Wrestling video games have a long and storied history, and it’s no surprise that the potential arrival of a major console game from a new company has fueled interest in the classics of yesteryear. You don’t have to look far to find fans raving about WWF No Mercy, WCW/nWo Revenge, or even the cult classic TNA Impact! game released in 2008.
However, one of the most unique wrestling video games of all time remains largely forgotten. On August 7, 2001, WWF Betrayal was released on Game Boy Color, and it remains an intriguing game concept even two decades after launch. While most wrestling video games of the era were trying to get more and more realistic, a style that some would argue ultimately peaked with WWE SmackDown! Here Comes the Pain, one studio took an entirely different approach back at the turn of the century.
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WWF Betrayal shunned that pursuit of realism and instead pulled the culmination of the Attitude Era into a traditional side-scrolling beat ‘em up with the kidnapping of Stephanie McMahon as the title’s focal point. Your chosen character wants a shot at the WWF Championship, and Vince McMahon will only provide that opportunity if you save his daughter.
Somehow, a tiny company managed to capture an era wrestling history with a handheld game also inspired by Double Dragon and River City Ransom.
To help understand how WWF Betrayal came to be, I had the opportunity to speak with Matt Bozon, the original Creative Director with WayForward that worked on the title.
As Bozon explained, the story of WWF Betrayal actually starts a year earlier with WCW Mayhem. After originally being developed by Kodiak Interactive and published by Electronic Arts for PlayStation and N64 in late 1999, EA decided they wanted to bring the title to Game Boy Color, and that’s where my chat with Matt Bozon began.
“Our first wrestling game was released in 2000. This was WCW Mayhem, developed for EA. It was a dual mode cartridge, which meant it was in black and white when played on the original Game Boy hardware, but colorized on a Game Boy Color. It was EA’s first WCW game, and had a feature where you could exit the ring and continue the fight in the locker room or back alley. It was a pretty straightforward wrestling title with comically chunky sprites and animations in the usual WayForward ‘Pocket Team’ style,” Bozon said.
“The next year, THQ and their partner Jakks approached us to make a somewhat similar game, but this time for WWF fans,” he continued. “THQ wanted to surprise players by opening with a standard ring fight, and then have the hero walk out the door and never return, going on an epic adventure through town, wrestling everything in sight! It sounded kind of crazy, but this brought it more into our creative wheelhouse than a standard wrestling game, so we were happy to take on the project!”
A Future in the Business (of Beat ’em Ups)
Bozon outlined a few of the key people involved in the process as a part of the “very tiny team” that created WWF Betrayal, including the one wrestling fan in the room who helped fill in their knowledge gaps when necessary.
“The lead programmer, Larry Holdaway, was a big fan,” Bozon said. “He really wanted The Undertaker in there as a playable superstar, which did end up happening! I was the game’s designer/director and made the pixel artwork. But I was pretty unfamiliar with the characters and lore, so I needed to be taught about the People’s Eyebrow and the like. When in doubt, Larry was there to point us in the right direction. Shantae’s creator Erin Bozon was one of the animators as well!”
With the pieces in place to move forward with development, WayForward was channeling their future in some ways. While WWF Betrayal took cues from Double Dragon and River City Ransom, the studio would go on to make Double Dragon Neon and River City Girls many years later. When we spoke, Bozon went over some of their earliest steps when making the game.
“We outlined the adventure and proposed enemies and locations for the hero to battle, the basic scenarios for each stage. We went with the usual tropes. You need that factory level, elevator ride, subway train,” he said. “We tried to include anything that players of coin-op beat-’em-ups would expect. You know, like when The Rock punches a circuit breaker and a slice of cake falls out. Yum!”
Naked Man and Other Superstars
In the earliest stages, the team actually hadn’t been informed by THQ which WWF superstars would be the main characters of the game. As a result, they had to create a placeholder that Bozon explained remains much-beloved by the WayForward team.
“We created a generic wrestler lovingly dubbed ‘Naked Man’ who ran through the city, punching and suplexing folks on the subway,” Bozon said. “Later on, Naked Man was made into four copies, and we pixeled the appropriate faces, hair, color pallets, and costumes onto his blank (and inoffensive) form to create the chosen superstars; The Rock, Steve Austin, The Undertaker, and Triple H. Naked Man was not included as an Easter egg, sadly, but he lives on in our hearts.”
When the game finally came together, it made these four drastically different characters fit by altering the story ever-so-slightly depending on which character was chosen. The three characters who aren’t selected become the primary bosses you face throughout the game. If you play through it as Triple H, it is later revealed that Vince McMahon kidnapped his own daughter because Triple H isn’t good enough for her. While the nuances change, any other character results in a story where Vince McMahon and Triple H faked the kidnapping to screw you over.
WWF Betrayal‘s Legacy
Finding accurate sales figures for games even today is difficult, but finding accurate figures for a title released in 2001 is nearly impossible. Finding out how anyone reacted to the title during the time is equally difficult, as Metacritic doesn’t even have a listing for the title, much less a score based on several critical reviews. The only period review that could be located, by Craig Harris for IGN, rated the game 6 out of 10 and praised the unique concept while criticizing the execution.
WWF Betrayal may not be a perfect game, but it’s an undeniably fun experience, especially for any fans who remember the era which is loosely portrayed in the title. Despite being released over two decades ago, WWF Betrayal lives on through various surviving copies on Game Boy Color and the continued evolution of emulators. If you just have to play WWF Betrayal for yourself, it isn’t too difficult to locate a Game Boy Color emulator and a .rom file of the game, or you can watch the experience unfold through one of the many playthroughs on YouTube.
One question that will unfortunately remain unanswered is exactly who decided that a video game focused on the kidnapping of Stephanie McMahon was something the world needed, as Bozon stated “the main premise came from THQ.” He later reaffirmed that the WayForward team never actually worked with WWF directly while developing the title and the process “all ran through THQ.”
However, the narrative concept clearly pulled from the early 1999 storyline that saw The Undertaker kidnap a then 22-year-old Stephanie McMahon at the conclusion of WWF Backlash 1999. Former WWF writer Vince Russo later took credit for that storyline in his 2005 autobiography.
Twenty years later, WWF Betrayal stands as a snapshot of a bygone era. As uniquely captivating as the title is, it’s unlikely it ever would’ve been made during any other time in wrestling history. The perfect storm had to come together, from the pitch by THQ and WWF to the tight-knit team at WayForward, for us to get this inconceivable wrestling game unlike any other the genre has seen before or since.