager Virgil (a true "Wrestling Superstar") waiting for you in the promo shoots shown between rounds. "Mean" Gene Okerlund would interview the pair before the title fight, but I never understood what they were saying, since Superstars was rather silent outside of its thunderous slams and violent table shots (also, noisy arcades weren't great places to go if you were interested in gauging the quality of a game's sound design or voice-acting). From what I could discern, Andre was threatening to "beat me like a dog," which I relayed to many a Superstars fan as fact, but it turns out he was just mumbling incoherently about being unbeatable, though disappointly lacking his accompanying trademarked creepy smile and two rows of 63 teeth.

The only speech sample we could clearly make out, since we heard it so many damn times, was our losing team determinedly promising payback. "I can't wait for the rematch!" they'd state as the timer counted down, every wrestler sharing the same voice actor. It didn't get as much traction as "Riiiise from your graaaaves!" or "I'm bad!", but "I can't wait for the rematch!" did become one of our oft-shouted counters during any disagreeable situation (you know--like when a Benihana chef would give one of us more shrimp than the other).

You'd need to know all of the tricks if you were to stand a chance against Dibiase and Andre (the "Mega Bucks," who were never actually the WWF tag-team champions and were only slotted as such in this game). Every arcade-goer recognized the pair as one of the most feared boss duos in gaming--mainly because it seemed impossible to maintain any advantage past the first lockup even though your starting opponent was the more-vulnerable Dibiase (who was "only" an 8 on the "overpowered" meter). Andre the Giant, pro-wrestling's most feared and respected big man, was in contrast completely unassailable. He'd routinely get the better of any lockup, busting out crippling moves like the Coconut Crush (slamming your head into his knee) and the submission-based Canadian Backbreaker, and he could effortlessly deflect any striking or running attack with his chops and body blocks.

Even people who didn't watch wrestling understood that Andre the Giant, who was said to weigh about half a metric ton (source: Hulk Hogan), could absolutely not be body-slammed by anyone other than steroided-up supermen like Hogan and Warrior and then, still, only under strenuous circumstances. (This was actually a WWF-created myth, done for marketing, as Andre had been slammed many times in the past. But no kid could have known about that.) What was great about such character development was that it translated over to even video games, wherein Andre's main character trait was that he couldn't be budged by anyone other than the aforementioned. Thus, if you were hoping to make a serious run at the titles without having to dump in a load of quarters, it didn't make sense to pair any two other than Hogan and Warrior.

From there, it was all about exploiting the game's shortcuts, like abusing striking moves and shifting the action to outside the ring, where you could quickly drain opponents' health by breaking tables over their heads (though, maneuvering Andre out of the ring was an exceptionally tough feat, which is why it was better to prevent the more-hoistable Dibiase from ever tagging out). I thought it was a nice touch how Andre and Dibiase would display their heelish tendencies by not even bothering to tag out--they'd just whisper instructions to each other and swap places without any penalty.

We could beat them if we brought our A-game, but we were never able to endure the second loop--the "title defense" mode, as it were. There just weren't that many quarters in the world.

Superstars was great for the time, offering us the most entertaining, convincing approximation of pro-wrestling we'd ever seen, but it would soon be replaced by something much better (more on that in the near future). Once it disappeared from arcades, I never saw it again--not even in any of those retro-themed arcade spaces you'd find in an indoor amusement park or golfing range. If not for MAME, I might never have gotten the chance to revisit it. 

Superstars still has a certain charm to it, but it feels so archaic compared to its superior follow-up, which perfected the formula and as a result still holds up spectacularly 23 years later. Superstars doesn't fare as well. The fun in revisiting the game, then, is getting to mess around with it and discovering the true depth of game elements I couldn't appreciate at the time. For one, it's nice to finally hear the soundtrack, which I think could be comfortably swapped into an intense action game without feeling out of place (arcade wrestling music always felt somewhat detached from the subject-matter). I've been using MAME's cheat function to play as Dibiase and Andre, who prove to be ridiculously overpowered even in playable form. And I've been able to gain a deeper understanding of the game's mechanics and how they evolved.

I'm not mad that I didn't put more time into Superstars as a kid, but I am disappointed that I never noticed its interesting little touches, like the background's giant telescreen, which displays the mugshots of the currently competing teams, and how Billy Lee can be seen hanging out in the crowd near the ring's left side. Hell--the younger me had no idea that Technos, creator of Double Dragon, was also behind the creation of Superstars! How could I have missed that connection? If only I'd paid more attention to splash screens and company logos.

To me, Superstars' legacy is that it was the first video game to capture the personality--the glitz and the glamour--of the pro-wrestling product we watched on our TVs once a week and every twelfth Sunday. Furthermore, it created a winning template and helped set the stage for one of the greatest arcade sequels I'd ever play.

Combine my experiences with Superstars and wrestling's ever-growing popularity amongst my friends and schoolmates and the "sport" would become hard to ignore. And after giving it a fair shake, I instantly became a fan. "What was the main hook?" you ask. Well, I was flipping through the channels one night and stumbled onto MSG Network's Wrestling Spotlight, which was currently airing a promo for a newly arriving wrestler named Tugboat ("Jimmy Hart with pillows" if a former Brooklynite is to be believed), who was dressed like an oversized candy cane, bellowed "Heeeeeee!", and claimed to be a friend of Hulk Hogan. 

That was it. I'm not sure how, but yes--that was the tipping point. 

I don't have to answer to you.

Considering what was about to unfold, I was just in time.

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