The history of wrestling games Part 1: Button mashing & body slamming

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WWE 2K22 was released on March 8th, 2022, marking the return of a franchise deeply marred by its previous installment, WWE 2K20. Packed with bugs, botches, and blunders, 2K20 was widely touted across the gaming world as the worst game of the year. The new release had its own chaotic launch, having been delayed several times, in part due to WWE releasing hundreds of wrestlers from their roster in the two years that the game was being developed. Alas, the wrestling game has finally arrived – and thankfully, 2K and WWE appear to have redeemed themselves with 2K22 garnering mostly positive reviews.

WWE’s formidable opponent All Elite Wrestling (AEW) are dipping their toes in the gaming world, too. Led by former AEW World Champion and Street Fighter aficionado Kenny Omega, AEW’s gaming division has already launched two mobile games, while their console game is currently in development with Yuke’s. 

Meanwhile, several indie wrestling games are in the works, like Virtual Basement’s The Wrestling Code, the deathmatch-themed Ultra Violence, and Action Arcade Wrestling

Simply put, whether you’re looking for hyper-realistic graphics, nostalgic arcade-style gameplay, legendary characters, or otherwise, there’s more variety in the world of wrestling games than ever before. 

But what got us to this point? The journey of wrestling in the gaming world mirrors wrestling’s rollercoaster ride through pop culture – from family-oriented Americana of the ’80s to the edgier, trashier presentation of the late ‘90s, to the global mainstream appeal it has secured today. Let’s dive off the ropes and into the history of wrestling games!

The 1980s

The Big Pro Wrestling arcade game
The Big Pro Wrestling (1983)

Pro wrestling’s debut in the gaming arena came amidst the Golden Age of arcade games, with the release of The Big Pro Wrestling! by Technōs Japan in 1983. With super simple gameplay and just two playable characters, The Big Pro Wrestling! was a modest first foray, but it performed well in the Japanese market and inspired a slew of competitors to join in the battle royale for wrestling game supremacy.

Perhaps the success of these early arcade titles helped wrestling gain even more popularity as it approached its own Golden Age. Around the mid-1980s, pro wrestling started to undergo a bit of a rebrand, with Vince McMahon and the WWE (then-WWF) redefining the genre and bringing it major mainstream appeal.

The rise of ‘Hulkamania’ alongside WWE’s newfound relationship with MTV saw wrestling become more extravagant, more flamboyant, and more popular than ever. WWE started to put more focus on their business outside the ring; from major toy deals with Hasbro to producing cartoons, and of course, games.

MicroLeague Wrestling video game
MicroLeague Wrestling (1987)

They first dipped their toes into the wrestling game pool with MicroLeague Wrestling, a turn-based strategy game using pre-set matches with digitised photos, released in 1987 for Commodore 64 and Atari ST. 

Their first major console release was Wrestlemania, in 1989. This marked the start of an over 10-year relationship between WWE and legendary publishers Acclaim, known for bringing us Goldeneye. Wrestlemania was a classic button-masher that featured titans like Andre the Giant, ‘Macho Man’ Randy Savage, and Hulk Hogan.

That same year, WWE released their first arcade game, WWF Superstars, with Techōs Japan, the same developer who brought us The Big Pro Wrestling. This was by far the most detailed, spectacular wrestling game at the time, introducing cut scenes and special entrances, more intricate gameplay, and an iconic design that truly set the tone for its successors.

The 1990s

WWE WrestleFest arcade game
WWE WrestleFest (1991)

1991 saw the release of what many consider the greatest arcade wrestling game of all time – and one of the greatest wrestling games overall, WWF WrestleFest. Another Technōs Japan classic, WrestleFest took its predecessor Superstars and truly elevated the multiplayer game, with massive new features like double-team combos, finishing moves, a more intricate health/damage system, and the addition of the legendary Royal Rumble match.

It was also the first wrestling game to make use of microtransactions – adding coins could boost your health, unlock special moves, and more. This is truly the beacon of wrestling games on arcade, even earning the title of ‘Best Beat’Em Up Game’ in 1991. A timeless classic, WrestleFest is still enjoyed by avid arcade gamers to this day. Play WWF WrestleFest, WWF Superstars, and many more wrestling arcade and console classics on the ArcadePro Proteus 3442

WWE would follow up WrestleFest with WWF Wrestlemania: The Arcade Game in 1995. Developers Midway modeled the game after their hugely successful Mortal Kombat and NBA Jam titles, creating a fast-paced game that was more akin to a fighting game than a traditional wrestling game.

The first video game to feature legendary characters like Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels, and The Undertaker, Wrestlemania: The Arcade Game also put more emphasis on a cartoonish, over-the-top presentation – a reflection on WWE’s campier product at the time. Cause enough damage to Lex Luger and he bleeds dumbbells, power up as Razor Ramon and his arms become blades – this game focused on unadulterated fun, and it paid off. 

From here, the floodgates were open. Wrestling had secured its spot as a cultural phenomenon and became a huge opportunity for game developers to capitalise on. The trajectory of wrestling often seemed to coincide with that of the gaming industry. While arcade games reached their golden age in the 1980s – so too did wrestling. And as a new console war began to emerge towards the late ‘90s and we saw greater competition in gaming than ever before, wrestling’s iconic ‘Monday Night War’ was hitting its peak. 

WWE had gained itself two major competitors, ECW and WCW, and the battle between the three major American franchises extended well beyond TV ratings – with each brand competing in the gaming sphere too.

WCW vs. The World video game
WCW vs. The World (1997)

WCW would release 9 games throughout the ‘90s, across Game Boy, N64, SNES, PlayStation, and PC. Working with the likes of EA and THQ, WCW’s war with WWE was just as fierce in games as it was on TV, and just as close. Their games would introduce greater variety, with more match types and game modes, wider rosters, create-a-wrestler modes, and more. 1997’s WCW vs. the World laid the groundwork for the future of wrestling games, the first to truly embrace 3D gaming that didn’t rely on button mashing. 

The AKI Corporation (now known as syn Sophia), a Japanese developer that was founded in 1995, would have a huge impact on the world of wrestling games. Between 1997 and 2000, they released 6 major wrestling games, mostly for WCW. AKI would develop a grappling system that completely changed the standard when it came to wrestling gameplay. Thanks to AKI, matches in wrestling games finally felt like the matches you’d see on TV.

WCW/nWo Revenge cutscene with Scott Steiner and Hulk Hogan
WCW/nWo Revenge (1998)

1998 saw both rivals release major titles. AKI and THQ’sWCW/nWo Revenge would become one of the highest-selling games in Nintendo 64 history, and at the time was the highest-selling third-party Nintendo game ever. WWE and Acclaim released WWF War Zone for PlayStation, N64, and Game Boy, which was hugely successful in its own right. 

Both WWE and WCW would continue to release games across every platform year after year, each year bringing new innovations, improved graphics, more engaging gameplay, and a presentation that more closely matched the dynamic, edgy, narrative-driven zeitgeist of wrestling in the late ‘90s.

In Part 2 of our history of wrestling games, we’ll head into the new millennium and explore what went down once the war was over…


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