Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Shades of Resonance: Fond Reminiscence - Memory Log #46

Saturday Night Slam Masters

If I was strolling through an arcade looking for a wrestling game to play, then that could only mean that me eyes were scouting out the location of the establishment's WWF Wrestlefest machine, because, really, there were no other wrestling games of note. By then, the WWF, driven by its larger-than-life cast of "Superstars," had become almost synonymous with the pseudo-sport, and its licensees at LJN and Technos had cornered the market for wrestling games with their WWF-branded titles. This reality was most strongly reflected in the arcade scene, where meaningful competition was nonexistent. There was the possibility that my friends and I might stumble across the odd Wrestle War or Fire Pro machine, sure, but it was clear to us that arcade-owners had largely given up on the idea of providing space to companies' non-licensed, uniquely conceived wrestling games.

That's why Dominick and I were so surprised to see a new, rather-hefty-sized non-WWF-branded machine waiting for us over at the More Fun arcade in Caesar's Bay Bazaar. From our safe distance, we figured that it probably wasn't worth much of our time; it didn't come bearing the WWF logo, after all (the company's marketing combined with the arcade scene's general direction conditioned us to believe that the lack of a WWF license was a mark of inferiority), and its generic-sounding title had us convinced that it had to be an insultingly shallow knockoff of the wrestling games we loved.

Though, upon approaching the machine and inspecting its display from up-close, we could quickly recognize the error in our judgment. This wasn't some hackneyed, hollow imitation. This was the awe-inspiring Saturday Night Slam Masters--produced by Capcom, the current the king of arcades. Now, we didn't actually see Capcom's name on the arcade unit, since careful observation wasn't exactly our strong suit, but we had no doubt that it was the creation of the highly respected group because of the game's unmistakable graphical style and the presence of Mike Haggar, who could be seen in the demo tossing fools around much like he did back in Final Fight.

I couldn't believe it: Mike freakin' Haggar, the big, burly wrestler with whom I'd routinely tear through the streets of Metro City in a bid to earn my WWF contract (it's a long story; check out my Final Fight piece for details), was in this game. That, alone, was grounds for declaring Slam Masters an instant classic.

Slam Masters made an absolutely spectacular first impression with its striking presentation, flashy animation, and raucous energy. It was big. It was loud. It looked amazing. And its creative take on the formula instantly distinguished it from any other wrestling game we'd ever played. We spent that entire first session taking on the "Battle Royal" mode, which supported up to four players (business might have been slow that day, so we had to settle for fighting pairs of CPU opponents); we were certain that the "Battle Royal" mode was going to be a close analog to Wrestlefest's "Royal Rumble" mode, but it turned out to be a tag-team-based challenge--and again much different from what the descriptor normally implied. Mainly, there were no tag-ins; it was instead Tornado Rules, which allowed for all four competitors to be in the ring at the same time.

And Slam Masters surprised us again with how it handled the actual wrestling action. There were no automatic lock-ups. There was no jockeying for leverage. And strikes weren't ineffectual love taps implemented into the game only for authenticity's sake. Rather, Slam Master's gameplay was more a hybrid of mechanics as taken from Final Fight and Street Fighter II, its grappling moves and strikes unleashed using simple button-taps or advanced combinations of controller motions. For us, it meant that we could approach the combat however we pleased: We could sufficiently deplete opponents' meters with strings of punches and kicks, or we could, as the game's title encouraged, pick 'em up and viciously slam them to the mat with traditional-looking wrestling moves and those from an insane assortment that were only possible in a video game. We could grapple opponents from in front or from behind and execute a range of wild maneuvers--all of them bone-crunching and viscerally pleasing.

We could pull off all manner of pinning combinations and not have to wait for a referee to saunter over and begin his count. We could pummel opponents with any weapons (bottles, buckets, steel chairs, et al.) that were lying around, and we didn't even have to leave the ring to procure them; the surrounding fans would eagerly supply them for us, tossing them into the ring intermittently.

Slam Masters wasn't a portrayal of the safe, family-friendly wrestling we watched on TV every weekend afternoon; it was the brutal, no-holds-barred wrestling we'd see in hardcore fight films. And we loved it. I'd wager that we dumped about ten bucks worth of quarters into the machine that day.

Also, it was packed with personality--its character entrances brimming with intensity and embellished with dramatic pyro and strobe effects; its crowds aggressively animated; and its action's reverberations thunderous. Unlike those in the currently available WWF-titled games, its wrestlers boasted their own body dimensions, varying physical attributes, unique striking moves, and personalized slams. And there was no homogeneity to their fighting techniques; each subscribed to a different discipline, making for a great mix of wrestling styles: Strong style, technical, lucha, pureso, and even alternative styles like Rasta's hardcore jungle-fighting tactics. In addition, each wrestler had a pair of trademarked victory poses. He'd toss out a biting quips toward his defeated opponents ("Drop me a line so I can visit your hospital room!"). He'd lament his loss with a painfully lame pun. This was classic arcade Capcom, baby!

Naturally, I gravitated toward the known entity--Mike Haggar, whose moveset I was delighted to learn incorporated all of his moves from Final Fight! Most of them were easy to execute because they were mapped to simple button-taps: I could immediately observe that his standard strike was that wooshing body blow. His jumping attack was a fully extended dropkick. And his up-tilted reverse grapple move was a back body drop. The use of his other two patented maneuvers required advanced button-combos, both of which were obvious to me in light of my intimate knowledge of the similarly functioning Zangief's moveset: Hitting the two available action buttons simultaneously, as I predicted, resulted in a space-clearing spinning clothesline, and making a full-circle motion while in a grapple was the key to triggering the devastating spinning piledriver. I was even impressed that the designers thought to have his daughter Jessica, clad in that same red dress, run out to the ring and participate in one of her father's victory celebrations!

That Capcom stayed so true to the character was one of my strongest takeaways from Slam Masters

My friend Dominick gravitated more toward the speedy masked characters--the luchador El Stingray and the Japanese martial-artist Scorpion, both of whom grew to become my favorite alts. We ultimately settled on the combination of Haggar and Scorpion and exhausted an entire afternoon battling for tag-team supremacy, our only roadblock a dwindling amount of quarters. We engaged in one-on-one combat a single time before quickly concluding that Slam Masters was better suited for frantic multiplayer matches (also, the math suggested that teaming up meant less in the way of defeat and less quarters spent). The two of us might have lingered until nightfall had we not depleted our funds.

It had been a while since an arcade game had so thoroughly impressed us in that manner. By the time we left More Fun that day--as a testament to its impact--Dominick and I could agree that Slam Masters had already established itself as one of our all-time favorites. In that moment, it forever joined the ranks of Double Dragon, Final Fight, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and WWF Wrestlefest, earning its position as one of those top-tier arcade games we had to play through at least once any time we located it.

Most memorably, we devoted a ton of time to Slam Masters during our future trips to Atlantic City. The machine popped up in TropWorld hotel's entertainment center--Tivoli Pier, which had a circular arcade area placed at the center of the spiraling ramp that led up to the second floor. By then, the late-autumn months of '93, Tivoli Pier's business had begun to flat-line due to waning interest from its intended target audience (or, rather, their increasingly cash-strapped parents, who'd rather squander what was left of their wealth in the casino), so on any weekend in Atlantic City, we'd usually have the whole place to ourselves (the arcade as well as the roller coaster and the fun house). We were free to team up Haggar and Scorpion and repeatedly tear through the CPU competition without any pesky interlopers suddenly dropping in and disrupting our march toward the tag-team championship!

Fun times, man.

Slam Masters was the kind of game I wanted to play all the time, though I just didn't have the money to justify daily trips to the arcade. So as had become tradition following the crowning of a new arcade favorite, I'd excitedly grab the latest edition Nintendo Power, head up to my room, and flip directly to Pak Watch looking for any sign that it was coming to the SNES, which had proven itself capable of convincingly replicating some of the better-looking arcade games. There was nothing--not even a hint. I'd be disappointed month after month until I was forced to consider that Slam Masters' specifications might have been well beyond the SNES' capabilities. Or maybe it simply wasn't popular enough. I couldn't say for sure.

As we moved deeper into 1994, the year-old Slam Masters appearing on the SNES was looking more and more like a long shot, so I just about gave up hope. I was prepared to move on when suddenly it happened: Saturday Night Slam Masters showed up out of nowhere in Nintendo Power Volume 61, Capcom's brilliant arcade grappler afforded full-length feature coverage, which was odd for a game that previously wasn't provided as much as a preview blurb. But there it was in all its glory, looking as spectacular as I remembered it--not compromised in the least (at the time, I obviously didn't understand how resolution worked)!

There was always a surreality to playing faithful arcade ports from the comfort of my own home--to using a controller pad and a TV to intimately explore what was once domain to an impenetrable, hulking monstrosity of a cabinet whose continued functioning required the power of a huge motherboard ("the big green chip," as I'd call it)--free from the restraint of having to pump in a quarter into a coin slot every two minutes. Playing the SNES version of Slam Masters was about conjuring that feeling, yes, but it was also my chance to gain a new appreciation for its as-of-yet-unappraised elements, like the soundtrack, which was ordinarily drowned out by a combination of the arcade cacophony and the game's thunderous action. I wasn't surprised to learn that its score was rockin' from beginning to end, its metal tones reminiscent of the standard-bearing Mega Man X. My favorite piece was Haggar's slammin', heroic-sounding entrance theme, which I was sure to record and use as background accompaniment to my unorthodox exercise routine (rapidly walking in circles, mainly).

Having it all to myself meant that I could list all of the characters' moves--meticulously draw up giant, symmetrical charts--in my video-game-themed "Superbooks" and learn more about the game's intricacies. Of all things, I was most shocked to learn that you pick up weapons that were lying around on the outside and violently toss them at the opponent inside the ring! "How awesome is that?" I wondered aloud. In fact, whole sessions of Slam Masters were dedicated to darting bottles and buckets at Jumbo Flapjack and Titanic Tim from a safe distance. You couldn't do anything of the sort in Superstars, Wrestlefest or LJN's WWF-themed SNES games!

It was also an opportunity to learn more about the characters and their story arcs via the game's manual. Mostly, I found it fascinating how Slam Master's world overlapped with Street Fighter II and Final Fight's and drew some curious allusions: Biff Slamkovich was an associate--perhaps a training partner--of Zangief (whose absence from Slam Masters disappointed me, since Haggar vs. Zangief was my ultimate video-game dream match, and I would have loved to frequently pair them against each other). Gunloc was apparently Guile's brother and a rival to Cody, with whom he fought over Jessica. Haggar, "The Uncivil Servant," was specifically described to be "the former mayor of Metro City," the mention of which was important to a continuity hound like me. And King Rasta Mon was essentially Blanka in a wrestler's skin, which made me wonder about a possible relation.

Slam Masters' was more of a fully formed world--much more so than I orignally imagined.

With time to consider as much, I could also see that Slam Masters clearly took inspiration from the pro-wrestling world my friends and I knew so well: The unnamed NPC ripping off his shirt in the title sequence was an obvious homage to Hulk Hogan. Alexander the Grater was based on Big Van Vader. El Stingray was luchador legend Lizmark. And Titanic Tim was an amalgamation of wrestling big men Andre the Giant, Giant Gonzales and Giant Baba. (I'd never actually seen Lizmark or Baba in action, but I'd seen their pictures in the old wrestling magazines that Dominick kindly left to me care.) It seemed that Capcom had more respect for wrestling's legacy than the WWF, whose eccentric chairman, Vince McMahon, would regularly bring in territorial stars, dress them up in funny costumes, and pretend they never existed beforehand.

Sadly, I had to eventually move on from Slam Masters because my friends lost interest and playing it by myself wasn't nearly as fun. Trying to go at it alone only magnified the aggravating nature of the computer AI. CPU opponents, that is, had insane priority (particularly Jumbo, who was practically untouchable), and I could no longer count on my partner, who they'd persistently double-team, to make smart decisions. Also, the game would become too strike-heavy for its own good, the matches routinely degenerating into contests to see which of the two combatants could win a shin-kicking contest. Slam Masters was a game whose true potential lay in its ability to bring people together and provide a platform for them to feed off of each other's energy.  

Quite simply, it just wasn't the same without my pals.

I didn't discover until years later, during a random Gamefaqs, search that Capcom had whipped up a sequel titled Ring of Destruction: Slam Masters II (released in Japan and Europe). I excitedly loaded it up on MAME, anticipating that I'd dug up a hidden gem, but I was greatly disappointed to find that it wasn't the expanded follow-up I was expecting to see; rather, I learned that Slam Masters had been transformed into a derivative fighting game. It featured a few new characters (including Victor Ortega, our previously unnamed shirt-ripper), yeah, but the bulk of the game was mostly comprised of the original's recycled assets, rejiggered to accommodate single-plane one-on-one fighting. "Why would Capcom, the innovator, follow the wrong-headed trend of turning action-game sequels into fighters?" I questioned, baffled by its decision.

There was so much potential to do more with the Slam Masters franchise, yet Capcom chose to take the easy path. Slam Masters could have been a long-running series (and inevitably include Zangief, which would allow me to finally book my dream match without having to turn to M.U.G.E.N) and a standout pillar of arcade gaming, but it was instead robbed of its identity and lost to a genre that would soon drown in its own excess. Oh well.

But I have no regrets about my days with the original Saturday Night Slam Masters. For that time-period--for who we were and where out interests lay--Slam Masters was one from a shrinking pool of games that could bring us together and provide us the quintessential arcade experience we were looking for. It played an important role in our story.

I haven't returned to Slam Masters much since then, which isn't a statement about the game's quality as much as a lament that the old days are long gone. Loading it up only serves as a sad reminder.

Though, even if it's true that I can't enjoy Slam Masters as I once did, I can't envision a future in which I forget what it meant to us. No--I can confidently state that the memories of the enormous impact it made on us way back in the summer months of 1993 and beyond would never fade.

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