It’s been awhile since my last post, 3 weeks to be exact. It’s been a busy time and for me, and a busy time of year. There were concerts to attend, personal relationships to pursue, Game of Thrones to catch up on, and WrestleMania! Yes, even though I do not really consider myself an active wrestling fan I do get caught up once a year for WrestleMania as that’s traditionally when the company is at its best. It also helps that the NFL season is over and there’s usually a lull in television programming all around (though this year, video games have been kicking my ass). This year’s WrestleMania, like most of them, failed to live up to expectations. I think I’m in the minority when I say that, but I really didn’t enjoy it. I thought CM Punk and Chris Jericho put on a good show, and it’s always a nostalgic trip to see The Rock in action, but the rest of the card under-performed. It certainly didn’t help things when one of the better matches, featuring perhaps the company’s best worker in Daniel Bryan, lasted a mere 10 seconds or so to kick off the show. It’s one thing when an unscripted boxing match or shoot fight lasts seconds, but for a booked match like that (featuring one of the company’s major championships) to last only seconds is just cheap. Especially when several less interesting matches receive more time, or when the show stops for terrible hip hop concerts. Blah!
This isn’t about WrestleMania though, it’s about a little game called WWF: No Mercy. WrestleMania, for me, means a gathering of friends and a wrestling theme gathering pretty much requires a working Nintendo 64 and some wrestling action. This year’s event featured WCW/nWo: Revenge, No Mercy, and Virtual Pro-Wrestling 2. For fans of wrestling games, the connection is obvious. All three were developed by AKI Corporation who have become synonymous with wrestling games. American audiences were first introduced to them in 1997 when WCW vs. nWo: World Tour was released for the Nintendo 64 and was a major success. The game laid the groundwork for the company’s many future games.
World Tour was fairly straight-forward in its game modes. It was basically just one on one, two on two, or battle royal which put four wrestlers in the ring at the same time. There were no over-the-top entrances and the single player mode just put the player up against a series of opponents culminating in a title match. The roster was huge and included all of the main wrestlers from WCW at the time and even a bunch of wrestlers from Japan. All of the wrestlers controlled the same, which is good because that’s what won fans over.
AKI’s approach to gameplay for this title revolved around the grapple button. The B button made wrestlers throw punches and kicks, but the A button caused them to tie-up by grabbing each other’s shoulders. From there, the player who initiated the grapple could initiate a move with either the A or B button plus a direction on the D-Pad for a total of 10 possible moves. Holding the grapple button caused the wrestler to use a strong grapple, opening up another 10 potential moves. Most wrestlers had several repeat moves but the potential to really flesh out an arsenal was there. And more over, the gameplay system worked. Up to this point, most wrestling games tried too hard to emulate the ever popular fighting genre of video games. This would peak with the WWF game In Your House for the Playstation, which was basically a straight-up fighting game complete with fireballs and everything. It was absolutely atrocious and not at all what wrestling fans wanted. Acclaim was the developer with the WWF license and essentially owned the wrestling video game world in America. World Tour changed that, and for the better.
World Tour was followed by Revenge which was basically more of the same but with a little more of that American wrestling flair. The graphics were better, the individual wrestlers had a bit more personality, and wrestling fans were genuinely happy. Acclaim tried to counter with WWF: Warzone and its successor WWF: Attitude. Both games were successful for the time and generally well received, but just about any unbiased fan of wrestling knew AKI (with THQ) had the better game. Acclaim was still going with a pseudo-fighting game approach. Each move required a series of directional buttons followed by an action button. They did introduce some good things, particularly running grapple attacks, signature moves, and the create-a-wrestler feature (though that had been available in Japanese games dating back to the Super Nintendo, as did others, but Acclaim popularized them with American audiences and AKI would soon adopt all). Even so, WWF’s marketing arm must have noticed how well received the WCW games were and when their contract with Acclaim was up, and WCW’s with THQ, WWF was there to pounce.
This resulted in big switch of brands and developers. Acclaim reached an agreement with ECW and would make a couple of games for them using their Attitude engine. WCW would sign a lucrative deal with EA which lead to the ambitious, but lousy, WCW: Mayhem. THQ and WWF soon became a very profitable alliance and is the only one left today. For the Playstation, THQ enlisted the support of Yukes which developed the Smackdown games and continues to do so. AKI was left on the Nintendo 64 and was pretty much tasked with making their WCW games into WWF games.
Wrestlemania 2000 was the first game under this partnership, and a good one, but the follow-up is the one fans seem to remember the most fondly. No Mercy arrived in November of 2000 and was an instant success. The same gameplay that originated with World Tour was left mostly the same but with a few additions. AKI had now finally adopted the running grapple maneuver, a simple addition but a welcomed one. AKI also took a stab at new gimmick matches such as the steel cage match and the ladder match. The announcer’s table was also available to smash opponents thru, and a new story-line mode added some spice to the single player action. Tons of unlockables gave gamers incentive to keep playing to earn Smackdown Cash to purchase new create-a-wrestler attires, moves, weapons, and even additional superstars including Cactus Jack and Andre the Giant. And it’s a good thing there was so much to do because No Mercy would be AKI’s last with THQ.
I’ve always felt this fact, plus nostalgia for WWF’s “Attitude Era,” has made fans remember No Mercy more fondly than they perhaps should. It’s remembered so well that there is still a large section of fans that feel No Mercy is the best grappler ever, and certainly the best to feature the WWF (now WWE) branding. That’s rather high praise for a game over 10 years old and a testament for how good the basic gameplay system is.
At the time No Mercy came out, it was the fourth game in four years to feature basically the same gameplay. Other than a few small additions and a fresh coat of paint, this was still World Tour. It’s a system that works extremely well to make the game playable even if it’s not entirely authentic. How many wrestling matches take place in a similar manner where every move is initiated by a tie-up? None I’ve seen. If the gameplay is fun though, should gamers and wrestling fans care?
I have fired up No Mercy several times over the last couple of weeks. My first reaction when I did was at the visuals and general presentation. The presentation for this game was never its strong point and at this point in time it’s fairly ugly. The graphics engine though is still passable. It’s no secret this era of video games has aged rather poorly as far as looks go, but each wrestler is easily identifiable, though the height is kind of off. There’s little or no difference between a monster like Kane and a little guy like Taka Michinoku. It’s one of those things that took a while for wrestling developers to get right.
The story mode shows a lot of age. Developers were trying really hard at this point in time to create games that let players experience the television product for themselves. Great emphasis was placed on making the story-lines feel random and yet authentic, but in the end it’s still just a series of matches with some distractions in between. The game, for some reason, loves putting the player in handicap matches. Handicap matches are no fun no matter what side you’re on. If you’re part of a team of two going against one it’s just a squash. If you’re the one taking on two then it becomes a frustrating game of trying to exploit the weaknesses within the game’s artificial intelligence (top rope moves work well here). Gimmick matches and the Royal Rumble often play a role too, but unfortunately nothing is as fun as the standard one on one or triple threat.
In those matches where the gameplay is the focus, this one still holds up pretty well. Fans used to current wrestling games will definitely notice the slower pace. The wrestlers all have a slightly clunky feel to them. When just striking and grappling, it’s fine, but they don’t run too well and lining up running attacks can be a chore. It would be fine if the larger wrestlers handled this way and the cruiser-weights speedier, but that’s not the case. The A.I. is at least competent and won’t let you get away with spamming wake-up attacks, for example, to gain an upper hand. I’m definitely rusty, and most of my gaming was spent on Sony consoles, but my matches aren’t automatic wins for me which is actually a welcomed thing.
There are a couple of other glaring negatives with this title. One of which is the slowdown that takes place with four wrestlers in the ring. In normal matches, it’s not too bad but gimmick matches can get clippy. Collision detection is very spotty, but perhaps the worst is for the early adopters. The first batch of games have a defect that THQ didn’t offer to correct aside from fixing future releases. This defect causes the saved data to become corrupt and the game erases itself. This includes unlocked items and created wrestlers. Mine seemed fine for several years but last week I turned it on and found my unlocked items were gone. It’s definitely frustrating, and when buying copies on eBay you’re forced to rely on the word of the seller because there’s no obvious way to tell a good copy from a bad one.
There are a lot of little things that drag this game down, but even so I found myself having a blast with it. There’s still so much depth to this game and that couldn’t have been more apparent than when two of my buddies hooked up for a one on one match of old veterans. They spent far more time with this title and other AKI ones when they first came out. It took a few minutes for them to get their legs back under them, but before long the match was a series of reversals and set-ups that spanned about 15 minutes before a victor was decided. It was fun to watch and a reminder of how well developed the basic gameplay is.
AKI did not leave the wrestling world after THQ dropped them. I don’t know why the two companies ended their relationship. I assume it was a cost-cutting move on the part of THQ who basically handed over the WWF license to Yukes. I’m guessing it was sales related as even though most fans preferred No Mercy to Smackdown 2, there were still far more Playstations out there than Nintendo 64s so it wouldn’t surprise me if Smackdown 2 was the better seller. And Smackdown 2 was a good game in its own right, just entirely different in approach. AKI would go on to use it’s engine to create the Def Jam wrestling game as well as several in the anime Ultimate Muscle universe. I never played any of them, but I understand the same basic principles still apply with obvious changes to suit the subject matter.
WWF: No Mercy is still a great grappler. It’s really a shame AKI hasn’t been able to take another shot at developing a WWF game for American audiences. Yukes has put out some excellent Smackdown themed games since, but it’s not surprising that there still exists a strong fan-base for No Mercy. A fan-base that still considers it king. While I don’t consider it the best one out there, I really can’t begrudge any who do and it’s still easily in the top 5, and for a genre as bloated as the wrestling one, that’s some pretty high praise.