There are good wrestling games but few great wrestling games. WWF No Mercy, the sixth wrestling game produced by Japanese studio AKI for the Nintendo 64, lands in the latter category. The game was ahead of its time, affording the player an intense amount of customizability: Create a wrestler, create a stable, create pretty much anything.
This made fans ecstatic, feeding their passionate drive to create every wrestler in history in meticulous detail. AKI even left textures and moves from their previous games, including WCW/NWO: Revenge and the Virtual Pro Wrestling series exclusive to Japan hidden in the archive, just in case, you know, someone might want to create Razor Ramon or the brooding Raven in WWF. No Mercy was a game as devastatingly simple as it was complex, a truly careful balance where accessibility had to light the way for the strategic depth to pave it with gold.
It’s About the Gameplay
No Mercy is still the pinnacle of wrestling games. Bold claim, I know, but I imagine few would disagree. Its charm has everything to do with the way the game plays. The aforementioned customizability helped, sure, as did a large roster that has now-legendary wrestlers like “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, The Rock, and Triple H, effectively making it an irresistible slice of WWF Attitude era history, but the game really shined, like any talented wrestler, in the ring.
Modern wrestling games are so complex it can be frustrating—ground game and grapple mechanics, difficult to understand submission button configurations, unwieldy story modes that almost always become an act of perseverance rather than fun. At some point, developers got the idea that with photo realism came a need to capture the intricacies of pro wrestling, right on down to the difficulty of getting out of one of Kurt Angle’s submission holds or executing QTE style sequences to complete stunts like climbing a cage to frog splash onto your fallen opponent. No Mercy let you do all this back in the 90s, but the difference here is that it didn’t force you to learn “mini games” to perform increasingly complex moves. The added layers were extensions of the same button configuration, never forcing you to learn something completely new.
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The gameplay could be whittled down to two buttons—the A and B buttons on the Nintendo 64 controller. B was your strike, holding it down triggered a heavier strike. A was your grapple, tap it for a light grapple, hold it down for a heavy. When in a grapple, B opened as one tier of wrestling moves, A being another. Shoulder buttons were your block and evasive maneuvers, likewise the C buttons, which mimicked a directional pad on the controller, pertained to running, climbing the turnbuckle, leaving/entering the ring, picking up objects. The analog stick was your taunt.
The gameplay itself focuses on “momentum,” with a wrestler’s bar starting out a flat green, progressively changing colors, each hotter and warmer than the next, until it flashes red-orange. Tap the analog stick to taunt and go into special. At this point, hitting A and then tapping the analog stick would result in delivering your signature. Gaining momentum involves taking favored control of the match, which so accurately reflects the push-pull of a great wrestling match. This level of simplicity never intimidated the player, the many strategies hiding just underneath the surface for the player to discover and add to their tactical toolset, often resulting in long 30-minute intense battles with friends and computer-controlled opponents.
It is right there, in that mixture of being able to understand the mechanics as quickly as one commits the button configuration to memory, that we see just how much the developer took from fighting games. No Mercy is 21 years old, but the game still holds up today because of the pick-up-and-play controls, the depth of being able to string together strikes and grapples, the fact that the same C button will always involve interacting with the environment—be it turnbuckle or grabbing a chair in the crowd.
Take it to the Ring!
Most fighting games favor clearly defined rules and mechanics, with a button configuration simple enough for players to mentally map them after a handful of fights. No Mercy proves that one of the better commonalities between wrestling and fighting games is a well-rounded mechanics system. By allowing this level of approachability, AKI was able to focus on the players becoming invested in their choices, in the ebb and flow of the match, and most of all, in seeing the punishing blows and slams that we all enjoy watching in real life. Or, basically, enjoying the spectacle of it all while feeling like you are, in fact, taking part in the intricacies of a match and not just pushing buttons and watching animations.
The story of the match takes place in the ring, wrestling spots and maneuvers are its sentences. Actively taking part in the story, a war between opponents with the power constantly shifting back and forth, face to heel, is euphoric. At the time, the narrative in the ring was impossible to find in wrestling games of the time; No Mercy and AKI’s other wrestling titles gave you the tools to tell a story in the ring, so much that watching replays of the matches were often as enjoyable as taking part.
My friends and I would often play No Mercy until the early hours of the morning; tiring out, we created our own PPVs where all the wrestlers were CPU-controlled. It was the first time we were able to use the game like a script generator, the game itself playing out an entire show for us to watch, and cheer, hoping our favorite wrestlers would win. Fire Pro Wrestling pffers something similar, but its intentionally retro graphics keep the series firmly in the niche category.
In comparison, playing one of the latest 2K WWE games, you feel like you are watching a puppet match, the gratification muted and delayed as you struggle to make sense of your progress. It looks great but it feels like dirt. I still return to No Mercy when I want to play out some wrestling dream matches. It takes more imagination to create wrestlers like AJ Styles or Jon Moxley in the aging create-a-wrestler mode, but many of the same moves are there to help create a portrayal of the modern pro wrestling landscape. I guess the only difference nowadays is that when I play No Mercy, I play to delight in the nostalgia of all those late nights strategizing matchups, playing epic 60 minute matches, watching both our chosen wrestlers and our own hands feel the fatigue of a heated match.
Vying for the Crown
WWF No Mercy was a lot of things to a lot of people. After completion of the game, AKI went on to develop a sequel, WWF Backlash, which was cancelled by Nintendo due to the Nintendo 64 nearing the end of its lifespan. The developer went on to release spiritual successors to No Mercy though most found the direction surprising: the Def Jam fighting games. It worked surprisingly well, though it almost instantly turned more into a straightforward fighting game. By the time Def Jam: Fight for NY came out, the engine had evolved out of a lot of what one felt when playing No Mercy.
Hardcore gamer and wrestling prodigy Kenny Omega has gone on record to state that the forthcoming AEW wrestling game, the first in what will likely be a long-running series, is heavily influenced by WWF No Mercy. We can only hope that they don’t get muddled in the details, because a modern-day WWF No Mercy engine, with modern graphics, but the same simplicity and devilish complexity under the surface, is really all gamers want and need. Until then, I’m firing up some No Mercy and creating a pay-per-view.