Thursday, October 22, 2015

Shades of Resonance: Fond Reminiscence - Memory Log #47

WWF Wrestlemania

It was my birthday--August 18th, 1995. I remember that day well. I vividly recall what it was like to suddenly come to the realization--to be slapped in the face by the cold new reality that had swiftly but quietly displaced the one I knew.

The events of that day stand out in my memory because they epitomized what my life had become. Normally it was that I'd look forward to my birthday and enjoy a fun day out with family and friends, but today was different. Truth is, I didn't have many friends left. Mike and Chris had since moved away, the crew from 73rd Street (where my aunt lived) had split up, and I'd lost the ability to meaningfully socialize with other kids. My parents had become detached--lost in their work--and no longer had any interest in organizing the usual day-long festivities that meant so much to me. And my only desire was to stay home--to be as far away from public spaces as possible--though I struggled to understand why I was feeling this way.

That's how it was on August 18th, 1995--the worst birthday I'd ever had. There was no party. No card games. No visiting family members. No group of friends. And nothing to which I could point as evidence that today marked a special occasion of any kind. Instead, my father drove Dominick and I over to some local entertainment center and then proceeded to make himself scarce, preferring to hang out by the pay phones in the corner. Oh, he'd join us infrequently between calls and buy us a snack, but his mind was clearly somewhere else. Frankly, so was mine; I didn't want to be there, and I spent much of that afternoon wishing I was back home, in the den, where things made sense.

So I figured I'd head over to the arcade area with Dominick, play some old favorites, and hope that the hours would drop off quickly.

I was feeling so down that I couldn't possibly have anticipated the redeeming moment that would play out seconds later.

I was of course on the lookout for the perfect starter--WWF Wrestlefest, which had become an arcade mainstay--and I was certain that I'd spotted its cabinet somewhere on the arcade's left side, near the windows. But as I gravitated ever-closer to the machine, I started to notice that the banner's title art was strangely dissimilar in form, and the cabinet's frame lacked that familiar wide-panel display. As the crowd of kids dispersed a bit, and the action on the unit's monitor finally came into view, my brain immediately ceased its recognitive activity and began to malfunction. My forward movement suddenly halted, and I stood there in a state of paralysis as my mind attempted to interpret the meaning of the powerful images that were beaming out from that monitor.

This wasn't WWF Wrestlefest or even the older WWF Superstars. Oh, no--this was a brand new wrestling game titled WWF Wrestlemania, and it looked absolutely incredible.

I was in total awe of what I was seeing--so much so that it took me a good minute or two to regain complete control of my senses. 

These were the best graphics I'd ever seen in a game. Wrestlemania's weren't cartoony approximations of the Superstars I'd see on TV every week. Its were stunningly realistic reproductions, their level of detail and animation surpassing even those showcased by the digitized models from Mortal Kombat 3, which was the standard-bearer for realistic-looking characters. Back then, producing a game that looked "real" was considered a huge achievement--the pinnacle of game design. From what I could see, Wrestlemania was the new king of the mountain. I couldn't wait for the patrons currently playing it to clear away so that I could get a shot at it.

I went in expecting Wrestlemania to be a graphically superior expansion of Wrestlefest, whose engine, I felt, had so much more potential, but it turned out to be something else entirely. There was no Royal Rumble mode, and tag-team action wasn't available to single players; there were instead "Intercontinental Championship" and "World Wrestling Federation Championship" modes, neither of which appeared to be distinct. Most startlingly, it completely abandoned the grappling-based system of Wrestlefest and seemed to favor rapid-fire strikes, its pace much speedier than its predecessor's; why, it was almost as if Wrestlemania was more a fighting game, like Mortal Kombat (at this point, I had no clue that both were made by the same company).

Wrestlers didn't throw simple punches and kicks or execute traditional wrestling moves. Rather, they smacked each other over the head with hammers, buckets and flails; tossed each other around like rag dolls; leapt miles in the air en route to performing bone-crunching slams; and even fired out projectiles. They'd win a match not by earning a three-count pinfall or a submission but by completely draining an opponent's health and sealing the victory with a formally applied pinfall motion (a fallen foe could escape defeat via a "Second Wind" recovery if his combo meter was filled, though at first I assumed this to be the usual arbitrary CPU shenanigans).

would sometimes escape defeat via an arbitrarily decided "Second Wind" recovery).

Wrestlemania was barely a wrestling game; it could only be described as wild, over-the-top insanity. And I loved it. I hadn't even been playing for more than a few seconds before I totally forgot about its lack of alternate modes and its abandonment of Wrestlefest's winning formula.

The amount of effort the developers put into capturing the personality of the performers was mind-blowing. The wrestlers moved about and behaved exactly like they did in real life, their every taunt and mannerism painstakingly reproduced (the Undertaker slowly stalked opponents, Shawn Michaels chewed gum as if arrogantly underselling the competition, and Razor Ramon trash-talked his victims while pounding them). Their charging toward the next hurdle was accompanied by faithfully sampled replications of their actual theme music (before then, games would use slightly lame MIDI interpretations). Vince McMahon, the lead commentator, would repeatedly yell out his patently inane utterances ("He's just gone berserk!"). And color man Jerry "The King" Lawler (who was a bad guy at the time) would chime in with expectedly heelish remarks ("What a moron!").

"What kind of sorcery was used to pull this off?" I wondered, my mind still overwhelmed by the enormity of it all.

I decided to play as the Undertaker, since he was currently one of my favorites (and I was also in my darkness-is-cool-phase). I loved everything about how he performed. He'd throw his trademarked wild haymakers. Smash opponents over the head with physical tombstones. Stun them with a string of ghostly projectiles. And grab them by the throat with a gliding chokehold--an alternate grapple from which he could stylishly execute his bouncing chokeslams, neckbreakers, and tombstone piledrivers. He could seal a victory with his unique one-handed pin attempt, sure, but he was so cool that he could also end a match simply by raising his hair into the air (who was going to tell him he couldnt)!

Experimenting with this new engine was some of the most fun I ever had with a wrestling game. I might have been a bit disappointed with the size of the roster, which totaled a paltry eight characters compared to Wrestlefest's twelve, and the some of the selections the developers made ("They couldn't find anyone better than Doink?" I questioned, incognizant of the fact that the WWF's roster was so light on talent at the time), but I was so caught up in the moment--so spellbound by what I'd just experienced--that none of its shortcomings seemed to matter.

I was smitten with WWF Wrestlemania. It had captured my imagination like only a few other arcade games had. It was bold and creative--the direct antithesis of what wrestling games had become. I was firmly in its grasp. I didn't want to go home anymore; I wanted to continue playing Wrestlemania all day! (I'm not really sure where Dominick was during all of this, but I had fun explaining to him in great detail what I'd seen from the game.)

August 18th, 1995, might have been one of many lousy days during a dark period in life, but it projected a glimmer of light--WWF Wrestlemania, one of the shiniest of bright spots.

WWF Wrestlemania occupied my mind for weeks in following. I couldn't stop thinking about it. All I wanted to do was see it again. Now, if your question is "Well, then, why didn't you just go out and play it in an arcade?", then I'll have to direct you back to the first few paragraphs of this piece, which you obviously glanced over. No--there was no getting around the fact that my arcade-going days were over.

But I still wanted to play it. I needed to play it. In my desperation, as had become tradition, I turned to Nintendo Power with the hope that its pages might one day hold information about a possible home port of Wrestlemania, the latest arcade favorite I desired to play on my SNES. Though, my expectations were tempered greatly by my suspicion that the SNES might not possess the capabilities necessary to render what looked to be a particularly advanced game--much more so than Saturday Night Slam Masters, whose home conversion was somewhat compromised (which became apparent to me over time). Still, I clung to the notion that Donkey Kong Country's very existence proved that the SNES could capably replicate games like Wrestlemania if developers sought to tap into the reserve "turbo power" hiding somewhere under its hood.

The scene in following was a total repeat of my experience with Slam Masters: I'd pull the latest edition of Nintendo Power from the mailbox, bring it up to my room, and flip right to Pak Watch, hoping to see any evidence of a Wrestlemania home port. The months dropped off one after another, I was continuously disappointed, and I inevitably resigned myself to the notion that Wrestlemania was too much for the SNES to handle. It was looking as though I wasn't going to get a second chance to play the game I'd been obsessing over for so long.

But then, out of nowhere, there it was. This time, there was no mystery involved. Its name was clearly printed across the bottom-right portion of Nintendo Power Volume 79's cover (it was the Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy's Kong Quest issue, coincidentally), which was the most official of confirmations. After locating its name in the index, I euphorically flipped over to page 78 and started digging into the out-of-the-blue feature coverage. I was so excited about what I was reading that I purposely averted my eyes to troubling details like the intro's revelation that Midway and Acclaim "managed to keep six of the arcade original's eight characters." I had to apply a fair bit of self-deception, actually, to convince myself that I wasn't disappointed with the game's downgraded graphics (it didn't help that the piece's front page featured a comparative screenshot of the arcade original) and its omission of two characters (Yokozuna and Bam Bam Bigelow).

"Hey--it's better than nothing," I rationalized.

I mean, it still looked pretty great for an SNES game, and the well was starting to dry up by that point, anyway, so it made perfect sense for me to go out and pick up WWF Wrestlemania: The Arcade Game (as it was now titled) the moment it hit stores that November.

In those first few days, I was entranced by the surreality of playing WWF Wrestlemania, which I'd been dreaming about ever since that day in August, on my TV. I was having a great time exploring its depth and watching the highly detailed wrestlers execute all of the crazy maneuvers I was discovering with my random button-presses. This was a fun game.

However, once its spellbinding powers began to diminish in light of the growing list of obvious inadequacies, it became difficult for me to continue denying that it wasn't anywhere near as awe-inspiring as the arcade original. It didn't look as good, its characters compressed and pixelated and its textures' shading appearing as though it were sloppily applied with a spray tool. The thunder of its ring action wasn't quite as reverberant, the accompanying sound and voice samples considerably muffled (and we were back to MIDI-composed themes, which if I was correct were lazily ripped from LJN's previous SNES wrestling games). It felt light on content with its interchangeable "World" and "Intercontinental" modes, lack of true tag-team multiplayer, and painfully limited six-character roster (I was especially annoyed about this when Dominick informed me that the Genesis version featured all eight characters. "How could a powerhouse console like the SNES get anything less?!" I silently question). And the computer AI bounced between stupidly pacifistic and obnoxious.

Wrestlemania offered little variety beyond handicapped matches, and I grew bored with it within a week. Though, I didn't want to abandon a game to which I'd dedicated months of eager anticipation, so I felt compelled to force myself to continue playing it. When doing as much failed to reignite my interest, I desperately attempted to extract value from Wrestlemania in other ways; I'd, say, draw up specially designed charts in my video-game-themed "Superbooks" and meticulously list out all of the wrestlers' moves, which overlapped with my favorite hobby of neatly arranging things in rows and columns. 

It didn't work. WWF Wrestlemania: The Arcade Game simply wasn't as captivating as I'd imagined it to be. In fact, I started to wonder if its quickly diminishing appeal was in any way indicative of the arcade original, which, really, I'd only sampled for a few short hours--in retrospect hardly enough time to judge a game's potential for longevity. I must have concluded that my suspicion was valid, because I don't recall ever popping another quarter into a WWF Wrestlemania arcade unit.

I decided to give the arcade version a second shot in the early 2000s. Well, rather, I went out and bought the PC version, which looked to be an exact duplicate. I could barely play it; it wouldn't recognize two of my Gravis gamepad's buttons, and the controller's janky purple d-pad was ill-suited for inputting rapid-fire combos (and there was no chance that I was going to attempt to control the action with a keyboard). I was so intent on reigniting the flame that I thought to spend weeks hunting down its wacky-looking sequel, WWF In Your House, which apparently didn't exist in the eyes of retailers, who would confusedly respond to my inquiries as if I were asking for directions to Jimmy Hoffa's burial site (it was Deja Vu II: Lost in Vegas all over again). Those full-page ads in the game magazines must have been an illusory. 

I tried again a few years later when the genuine article (or at least its romset) finally became available for MAME, but by then the magic was gone. Its realistic graphics and over-the-top presentation no longer resonated with me. Its wild action wasn't the compelling hook I remembered it to be. And getting stomped by multiple CPU characters wasn't something I missed. Frankly, I'd rather play Wrestlefest.

I haven't gone anywhere near Wrestlemania since then.

WWF Wrestlemania and me. It was a relationship that started strong but didn't work out in the end. That's how it goes. Time marches on, flaws become more and more evident, and the excitement sadly fades. But the memories will always remain. 

Such is true of WWF Wrestlemania, which I'll always remember for how it arrived at a time when I needed something to look forward to. I won't forget how awe-struck I was the first time I saw it--how it brightened up a day that would have otherwise been shrouded in darkness.


  1. WWF: The Arcade Game (which is the moniker I've always known it by) is great stuff. I really dug the Mortal Kombat-ification of the sport. I never played it in the arcade, but I've still got both the Sega Genesis and Saturn ports (I almost bought the SNES version too, like yourself, until I found out about the two missing characters from its roster, which was a deal breaker for me). I also heavily favored the Undertaker in this game. I contemplated buying the In Your House sequel for Saturn on many occasions (and yes, it did exist), but, for whatever reason (I seem to recall that the gaming mags gave it lukewarm reviews), never did.

    I can also remember reading, I believe in Gameplayers magazine, that Nintendo used to charge companies more for the larger Megabit cartridges (i.e., a 24 MB cart cost the publishers/developers more than a 16 MB one), which Sega didn't, which was the primary reason a handful of SNES ports got cut down rosters like that (if the Genesis could handle Yokozuna and Bam Bam, than you can be sure that Nintendo's machine could have too). For example, the Sega Genesis version of Shaq Fu has four more fighters than the SNES does (not that Shaq Fu is great or anything, but still, I'm sure you can guess which version I bought).

    1. I suspected that the scarcity of "In Your House" was a warning sign. The screenshots didn't exactly scream quality, either (also, I remember it looking unpolished when I watched Youtube videos of the game). Still, it was one of those games I would like to have to seen in action--just to see what they did with the moves.

      The stuff about Nintendo's old policies is a shame. You'd think they'd have had some pride--that they'd have want to have all of the best versions of the games on their platforms--but nay.