HOW AKI CORP’S WRESTLING GAMES CAPTURED THE SPIRIT OF PRO WRESTLING

Everyone is aware that AKI’s WWF No Mercy is one of the best wrestling games ever made, right? If you’re not, then go. Get it played. It’s up there with the very best of the genre, standing toe-to-toe with classics like Giant Gram 2000 and the Fire Pro Series. What these games do is capture the feel of pro wrestling, the excitement and the back-and-forth momentum swings that a great wrestling match has.

The WWE games have been bad for a long, long time. They fail on a fundamental level by treating pro wrestling — which is a work, we’re all old enough to understand that now — like it is a real competitive endeavor, as if John Cena was really fighting for his life out there every Monday night, like some kind of fucking gladiator. By the sheer fact that they’re a videogame with a win/lose condition, they’ve sort of missed the point of the source material. This is obviously ignoring the litany of bugs, glitches, awkward mechanics and crap controls that have plagued the games for years and don’t look like they’re going to get changed any time soon. It’ll be same yearly cycle — invite a bunch of journos to Wrestlemania, announce a cover star, wheel the bloody Big Show out for the millionth time during a promotional tour, get shocking reviews, sell a million copies, repeat. Doesn’t make quite as catchy a T-shirt as that one Brock Lesnar wears, does it?

Anyway, this article isn’t an excuse for me to — again — put the boot into WWE’s recent videogame output, it is to talk about how good AKI’s wrestling games are, and crucially, why they are. From WCW vs NWO: World Tour to the aforementioned No Mercy, there was a real golden era of pro wrestling games released for the N64, and they all worked around this core concept of ‘momentum’, an intangible system that, these many years later, I don’t fully understand how it works, and I think that might be part of its genius.

There’s no health bars, and the entire game is built around these meters that, as the match goes on, change based on your performance, with red being brilliant and blue being very bad. When it reaches the highest point, it flashes and you can perform a taunt that gives you access to your wrestler’s finishing moves, but also they will pretty much reverse any move that gets attempted on them for the duration. Conversely, the lower it is, the less likely your wrestler is to reverse anything at all. Playground legend spoke of the ability to mash the shoulder buttons to increase your chance of reversing a move, but the reality is, they do nothing.

There’s two major types of grapple moves in the game, light and heavy, performed by pressing or holding down the button. Light ones are simple moves, like a headlock, while heavy ones are high impact maneuvers or wrestler’s signature moves. The heavier ones are more likely to be reversed. I say more likely, because you — the player — have no control over this. It’s totally down to chance. The meter merely dictates the likelihood.

But, it’s not impossible. Many a time I have had an opponent on the ropes, only for them to perform an incredible last minute escape from a move that was really going to put an exclamation point on the match. Maybe I got too cocky and went for a high risk move off the top rope and they rolled away? Having no control over this reversal system is one of the things that really connects the AKI wrestling games to the real world product. When you’re watching wrestling, you’re being taken on a journey by the athletes in the ring. They’re telling a story and you’re taking it in, the twists and turns, the high-spots and the finishes. These reversals are as much a surprise to you as one would be in a really good wrestling match, and elicit the same response. Another genius touch is that, after a successful reversal, you build momentum faster with strikes and grapples you hit, meaning that you can fight back from the absolute brink to a position where you can win the match, all it takes is a bit of luck.

Now, I know what you’re thinking — where’s the fun in it if you’re relying on luck? If we were talking about something that resembles an actually competitive game, then sure, relying on luck as a mechanic is extremely annoying, but you have to change your thinking here. Winning a match in an AKI wrestling game is a different kind of satisfaction than say, beating someone in Tekken. It’s about the story that gets told along the way, that moment where the match swung in your favour and those moments where you thought you had it won only to see it slip through your fingers. The win is merely an end to this, but is simply another part of the story you’re creating with your opponent, be it a pal or the CPU.

The way that light grapples are less likely to be reversed mean that a match instantly has a structure — you can’t just wade in with your big, high damage slams, and if you do and manage to pull one off, it’s another moment created — and you have to, much like a real wrestling match, build to a finish. There’s also no visible ‘stats’ allocated to wrestlers also means that anyone can win any match, adding more drama, rather than the ridiculous way the WWE game straight up says ‘John Cena is rated 96, so good luck actually doing anything’. Which I suppose in many ways is realistic. Oh well.

Pro Wrestling games need to take a look at what the source material does best. It’s more like a dance than a fight, an emotional rollercoaster for fans to go on, and ultimately, the winner is part of a story rather than some genuine sporting victory. Whoever wins and loses is immaterial as long as the story was satisfying and the sooner they’re willing to accept this the better they will be in truly offering fans a representation of the product the love so much. It’s very unlikely WWE will be the company to do this, not only because it would require such an acknowledgement of the behind the scenes aspects of their business, but also because the WWE games are, regardless of quality, massive selling titles every single year. They don’t need to change.

The AKI games will remain the stuff of legend. Reissues are impossible due to various licensing issues and the company themselves barely exists in the same form any more, changing their name to Syn Sophia and releasing a load of stuff that is far, far from the Pro Wrestling genre. There’s a fairly healthy mod scene, patching in new moves and up-to-date roster lists using what can only be described as witchcraft, but the chances of seeing another AKI-style wrestling game seem worryingly slim. It’s baffling that some indie hasn’t just lifted the mechanics from these titles wholesale and created something that scratches the itch that only these games have been able to. Wrestling itself has changed in the past few years, with there now being plenty of alternatives to the product that WWE are putting out that are all so much easier to get access to than the ‘glory days’ of tape trading or grabbing dodgy DVD rips off Xtreme Wrestling Torrents. It’s a real shame that the videogame side of things hasn’t had the same indie revolution.