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