There was only one, and I made sure to seek it out in any arcade I visited.
For me, finding a new arcade favorite normally entailed moving from machine to machine and experimenting with all of the new action games and platformers until one of them grabbed me from the start and quickly made an indelible mark. It was pretty rare that I'd be browsing through an arcade one day and find myself suddenly astonished at the sight of a new game and know right away that our meeting was destiny. When that would happen, though, as it did in the case of games like Rolling Thunder, Ninja Gaiden, Double Dragon and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, it was truly a magical feeling--the perfect prelude to a first encounter that would forever resonate.
Hovering near the top of the list is WWF WrestleFest, whose completely unexpected arcade debut left me nothing less than awestruck. That is, I was making my usual counter-clockwise stroll through the More Fun arcade (or "More for Fun," as my father would mistakenly call it) over at Caesar's Bay Bazaar when I spotted WrestleFest right there in the middle of the joint, positioned up against the center pillar that was usually reserved for frantic multiplayer games. The power of its presence stopped me in my tracks, and I felt as thought I was frozen in time as I stood there motionless, gazing upon its beauty.
As I watched the seasoned arcade-goers demonstrate their developing skills and awaited my turn, I took note of the newcomers whose mugshots could be seen lining the cabinet around the monitor. Its roster number seemed to be locked at twelve (technically ten, since neither member of the Legion of Doom--the game's Mega Bucks-equivalent boss duo--was playable). Returning stars included Hulk Hogan, the Ultimate Warrior, the Big Bossman and the now-playable Ted Dibiase, which left room for six newcomers.
Among the newbies was Mr. Perfect, whose aptitudes I already discussed. The cerebral Jake "The Snake" Roberts, who engaged opponents with his mastery of ring psychology and the threat of his python Damien, which he'd let loose to slither upon the prone carcasses of his victims. The massive Earthquake, who liked to literally throw his weight around and crush victims with his seated Earthquake Splash. Sgt. Slaughter, the patriotic drill instructor who dished out discipline with his feared Cobra Clutch submission hold (though, he was still in his turncoat/Iraqi-sympathizer phase at this time). And Smash and Crush of Demolition--a pair of face-painted bruisers who showed up to the ring wearing executioner-style leather gear (Crush was the replacement for original Demolition member Axe, who was rumored to have split the Fed due to a lingering heart issue).
Me? I had already made up my mind who I was going to choose. And that's what I remember most about my first sampling of WrestleFest: I continuously picked Mr. Perfect and had a blast putting to use his signature moves like the snap mare (which he'd usually follow up with a flipping neck-snap), his showy standing dropkick, those chest-discoloring knife-edge chops, and the much-feared Perfect Plex, which was your ordinary fisherman suplex but understood to be inescapable when applied by The Perfect One. It was the first wrestling game I remember where a character's basic move-set included a built-in bridge-style pinning combination, which to me made Perfect stand out amongst the rest of the cast.
It was through Mr. Perfect that I learned about the makeup of WrestleFest's anatomy. The game was clearly based on the Superstars engine, but it felt much more polished and boasted many in the way of additional touches that made it far more compelling than its predecessor. It still had a similar grappling system, for instance, but control of the lockup was ultimately decided by a quick best-2-out-of-3 minigame where the player who could tap the button faster would land the two necessary punches and get the advantage (it was a bit more random against CPU players, the outcome sometimes determined by a character's current momentum or by WrestleFest remembering that it was an arcade game and winning every lockup just because it could).
WrestleFest also expanded on the grappling system by allowing the lockup's winner to clench a headlock and actually drag the opponent around the ring--the only catch being that you had a limited amount of time to execute a move before the opponent would automatically break free and counter. But nothing demonstrated its next-level game design, I thought, more than the ability to make a tag while holding your opponent in a headlock, which initiated a double-team move wherein your partner would enter the ring by climbing the turnbuckle and jumping down onto the restrained adversary with, say, an elbow smash or a double axe handle. "How cool is that?" I thought.
Even though it occupied the selection menu's secondary slot, "Saturday Night's Main Event" was the game's default mode; it was an iteration of Superstars' tag-team formula, but it had some distinguishing features to it. For one, the third contest was fought in a cage, which was largely a cosmetic addition but did add one extra element to the match: Irish-whipping your opponent would now result in him crashing face-first into the cage and taking damage; depending upon who you asked, though, this was either one of the game's defining element or an annoying quirk that eliminated the use of desirable Irish-whip maneuvers. While I thought it supplied the mode a nice bit of variety, I skewed more toward the latter group of thought (I couldn't be a fan of any mechanic that hampered my ability to execute Ted Dibiase's gorgeous scoop powerslam). More so, I was disappointed that the cage wasn't utilized for crazy top-of-the-cage dives and splashes, which would have been a spectacular addition and the best reason to play Saturday Night's Main Event.
WrestleFest's tag-team mode built toward a title match against the Legion of Doom (otherwise known as the Road Warriors), Hawk and Animal, whose realistically rendered likenesses would appear between matches, the duo standing there silently and menacingly with their spiky shoulder pads on display. I thought it was a cute how the designer supplied counter to the duo's intimidating presence by having an enthusiastic Hulk Hogan, with his goofy smile, count down the required victory-total by shattering the number on the flip pad. At lease someone was pulling for me.
Like in Superstars, achieving victory was a matter of learning how to string together moves, utilize strikes to score cheap knockdowns, and resort to chicanery when necessary--mainly shifting the action to outside the ring, where you could now repeatedly batter opponents with ring steps (the "1,000-pound steel steps!" as wrestling commentators would like you to believe) and a smaller monitor, which was crippling all the same. It was an effective strategy no matter if you were going for a count-out win or trying to deplete the opponent's meter with the intention of pinning/submitting him immediately upon return to the ring. This was a downright necessary tactic against the supremely overpowered Legion of Doom, who had double the health and highly favorable priority that only grew more so as you got deeper into the match.
Trying to win legitimately was considerably tough, and whittling away their excess health via the use of strikes and cheap knockdowns was out of the question due to the game's strict time-limit. So it was either cheat or pump in at least three quarters, neither of which provided me real feeling of accomplishment.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Really, many of WrestleFest's eccentricities didn't become evident to me until much later, and my first experience with the game was more about learning the ropes, glomming what knowledge I could from competing players, and generally being in awe of it.
I couldn't leave the arcade that day without trying out that other mode. You know--the "Royal Rumble," which was based on my favorite WWF wrestling event. While Saturday Night's Main Event might have been the default choice, it was clear to myself and other arcade-goers that the Royal Rumble was where it was at. I was already super-impressed with WrestleFest, but its Royal Rumble mode made it an instant classic for me. I was skeptical at first, since I didn't think it was possible for a wrestling game to pull off Battle Royal-type gameplay in 1991, but there WrestleFest boasting that it could manage six wrestlers at a time without compromise, where other games could only render four (but with a lot of flicker and slowdown). And this wasn't just some cheap six-man Battle Royal simply bearing the name of a superior match-type; it functioned like the real deal: If one wrestler was eliminated, another would take his place after cutting a brief ringside promo--this until the six other combatants had entered. "This is unbelievable," I thought to myself as the confirming starting screen appeared and ring announcer Mike McGuirk introduced the action.
I didn't have much success at first, since I of course chose Mr. Perfect as my representative; it had since become clear to me that Perfect was the cast's "finesse" character, which is to say "the weakest link of the bunch" (a fact not-so-subtly hinted at by his smaller stature in comparison to the rest of the cast). When it appeared that you could only eliminate opponents via pin or submission, I was worried, since the spurning of traditional Battle Royal rules essentially turned it into a weird tornado-style match; though, I soon learned the folly of my assumption when a CPU character picked me up and dumped me out with a standard body slam, which was the game's way of decisively ending my campaign (you can't enter a quarter to quickly rejoin the fray as a new competitor, since you're almost immediately taken back to the title screen).
At the least, I learned to never position myself near the ropes, since doing so made it easy for the usual offenders (Hogan, Warrior and Sgt. Slaughter) to scoop me up and cheaply toss me out.
Though, I noticed that Perfect had a backdrop move, which I didn't think was capable of tossing opponents out (it didn't seem to work to that effect in the tag-team mode). But it wound up working--I found that I could Irish-whip whip opponents and flip them out of the ring by positioning myself very close to the ropes (that's if they rebounded without resistance). That made it a whole new ballgame! Not only had I found the source of Perfect's viability--tossing people out with backdrop after backdrop was just about all I did for the duration of any Royal Rumble session. Not surprisingly, human players tended to get a little pissed whenever I'd use this means of elimination on them; one time, I almost got into a fight over it.
My friends and I always had a great time playing console wrestling games like WWF Wrestlemania Challenge and WCW Wrestling, but they now seemed so archaic compared to a game that so closely resembled the real thing; I hoped every day that the next Nintendo Power would come bearing news of a 16-bit era that could sufficiently accommodate the likes of WrestleFest and bring it closer to home (really, I was way off on judging the power-potential of the SNES and its ilk); in the meantime, we had no problem heading down a few blocks and marveling at our new favorite.
We were astounded by its depth gameplay and attention to detail: Every character came assigned with his set of signature moves and could apply them when they most made sense; when opponents were low on power, Jake Roberts would bust out a DDT and Ted Dibiase would apply the Million Dollar Dream. Enemies completely drained of health would lay there diagonally rather than horizontally, now set up for ground-based finishers like Hogan's legdrop and the respective splashes of Warrior, Bossman and Earthquake, complete with their expected pinning potential. It was wild to be able to finish off opponents by replicating, say, Hogan's routine of delivering a big boot before dropping the leg, which was a noticeable omission from other wrestling games, which ordinarily had a standard legdrop bereft of the excitement-building rope-run. Not WrestleFest, whose level of reverence was second to none.
Since Perfect only had the option to backdrop opponents out--a maneuver that was tricky pull off, since you had to move around a bit to throw off the resistance of the prescient CPU players, who would usually stop short if you tried standing still--I had to rely mostly on well-timed Perfect Plexes (since CPU players would routinely break them up if not currently preoccupied) and stealing pins from other wrestlers. The pile-on pin attempts were an effective means of stalling for a few seconds if I was low on health, but they didn't count toward the elimination-total (I would rather break up pin attempts for the purpose of driving up my own personal total). Playing as Perfect was effectively the Rumble's "hard mode," you could say.
So that's how it goes. I use Crush, Hogan and Warrior when I'm going for perfect runs and Mr. Perfect when I'm going for, well, not-so-perfect runs.
Really, I don't know what the hell I'm talking about anymore.
In terms of my gaming hierarchy, I consider WrestleFest to be my second-favorite arcade game of all time and my favorite wrestling game period. It must have been a favorite of many others, too, since it never disappeared from arcades. It only saw reduced presence thanks to arcades largely going kaput in North America. Even then, I'd still find an odd WrestleFest machine hanging around the odd amusement park or any of those family-themed party places as recently as the mid-2000s. That speaks to its enduring quality and endless entertainment value. And in my opinion, no wrestling-themed arcade game was ever able to top it. It's just too bad that WrestleFest and others like will never be re-released due to those always troubling licensing issues.
Of course, they tried to create a spiritual successor to it for the iPhone--the game's roster a combination of some original cast members and more recent stars like Steve Austin, The Rock, John Cena, Randy Orton, and Rey Misterio, Jr.--but I've heard nothing but bad things about it. No--nothing could possibly replace the original.
Though, that I can still play games like WrestleFest today (and discuss it with an audience that likely shares fond memories of it), in some form, is more proof that something's spirit can live on well past the date of its expiration.
From that angle, WrestleFest isn't just one of the best. It's absolutely ... perfect. [slaps gum]