During the 1990s, we witnessed one of the biggest rivalries in television history: The Monday Night Wars. Two behemoths of sports entertainment competed on a weekly basis for ratings supremacy until one of these juggernauts finally fell. But it wasn’t just on TV stations that these battles were happening. WWF and WCW were also competing in the video game market to see who could produce the best, and ultimately, the most popular releases, and the interesting thing is, these wars played out exactly the same on video game consoles as they did on television. The highs and lows of both companies were just as apparent in their games as they were on TV, and it made for some fascinating results. So let me take you on a journey through three generations of games consoles, three eras of wrestling, and a whole lot of attitude, as we look at The Monday Night Video Game Wars.
In the early 1990s, WWF completely dominated wrestling in the US. The territory days were over as Vince McMahon monopolised the entire business in America, with very little left to compete. Larger than life characters with unbelievable size and strength were generally favoured over technical wrestling ability in Vinny’s land of giants. For the most part, WWF was far more about the pageantry and spectacle, rather than an actual quality in-ring product, and this translates perfectly over to their video games. In 1989, licensed wrestling video games began with WWF Wrestlemania on NES. An innovator it may be, yet the game itself had a highly limited roster with an even more limited selection of moves. Even for the time it was uninspired, and it didn’t get much better from there, with catastrophes such as Steel Cage Challenge, WWF Superstars, and the unspeakably bad European Rampage Tour. However, much like the company’s approach to television, WWF video games may have followed a simple formula with little substance, but it certainly had its moments of glory.
Enter WWF Wrestlefest. This 1991 classic combined fantastically bright arcade graphics, a simple to grasp control scheme, an iconic roster of stars, and most importantly, ridiculously fun and addictive game play. There’s not much from WWF in the early 1990s that’s worth going back to enjoy, but like British Bulldog vs Bret Hart and Savage vs Warrior, WWF Wrestlefest is certainly something worth reliving.
As for McMahon’s biggest (although far from threatening) competition, WCW was much less colourful and cartoonish in the early ‘90s and much more about the good ol’ rasslin’. Although much more technically sound between the ropes, when it came to the popularity scale, WCW could not compete with WWF, which is exactly the case with their first foray into the video game world, WCW Wrestling for NES. Despite each member of the twelve man roster kicking like they’re ballet dancers, WCW’s first game plays very well for the time. The in-ring action and roster size is far superior to WWF Wrestlemania, and the game even allowed you to look over each wrestler’s moveset, an impressive feature in 1990. However, WCW Wrestling wasn’t as unique as it appeared at first glance, as it was in fact originally a Japanese wrestling game called Super Star Pro Wrestling that had been given the ‘Super Mario 2’ treatment. Puroresu legends such as Giant Baba and Stan Hansen were swapped for Southern sensations like Ric Flair and Michael P.S Hayes. So for WCW, there certainly was promise on display, and it catered comfortably to its dedicated audience of diehard fans, but on a larger scale, there was simply no way it could compete.
By the mid-90s, wrestling was stale. Hulkamania was no longer running wild in WWF, it was instead jogging at a moderate pace in WCW to the sound of muffled cheers mixed with a smattering of boos. It seemed that 90% of the WWF roster needed some kind of side-occupation just to get by (thank god for those guaranteed contracts) – dentists, garbage men, whatever Mantaur was. And the less said about the Dungeon of Doom, the better. Creativity in wrestling had reached a new low, but there was hope in WWF in the form of the ‘New Generation’ – a batch of young stars in the making that showed promise for the future. So while the majority of the product lacked originality, there was some potential firmly on display, much like the WWF video games at the time.
The mid-90s saw more of the same uninspired grappling games similar to the ones released in the earlier part of the decade, but we did also get WWF Wrestlemania: The Arcade Game. Despite being a clear rip off of the arcade hit Mortal Kombat (there’s that lack of originality I was talking about), the game was fast-paced, and a stupid amount of fun, especially when playing with friends. Instead of spinal cord-ripping fatalities, it had Doink the Clown throwing dropkicks and swinging his giant red hammer about the place. While not quite as good as the ultra-violent tournament fighter it blatantly plagiarised, just like the ladder match at Wrestlemania X and Michaels vs Mankind from Mind Games, it’s definitely something worth going back and enjoying today.
Even though it had money thrown at it from every angle, WCW wasn’t doing so well at this time either. It made some big leaps forward towards mainstream popularity with the signing of The Hulkster and Randy Savage, but took gigantic steps back with The Shockmaster and THE YETIIII! In the video game world, WCW had a couple of decent contributions in ‘94 with WCW Superbrawl (SNES) and WCW: The Main Event (Gameboy), but it wasn’t until 1996 that things started to get a little interesting, both on television and on consoles.
On the May 27th episode of Nitro that year, Scott Hall emerged from the crowd, interrupted a match, and cut a promo that changed wrestling forever. With the booking talents of Eric Bischoff and the vast wealth of Ted Turner, WCW made wrestling cool again. In 1996, the NWO arrived and took over wrestling. Even in its early days, it was clear how big it could be, and that was also evident in WCW’s first venture into the fifth-generation of consoles, WCW vs. The World. The game featured 3D graphics and 51 wrestlers, which at the time was extremely ambitious, and even included fictional foreign wrestlers based on real life counterparts. Exactly like the WCW television product in that year, the game showed promise, innovation and forward-thinking, yet lacked polish and proper execution. But this was only just the beginning.
By 1997, the unthinkable had happened: WWF had been dethroned from the top of the wrestling world. The Monday Night Wars were in full swing: WCW was pulling in record ratings, and the world was undergoing a ‘new order’, whilst WWF were still playing catch-up. The once small southern promotion was now miles ahead of the once unstoppable juggernaut. Sure, WCW still wasn’t perfect, but its moments of pure brilliance outshone any of the company’s shortcomings. And when we look at the company’s video game releases during this time, they tell the exact same story – a mix of disappointing efforts and outstanding examples of quality.
In 1997 and 98, WCW released Nitro and Thunder on Playstation. From a gameplay perspective, they’re both pretty terrible, yet they’re so wonderfully bad that they’re still worth playing today (click here for my Top 5 Wrestling Video Games so Bad, they’re Good). Every single WCW talent included in these games, regardless of how high up the card they were, cuts a promo on you on the wrestler select screen to tell you why you should or shouldn’t select them in a mini FMV clip, most of which are full of entertainment. The fun doesn’t stop there though. Go passed all of the legit wrestlers, and you’ll find something wonderful. The true highly of these games are the weirdest hidden bonus characters in possibly any video game ever made, including a snowman, a human-sized bee, an ant, a horse, a scuba diver, a robot with an old 90s computer for a head, an astronaut, a cow, a giant praying mantis, and even a star fish. There was some entertainment to be had with these PS1 games, but they certainly weren’t the best WCW had to offer – that honour goes to Nintendo.
WCW/NWO World Tour and Revenge were everything Nitro and Thunder wished they could be. Simply put, these were the best licensed wrestling games that had ever been created at that point. With that smooth AKI engine and a ridiculously large roster of WCW talents, both of these games were pure wrestling perfection, especially when it came to multiplayer. I mean, who doesn’t want to beat all their friends using Glacier’s Cryonic Kick? Lacking in a proper story mode they may be, but lacking in immense fun they are not.
So now we look at the McMahon army that, despite their efforts, were slowly losing the war. They were putting up a hard-fought battle, full of attitude, new ideas and innovative booking, but they just couldn’t compete with Turner’s ratings. In April of 98, WWF finally managed to end WCW’s 83 week ratings domination, but the success couldn’t be maintained. While the other side released four games in these two years, WWF only managed one. Just like Monday Night Raw, WWF War Zone for Playstation was a stellar effort, yet still could not compete with the quality WCW was producing. The controls and overall clunky gameplay couldn’t compare to AKI’s faultless engine, but hidden behind slow, average gameplay was a lot of promise. Much like the innovative booking of McMahon vs Austin and sending DX to invade WCW, WWF War Zone made history by becoming the first wrestling video game to include a create a wrestler mode. By no means the best game around, but the potential was there. Only one year later though, the whole landscape would change.
1999 in wrestling shows the difference 365 days can make. WWF was back on top, and pulling in record numbers, while WCW were gradually given up the fight. WWF stepped up their game with some of the craziest booking ever seen, Chris Jericho’s incredible debut, and Rock vs Austin at Wrestlemania, and WCW let their lead slip away with too many branches of NWO to keep track off, The Kiss Demon coming to life, and the most powerful move in wrestling, the Fingerpoke of Doom. The same can be seen in their video games: WWF capitalised on the innovation they had shown just a year before, while WCW completely blew the amazing content they had at their disposal.
Just like how they stole the lead in the ratings war, WWF also stole AKI from WCW, the geniuses behind their success stories on the Nintendo 64. The Japanese company released Wrestlemania 2000 in October, and blew the competition away. The outstanding control scheme and gameplay remained from WCW/NWO Revenge, yet added the incredible Attitude Era roster, WWF’s now signature create a wrestler mode, and a story mode that could essentially go on forever. While WWF was releasing the best content they had ever produced, WCW released Mayhem, a game so terrible, it doesn’t even bear talking about. A lacklustre roster, unrecognisable character models, and the worst control scheme I have ever personally experienced in a video game. Vince McMahon had finally figured out how to regain his place atop the industry, and it seemed as though he wouldn’t be dethroned any time soon.
And so we come to this, the year 2000. On one side, TLC matches, Cactus Jack’s rivalry with Triple H, and Mick Foley’s run as commissioner, but on the other, David Arquette winning the world title, Goldberg turning heel, and a certain somebody being in charge of creative. WCW were figuratively putting the final nails into their own coffin for the world to see on every episode of Nitro and Thunder with some of the worst television ever made. And then there’s WCW Backstage Assault: considered by many as the worst wrestling game of all time. Full of ridiculous gimmicks and ideas that immediately smell of pure Russo, but not a single wrestling ring in sight – this is as bad as it gets. At the other end of the scale, WWF released No Mercy in the same year, and many believe it to be the single greatest wrestling game in history. The AKI engine was pushed to perfection, the CAW mode was better than ever, and the branching championship modes and unlockable characters provided days of gameplay. WWF had ascended to the highest of heights in every way imaginable, and with it, came the demise of its biggest competition.
In March 2001, WCW was purchased by WWF, and the Monday Night Wars were no more on our screens, both on network television and our consoles. Since then, we’ve seen such triumphs as WWE Smackdown: Here Comes the Pain, Smackdown vs Raw: 2006, and the recent 2K games, as well as some tragedies like WWE Wrestlemania 21 and WWE Aftershock. WCW has invaded these games on a few occasions, but sadly, we will never see a full World Championship Wrestling release ever again thanks to The Monday Night Video Game Wars.