My gran – the Queen of Schadenfreude – used to love nothing more than a good spat. Any sort of confrontation would do as long as she could sit back and gleefully watch it unravel, cloying popcorn on her lap, wide-eyed mugging smirk in full force. Even more entertaining for her was to plant the seeds of mistrust between two previously civil acquaintances, light the blue touch paper, step away and watch the bomb detonate.
Which – believe it or not – is what first got me into watching pro wrestling as a kid; she adored it so it was always on the telly in our house. If she was getting her kicks absorbing the antics of pantomime caricatures pummelling one another to death with planks of wood or whatever, oblivious to the kayfabe nature of the choreography, she’d be less inclined to stir up real life strife. That was the theory anyway.
British poor man’s substitutes like Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks were sidelined when American wrestling began to make waves in the UK. That was the real deal, starring genuine athletes who could climb stairs without having a heart attack. From that moment on, Bret ‘the Hitman’ Hart, Ric Flair, The Undertaker, Macho Man Randy Savage, The Legion of Doom, Sting, The Rock et al were her raison d’etre. Hulk Hogan wasn’t so much a wrestler as a movement. We called it Hulkamania and plumped the front row seats in readiness… in our own living room at least.
With the exception of my mum, watching the wrestling became a major family event we relished, though at that stage we didn’t have Sky TV so could only see it via borrowed or bought VHS tapes. That enforced rationing is likely what made it all the more momentous. It was exotic and over the top to a degree we’d only previously experienced through fictional movies… and yet this was all real.
When Ocean proudly announced they’d secured the rights to produce official WWF Wrestling games, as you can imagine, I was a tad chuffed. Just in time for 1991’s Christmas present buying frenzy, true to their word they delivered the hallowed goods. The first title in the lineup is vaguely based on the arcade coin-op game, WWF Superstars, and came complete with a complimentary 15 minute promotional highlights VHS tape, leaving my delicate joystick collection trembling in terror.
The box – featuring the Suburban Commando himself – wasn’t shy in dishing up the hyperbole, promising, “The thrills and spills of the World Wrestling Federation brought to your screen!”
Taking only five months to develop from scratch using a 286 PC and Snasm system, does it manage to recreate the vehemence and hysterical melodrama of the madcap ‘sport’? If you stop waving your super-sized foam hand in my face for a second we’ll get to that.
We were invited to test our “strength in this muscle-bound wrestling extravaganza”. To “become the undisputed champion as Hulk Hogan**, The Ultimate Warrior* or the British Bulldog*”, and “battle for survival against Sgt. Slaughter*, The Warlord* and a host of other WWF* stars.”
The obligatory stars of the punctuation variety refer to the copyright holders and licensees of the trademarked characters, property of Marvel Entertainment Group and Titansports. You’ll sleep better tonight now, I’m sure.
You’ll also be enthralled in the knowledge that “anything goes in this all-action event, and only the toughest survive!” No doubt then we can expect a madcap escapade to ensue in which we’ll be casting spells to summon mythical fire-breathing beasts, and flicking switches to unleash game show blancmange gunk upon our unsuspecting assailants. The possibilities are endless so brace yourself for a sock-loosening explosive spectacle.
WWF WrestleMania was published by Ocean, though not developed in-house. Those duties were bestowed upon Twilight, the outfit responsible for gifting us Alfred Chicken, Videokid and Mega Twins, and almost delivering the games that weren’t, Frog Dude and Meander Brothers (a project they were working on for US Gold).
The team was comprised of coders Andrew Swann (today occupied as a principal engineer at Sony Interactive Entertainment Europe) and Mark Mason (who died in a diving accident in 2001 aged 37, rest in peace), graphicians Martin Severn (now the art director at Jagex), Noel Hines (currently a freelance graphics artist/illustrator) and Wayne Billingham (today an art producer at Rocksteady Studios) and musician, Sean Conran (these days a bass player for hire).
A booming showbiz soundtrack signals the party is about to get underway as we hone in on a cimmerian aerial view of the ring and baying crowd, illuminated by a sweeping spotlight.
As the scene is unmasked, a retro, blocky LED screen announces Ocean’s involvement and the title in question. That’s the first and last time you’ll hear any music so don’t adjust your speakers – they’re not broken.
Having adopted the persona of one of three of the WWF’s most venerated ‘babyfaces’ (the good guys) – Hulk Hogan, The British Bulldog or Ultimate Warrior – you go head to head with five notorious ‘heels’ (bad guys) to claim the championship belt. The roster includes The Mountie, Mr Perfect, The Warlord, Million Dollar Man and finally Sergeant Slaughter.
This being an authentically endorsed product, all the wrestler’s real names and one of their core signature moves are incorporated. They actually look like the people they’re supposed to represent too, which is a bonus *don’t mention Total Recall, don’t mention Total Recall*.
Three of the cast of WrestleMania have already departed to the great wrestling ring in the sky, otherwise I’d ask them to share their fondest Amiga memories with the community.
Davey Boy Smith (the British Bulldog) died from a heart attack in 2002 aged 39. It was thought to have been triggered by prior use of anabolic steroids.
James Brian Hellwig (Ultimate Warrior) befell the same fate in 2014 aged 54. The autopsy confirmed that his myocardial infarction was the result of atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease. James also had a history of steroid abuse.
|At the time of James’ death it was rumoured that it was actually his tasselled arm bands…
…cutting off his blood circulation that killed him!
Curtis Michael Hennig (Mr Perfect) died aged 44 in 2003 from acute drug intoxication. Cocaine, steroids and painkillers all played their part.
Huh, so that school counsellor from South Park was right all along. Mmm’kay?
Not at all similarly, neither could Hulk Hogan be reached for comment – he’s still too busy mourning the loss of his WWE career and having to deflect allegations of being a rampant, raving racist following the unforeseen release of his lurid sex tape.
From the main menu you have only two game modes from which to select; tournament or practice. The former sees you tackle each of your opponents in five minute sequential bouts culminating in the crowning confrontation with Sergeant Slaughter, while the latter engages the two player option. Here player one chooses from the usual selection of three goodies, whilst player two is obliged to embody Mr Perfect.
|Sgt. Slaughter demonstrates what a conscientious first aider he is by performing the Hiemlich manoeuvre…
…even when you’re not choking to death.
Tournament challenges commence with a cheesy catchphrase slanging match with selectable ripostes. Not that your decision has any bearing on the outcome whatsoever, it’s just to get you in the mood for your upcoming skirmish.
|Yeah well my dad’s a wrestler and… and… damn it.|
This is all executed via scrolling text rather than digitised speech sampled from the real wrestlers themselves. It’s probably for the best as the disk swapping frequency is already excessive.
Clearly the chosen font managed to escape the QA process because no-one spotted that the Vs look identical to Ws making all the wrestlers sound like caricature Nazis in a knock-off Indiana Jones movie.
“The Million Dollar Man alvays gets his vay.”
Then out of the blue it emerges that one of your Canadian adversaries moonlights as an overzealous toilet attendant. Everyone’s passionate about something I suppose.
“The future of lav enforcement is here now because I am the Mountie.”
Game play mechanics are extremely limited sadly. Your range of moves consist of little more than a standard punch and kick, plus a special move that’s triggered whenever you successfully shake loose from a grapple hold.
Ultimate Warrior takes care of business jungle style with the Gorilla Press. The Hulkster Pile Drivers his contenders into submission. British Bulldog acquaints noggins with the square circle’s canvas courtesy of the Power Slam. Mr Perfect’s forte is the hard to fault, Perfect Plex. The Warlord wages the Full Nelson rather than nuclear weapons of any kind. The Million Dollar Man pulls off a mean Sleeper Hold without the aid of any Nytol. The Mountie issues the Drop Headlock to the letter of the law, while Sergeant Slaughter discharges the Camel Clutch with military precision.
Quite likely though, unless you’re actually trying to fail, you’ll never see your opponent’s signature manoeuvres because the game is so easy to beat.
The huddles that terminate in the execution of your special move are largely beyond your control, which is intensely irritating given that you’ll spend most of your time trying to avoid them, or untangling yourself from them once arm-locked.
|Is all that wrestling nonsense detracting from your enjoyment of the sport?
Why not try Waggle-O-Mania instead?
You go about this by rabidly waggling your joystick from left to right – the faster you work, the quicker you max out the release bar. More a test of patience and the strength of your forceps than any semblance of skill.
My brother had a novel approach to trouncing his foes under these circumstances. He’d pause the game, swap the joystick for the mouse and shake that from side to side instead – much easier on the wrists it transpires because the travel was far superior.
Fine in belt-chasing one player mode, only inconveniencing himself. In two player mode against myself sitting right beside him, however, it was downright rude to expect me to wait while he overtly cheated his way to victory a dozen times per bout. Then you can’t argue with obstinate older brothers, they’re always right, even when they’re absolutely wrong.
When you’re not playing Twister with your nemesis you can wow the totally static crowd bouncing off the ropes into a sprint before launching into a flying kick or knee, perform a flying kick from the top of the turn-buckle, or slip out of the ring to grab the only weapon in the game; a folding chair. As long as you don’t stay outside the ring beyond the 20 second count, this is an effective way to deplete your opponent’s energy from a safe vantage.
…Which reminds me, although the spectators are the least excitable human beings in the known universe, they are at least interesting in that amongst them are two of the developers, Andrew Swann (wearing a black 242 t-shirt and his girlfriend’s hat) and Mark Mason (blonde hair, wearing a white shirt and black tie).
Winning a match entails pinning your opponent to the canvas for the count of three. If you find yourself in the same position you’d button mash your way out of it, your capacity to roll clear dependent on the current state of your health. The more energy you have, the faster you recover.
Complete the game and your victory is announced via the front page of the Ocean Times alongside a couple of references to the ‘Fizzy Jelly’ chart hit. You know the one by Twilight, it was massive!
|You know how it goes. Come on, we’ll all sing along together…|
Looking back it’s difficult to fathom why the underwhelming title wasn’t a tremendous anti-climax for me. I suppose when WWF WrestleMania is the first and only wrestling game you’ve played for any system, your expectations are rock bottom, your frame of reference zilch, and stepping into the boots of your acrobatic heroes is enough to carry it through to chart success.
Climbing the charts was a foregone conclusion – this was one of the most prized licenses of the era, and the official WWF magazine already had a UK circulation of 200,000 so the game too could be expected to shift arena loads of copies whether it was any good or not.
Incidentally, the critics plumped for ‘not’ despite Ocean marketing manager, Ken Lockley, playing a blinder pushing it to the no. 1 spot before going on to become a lowlife convicted paedophile.
|Left: Amiga Power issue 10 (February 1992)
Compare and contrast with the charts compiled from an alternative source for the same month.
Right: Zero issue 28 (February 1992)
|Ocean get a stranglehold – WWF Wrestlemania (New entry, No 1)|
Ocean’s Jo Cooke was very confident when she said that there could be “no other Christmas number one except for WWF” last issue, and it seems her confidence was well founded. Bet you’re feeling pretty pleased with yourself now, eh Jo?
“It really was what we expected. The wrestling is huge in America – just enormous. It only hit this country in late summer, so interest was at just the right level for us to get a game out this Christmas,” she replied.
Certainly, it would seem that WWF fever is at a peak at the moment, with coverage on Sky and numerous magazines pushing the whole thing hard. In fact, Ocean have actually built on the fact that though well known, the actual bouts are still fairly hard to see – the WWF Wrestlemania package including a video of real-life fight highlights.
The world-beating WWF package is but one example of Ocean’s aggressive marketing policies – all their recent big name products featuring some sort of extra freebie in the box. Bart and friends made the number three position in our chart with the help of a free Bart keyring – “Sky TV really helped too, and then the video came out in November. The younger kids absolutely love Bart Simpson” says Jo – while Robocop 3 (straight in at number six with its hologram thingy) and Smash TV (with a free poster) at number 83 propped up the chart for the Manchester software giants. Yes, it was another Ocean Christmas.
Disappointed with Smash TV at all then, Jo?
“Not really. Smash TV was not a Christmas product as such, being a classic coin-op which will sell strongly for a long time – it’s a longrunner”.
Well maybe. We’re less than convinced that Smash TV has quite the pedigree to show that sort of staying power.
|Amiga Power issue 10 (February 1992)|
WrestleMania received appraisals ranging from dire to mediocre, while it was perpetually lambasted for its lack of variety, music, story offshoots, gimmick props, moves, depth, characters, innovation, and so on. You name it, WrestleMania was accused of not featuring enough of it.
Nevertheless, in its defence it does manage to incorporate some nicely animated, recognisable sprites, and the showtime introduction sequence captures the ambience rather adeptly.
We should also keep in mind that everything it accomplishes is stored within 512kb of RAM because that was the design brief stipulated by Ocean so as to ensure the game was accessible to the widest possible audience.
What’s interesting is that the 8-bit versions – despite being produced by the same studio and comprising diluted visuals and audio – fared significantly better.
Commodore Format, for instance, in January 1992 scored the C64 version 91%, and in July 1993 declared it a “Modern Classic” in the beat ’em up category. Zzap! were equally impressed awarding it 90% in December 1991.
|You know I think I’ve left my Commodore 64 switched on… be right back.|
Over in Spectrumland, Your Sinclair and Sinclair User both pegged it at 91% in January 1992 and December 1991 respectively.
|If you didn’t already know that’s a wrestler under Hulk, what would you suggest?
The Speccy-tastic possibilities are endless.
CPC Attack! upped the ante with a 92% rating, whilst Amstrad Action in February 1992 lavished WrestleMania with an only slightly less stellar 90%.
|You’re not as perfect as my Amstrad CPC… you can’t even get your hair colour right pretty boy!|
Clearly Amiga users were primed to anticipate a far more polished and immersive experience via our beefier hardware, and yet the results delivered simply didn’t warrant the fervent hype.
Amiga Force in June 1993 gave WrestleMania the harshest appraisal, capping it off with a pitiful 20% bottom line. Amiga Power were almost as offended by the game’s existence in February 1992 when they doled out a meagre 39% score. Not quite as disgusted were the Amiga Format and CU Amiga crew who arrived at assessments of 72% and 76% respectively in March 1992 and January 1992.
Ocean went back to the drawing board the following year to prepare for the publication of the sequel, hiring a seemingly obscure developer to produce WWF European Rampage Tour. Of course they’d have taken the negative feedback on board and bent over backwards to avoid making the same mistakes twice. Wouldn’t they?
…beware, steep cliff ahead. Feel free to hang around.