Every Grapple Hold Is New Again

BILL WOOD | JULY 9, 2024

Kung Fu poster by BIll Wood.

The year was 1998 and I was one of the biggest wrestling nerds on the planet. I say "nerd" because I enjoyed the weekly TV shows and attended live events like most casual fans, but I also took it a bit further. I became something of a student of the game, judging for myself who delivered the best promos and matches on any given evening, who was going all out to entertain the fans and who seemed to be phoning it in. I bought videocassettes and magazines, listened to shoot interviews and even read the columns from journalists who had insider knowledge of the wrestling business. I guess the term smart mark applies equally, I just happen to prefer nerd.


To be fair, a lot of dudes were in the same boat around this time. You see, this was smack dab in the middle of the Monday Night Wars, a time when the World Wrestling Federation and World Championship Wrestling were drawing as many as 12 million eyeballs to TV sets (24 million if you count both eyeballs) every single week. Both companies were breaking television ratings and live event records on a regular basis, some of which still stand to this day. In terms of mainstream popularity and pure cultural zeitgeist, it was the highest peak the sport had ever seen and will likely ever see.


The Monday Night Wars statistics were indeed impressive, but I still had a hard time tracking down a single soul who shared my passion for German suplexes and Mexican surfboards. I did have one co-worker who happened to follow pro wrestling, and on Tuesday mornings we would excitedly convene by the coffee machine to gossip about The Rock’s latest promo or Sting’s latest run-in. We consulted about which promotion delivered the better show the night before or which Foley persona was best, typically mumbling in hushed tones to avoid suspicious glares.


Despite this preference for anonymity in the workplace, it was a phenomenal time to be a wrestling fan. Both companies were on fire and you never knew what was coming next, week after week. When the Monday Night Wars fizzled out in 2001 with WCW's ignominious defeat, pro wrestling lost its luster for me and I tuned out completely.  Well, not completely. Whenever I get the rasslin' itch I have roughly 100 old-school DVDs and Blu-rays to tide me over. Like I said, nerd.


Back then I was also a die-hard gamer, an interest that has prevailed much longer than pro wrestling. Over the years I’ve collected literally thousands of video games, consoles, strategy guides, and pricey peripherals such as fighting sticks. These obsessions may be perfectly acceptable and indeed admirable in 2024, but not so much in 1998. It just wasn't something you went around bragging about. Little did I realize at the time, but with wrestling and video games already under my belt, all I needed was a comic book collection to complete the hallowed Super Dork Trifecta (my comic books are still packed away in the garage).


As it turns out, the late ‘90s was not only a banner era for professional wrestling but for professional wrestling video games as well. Casual gamers stuck to low-hanging fruit such as WWF Warzone and WCW Nitro, but us hardcores knew better. First there was the import-only Fire Pro Wrestling series, an aspiring booker’s fever dream with customization options so intricate and extensive that modern wrestling games still don't feature them. And then there was the iconic AKI series of Nintendo 64 games. Originating from the Virtual Pro Wrestling series in Japan, these games featured a wide variety of popular grapplers and a supreme fighting engine that has been often imitated but somehow never quite duplicated. The AKI wrestling games were a ton of fun and hold up well to this day.


What made the AKI games so special? Much like Fire Pro, the producers realized that the wrestling game experience shouldn't just be a clone of Street Fighter II, which was essentially a race to drain the lifebar. Fighting games had already lost steam as gaming's most popular genre (they would experience a major resurgence as a competitive e-sport years later) and wrestling gamers needed something unique, something closer aligned with the spectacle they were watching on TV. Sure they wanted a fight, but they also wanted to control—or work—a match, which meant letting the opponent get a few shots in every now and then, selling some moves, working your way up to the highspots, getting a few two counts before even thinking about a finisher, and yes, taunting, taunting, taunting. Of course earning a match victory was important, but telling a story within that match was equally important... even within the confines of a video game.


I still have my Nintendo 64 console with the Four Horsemen of AKI cartridges; WCW/nWo World Tour, WCW/nWo Revenge, WWF Wrestlemania and WWF No Mercy. The latter is considered one of the very finest—if not the finest— wrestling games ever produced. I played so much No Mercy back in the day that you could have hot glued the cartridge into my console and I'd have hardly noticed. Even so, it wasn’t long before I started digging deeper and picking up the Japanese wrestling titles. Along with Fire Pro Wrestling: Six Men Scramble and King of Colosseum 2, my import copy of AKI's Virtual Pro Wrestling 2 with converter cart is a standout in my gaming collection to this day.


Flash forward twenty-six years later (man, has it really been that long?!?). These classic games are still classic, but how to play them? Old-school hardware and software is pricey and outdated, while emulation is cheap and attractive. If you're the sort of person who carries a typewriter to Starbucks, then perhaps you'll have an inclination toward the former. For the rest of us, emulation is the only sensible way to go about it these days, and this is coming from a guy who owns original consoles and games. The advantages of modern-era emulation are numerous, including a vibrant modding scene, especially in the case of the AKI wrestling titles. There are some extremely talented folks out there who have dedicated untold energy and resources toward reinventing these landmark titles for the newer generation… and us old-schoolers as well.


Of all the brilliant AKI ROM hacks out there, there are two from a modder named GM Spectre that are at the very top of my list. First we have WCW Saturday Night 64, a mod that transforms AKI’s WWF WrestleMania 2000 into a shockingly accurate rendition of World Championship Wrestling circa 1992, all the way down to the title belts and venues. Predating the Neilsen-busting cocktail of Hogan, Goldberg and the Outsiders, Saturday Night 64 features Sting, Steamboat and the rest of the honorable faces squaring off against the likes of Vader, Sid and the Dangerous Alliance.


Truth be told, the early ‘90s were a difficult time for World Championship Wrestling as a business. The company was steadily losing money and had a revolving door policy when it came to talent, management and booking. But none of this takes away from the fact that they had assembled a phenomenal core of wrestlers that remained more or less intact until the Hulkster and his WWF cronies hit the scene and started taking over in droves. 1992 was a simpler time; we knew exactly who the good guys and the bad guys were, there were no shades of gray. Here we have our hero Sting in his surfin' prime, and the ever-popular Flair, if not at his all-time peak then still very near the top of his game (to think it would be another 30 years before he officially retired). If that's not enough... well, we also have more mullets than a Billy Ray Cyrus concert.


Apart from this, WCW Saturday Night 64 is the same WrestleMania 2000 game you may remember from back in the day, but in a completely different environment. It's essentially a reskin and not a complete reworking with added match types, etc. Having said that, the level of detail is nothing short of jaw-dropping; wrestlers have their legit entrance themes (the Road Warriors come out to "Iron Man"!), the PPV venues are amazingly detailed (low-poly, blurry-texture detailed that is), and—if you track down the proper game save—you get even more old-school wrestlers, including the jobbers. If the mere mention of a pre-Nitro WCW video game appeals to you, you’re going to find a lot to love in WCW Saturday Night 64. It’s pure bliss for this wrestling gamer, I can’t get enough of it.


WrestleMania X 64 is similarly modded off the WrestleMania 2000 base game, this time focusing on the WWF circa 1994. The World Wrestling Federation of this era was very much a company in transition. In fact, WrestleMania X (the event, not the ROM hack) was the first WM to not feature Hulk Hogan, who was by far the company’s biggest superstar and main eventer during the previous decade. Hogan left wrestling to become a massive action cinema superstar in the vein of Stallone or Schwarzenegger (this didn't pan out), and in his place was a smaller and arguably more talented cast of up-and-coming young wrestlers, as evidenced by the ladder match at WM X between Shawn Michaels and Razor Ramon, a landmark bout that is still considered one of the best in WM history.


The original WM 2000 game did not have an option for ladder matches, this feature would not appear until No Mercy. The WM X mod doesn't add new match options, so if you're looking to create the HBK vs. Razor match here you're unfortunately out of luck.


Fans of early WWF are going to appreciate the attention to detail, such as the thick blue piping for steel cage matches and throwback PPV arenas. Predating the anarchic punk spirit of the Attitude Era (which was one of my favorite rasslin’ eras ever but let’s be honest; even the good guys were bad guys), WWF '94 featured a colorful cast of heroes such as Bret Hart and Lex Luger and an outlandish assortment of villains such as Doink the Clown, Repo Man and Papa Shango. I'm happy to confirm that all of these costumed combatants make appearances here, as well as many, many more.


Spoiler Alert: I haven't unlocked anything in the game yet but there does appear to be several hidden wrestlers, including King Kong Bundy, Johnny Polo, and Kwang (!). By quickly skimming through the costume sets I may have found costume parts for Brooklyn Brawler and a few others, although these may have been in the original WM 2000. It's been so long I can't remember!


Both Saturday Night and WrestleMania X are so era-accurate that they actually look and feel like officially licensed games that were somehow lost in time, but my favorite thing about GM Spectre’s ROM hacks is that they are also designed to run on the original Nintendo 64 console. This means that emulation hardware requirements are exceptionally low (I currently play them on my PS Classic Mini, hardly a powerhouse), and you can actually play these games on a N64 console via EverDrive 64.


Finally we have WWF No Mercy Plus v2.1 from Retro Randy Price. Unlike the previously mentioned mods which move the original game into entirely different territory, NM+ focuses on solidly improving one of the best wrestling games ever created, bar none. From simple bug fixes and costume additions to major upgrades such as adding The Big Show (he was created in the game but omitted from the final roster) and Rock and Angle’s ground submissions, NM+ aims to be the ultimate version of No Mercy that fans have been clamoring for, and the best news is it’s a work-in-progress with future updates planned down the road. As with the GM Spectre mods, NM+ runs on the original console hardware.


My sincerest gratitude goes out to anyone and everyone who has spent time pumping new life into these classic titles. I've been having a blast and can't wait to see what comes next in the world of AKI ROM hacks (Protip: there definitely is more to come!). Thanks to modders such as GM Spectre and Retro Randy Price, it's a phenomenal time to be a fan of wrestling games... again. - BW


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Kung Fu poster by BIll Wood.
Kung Fu poster by BIll Wood.
The Cramps poster art by Bill Wood.