Unless we’re looking at AEW Casino and AEW Elite GM as full-fledged wrestling games, 2021’s default wrestling game of the year was Retrosoft Studio’s RetroMania Wrestling, a classic arcade game evoking the beloved WWF WrestleFest coin-0p that I did not play on account of its roster not appealing to me beyond the Road Warriors and Zack Sabre Jr.
I don’t think it’s a bad thing to have a year without a wrestling game — 2K’s offerings are as bland as they are broken, offering nothing like an intuitive and fun to play experience, let alone something that feels like it understands how to map the physicality and narrative progression of a wrestling match to a control pad, so why bother?
Still, a year without a gaudy, mainstream wrestling game is not a year without wrestling games. I played more than a few of them this year in between watching old wrestling and what I watch to perform my duties as FanFyte Editor. Here are some of my favorites.
6. WCW Nitro (PS1, 1998)
This is a terrible approximation of arcade wrestling games, a sharp, unfairly taken left turn from the promise of 1996’s WCW vs. The World (the forgotten stepchild in the Virtual Pro Wrestling series). That said, it did have this:
It’s probably not cool to find these “Pick Me” rants funny in 2021, but I don’t care: Kevin Nash going beyond WCW Saturday Night promo by acting like a lush, “Hey man, it’s Alex Wright!”, and DDP’s incredulity about the fact you’re considering someone else, make for a solid rush of harmless nostalgia from when this game was a woefully overpriced 10th birthday present. DDP probably yelled at my stepmom from across the digital divide while she was contemplating Final Fantasy VII or something, and so here I am.
5. WWE Crush Hour (2003, PS2)
Ever want to hear Jim Ross say “The Undertaker now has the twisty rockets?” Throw down $10 on this conceptually amazing, hilariously bad Twisted Metal ripoff, and the 20 minutes you’ll spend on it before getting the point will make you feel better than an average episode of Monday Night Raw. Crush Hour‘s narrative setup is that Vince McMahon has purchased every single television channel in the world, creating a WWE Network of sorts. What does he do with this newfound power? He forces the WWE superstars to face each other in a demolition derby where everyone has souped-up cars and laser cannons and shit. It’s plausible.
The best part of this game are the cars, which are either uninspired mishmashes of car-like shapes or things like The Rock’s horn-adorned sports car and Kurt Angle’s Jeep Grand Cherokee that has a golden spare wheel cover because he’s a gold medalist. Rikishi’s is a steamroller featuring his own ass painted on the back. If car designs are half of what makes games like Twisted Metal fun (and I suck at Twisted Metal, so I have to go on aesthetics — I assume the other 50 percent is “gameplay”), then WWE Crush Hour is a quarter of a great game. It just happened to also be more entertaining than the generation of frustrating SNES/Genesis-era button mashers, a slew of Raw vs. SmackDown! games that I skipped for my own sanity, and WWF No Mercy, which doesn’t feature Jim Ross saying, “The Undertaker now has the twisty rockets” like he’s pondering his dedication to the sport he’s given so much of his life to. That sport, of course, is Crush Hour, live on the WWE Networks.
4. TEW 2020 (2020, PC)
Adam Ryland’s menu-clicker for wrestling obsessives series Extreme Warfare has always been overwhelming. There’s a bevy of statistics, from how good a wrestler is at brawling, to how popular your wrestling promotion is in specific regions of the country, to the way two wrestlers’ charisma and microphone stats will mesh in a segment you have to book around storyline requirements, egos, and the time constraints of a live telecast. With every iteration, the series feels like it goes deeper into the rabbit hole of what the capital-B Business of wrestling might feel like. It’s fantasy, of course, but whether you’re playing in Ryland’s universe or a real-world one generated by a robust modding community, it’s always compelling.
Me, I’ve always enjoyed the real world. If you follow me on FanFyte, you know that I think WWE deserves to fail. And the opportunity to engineer their failure throughout many points in time (my beloved WCW crushing McMahon in 1997, maybe, or AEW taking an expedited run at sinking the worldwide leader in sports entertainment) is like catnip, especially on the day one purge of their expansive roster that the game frequently triggers. If you’re not overwhelmed by options and have a PC, TEW is a well-supported masterpiece of the management genre, one that doesn’t necessarily require a PhD in how wrestling works in reality. Its richness and passion project nature have sustained the franchise since its mid-90s launch.
If Total Extreme Wrestling 2020 feels too complicated, there are earlier entries like Extreme Warfare Revenge that are still popular despite being in release for 19 years. Games prior to the franchise’s relaunch as TEW are free if you can find them, so crack a copy of EWR like a can of whoop-ass, transport yourself to the Ruthless Aggression era, and get ready to navigate some menus, baby.
3. WCW/nWo Revenge (1998, N64)
Forget about No Mercy — WCW/nWo Revenge is *the* American N64 wrestling game. Why? That roster, y’all. The game is uncomplicated by frankly atrocious gimmick matches that are even more of a slog to play now than ever. While No Mercy is still an arcade brawler, Revenge is too early in the Virtual Pro Wrestling series to provide more than a menu of championships to chase, each one ending with an unlockable character. And while it doesn’t matter, each match is judged for its aesthetic value, providing opportunity after opportunity to get the high score on a cartridge that likely hasn’t been played by more than one person since you took it over to your friend’s house and played it in the basement for a few hours before one of you got WrestleMania 2000 and put away all things WCW forever. You have to respect classic mechanics like that. You must.
When I say “that roster, y’all,” I mean it. WCW had a roster of staggering proportions, full of wrestlers who did different things. The Virtual Pro Wrestling engine was built to highlight different styles, but Attitude Era WWF had no room in its heart for much more than punch-kick brawling, which loses its edge after a while in a video game setting. I’m a WCW kid, so there’s certainly some nostalgia involved, but the game lets you experiment with matches and pairings that don’t make a lick of sense, like my WCW World Tag Team Championship duo of “Big Poppa Pump” Scott Steiner and Ultimo Dragon, brought together by nothing more than my great love of both.
This is also the last VPW engine game that lets you pound Hulk Hogan like a railroad spike, doling out virtual justice for his many misdeeds as 63 different wrestlers, including Han Zo Man, otherwise known as Hayabusa. Does No Mercy have Hayabusa? No, it does not. Case closed.
2. Disco Elysium (2019, PC)
More than championships, professional wrestling is a battle for the soul. It is about having bad shit happen to you, forgetting about it, and soldiering on. It is occasionally a detective mystery, too, whether one is trying to find out who ran Steve Austin over with The Rock’s rental car or who stole Vince McMahon’s golden egg. You may be looking at this and thinking, “Hey, that’s kind of a threadbare reason to throw Disco Elysium on a list of the best wrestling games of 2021,” but you’re wrong…
This game is a mystery, but in every interaction with every person you have a significant conversation with, you’re presented with the opportunity to be a babyface or turn heel. The former often feels like the better way to get things done. But Harry Du Bois is such a downtrodden man, a man frequently ridiculed by the people he’s investigating, that it would feel good to chase the latter, to rip into these people with such force that they’ll have no choice but to acknowledge you as an authority figure and treat you as such.
I’ve never played the game as a full-on heel, but in my current game, I feel like I’m sliding towards it. I don’t apologize for anything. I take money without saying thank you. I ramble about the end of the world sometimes and am working on becoming a radical feminist — all things nobody appreciates. Sure, there are few fights and no grappling mechanics to speak of in Disco Elysium, but the best moments in professional wrestling hinge on whether or not a wrestler is going to save himself at the expense of everything else, or whether another day of misery for the people he serves.
Disco Elysium stretches that feeling out over the course of a complicated murder connection and a budding professional relationship/friendship with Lt. Kim Kitsuragi, who is a stalwart babyface if ever there was one. So, babyface or heel? You don’t want to cause your tag team partner any anguish, do you? Do you?
1. Virtual Pro Wrestling 2: Ōdō Keishō (2000, N64)
While the comic bookstore I worked for was shut down, I found a Pikachu edition Nintendo 64 in a room full of abandoned stock. I took it home, cleaned it, and said a little prayer as I went on Etsy and bought a less-than-legal cart of Virtual Pro Wrestling 2, the greatest wrestling game ever made. It came, I plugged it in, and everything — system, cartridge, and controller — worked. Within seconds, I navigated the fan-translated menu over to the game’s career mode, an endless gauntlet of matches within the world of the officially licensed All Japan Pro Wrestling, and picked the man, the myth, and the legend as my champion. I chose Hayabusa.
In Hayabusa, you have the most perfect wrestling game character ever devised, a wrestler who can take to the air like a light-heavyweight who has the earth-shattering offense of a heavyweight. When I say he’s perfect, that’s because he showcases the VPW engine at its very best. The games in this series are simple and complex — by the time you’re truly good at Hayabusa, you’ll have an idea of how deep the mechanics of both styles of wrestling are.
Then an entire world of wrestlers foreign to American wrestling games (with the exception of a few who were re-skinned for Revenge) opens up. You get Vader, Hansen, Dr. Death, Misawa, Kawada, Albright, Kobashi, Funk, Onita, Chono, Hashimoto, Mutoh, and a slew of MMA guys for the sake of the game’s actually fun MMA mode. Its sense of presentation, from backstage walkouts to ring announcements over the PA, is a small touch that makes everything feel bigger than a mere match on the N64. My Pikachu N64 bit the dust a few months ago, but I’m not going to let VPW2 go unplayed for long. I can play this game forever. I probably will.