The 1990s was an incredible and landmark decade for wrestling. The early 90s saw the peak of some of the most colorful characters ever seen in the sport. WWF/WWE was renowned for its larger than life cartoon characters like Hulk Hogan, The Ultimate Warrior, The British Bulldog, Earthquake, Big Boss Man, and The Undertaker. While NWA/WCW started to move into the cartoonish character territory with its biggest star Sting, WCW still a slightly more serious tone with wrestlers like Ric Flair, Arn Anderson, Lex Luger, Larry Zybyzco, and more.
The rivalry between the two promotions continued through the decade, but it didn’t peak until the Monday Night Wars, where both promotions pitted their flagship shows head to head in a battle for ratings. It didn’t matter which promotion was your favorite if you were a true fan of wrestling you won. Whether it was the Hulk Hogan heel turn, the formation of the nWo, WWE's D-Generation X and the evolution of the Attitude Era, it was a great time to be a fan.
As both promotions tried to one up each other in the television ratings, wrestling game developers had a competition of their own. Whether developers were striving to make either ultimate wrestling game or make the most cash, the resulting games were either classics or some of the worst ever titles ever made.
Released in 1994 for Super Nintendo, Hammerlock Wrestling was an unlicensed wrestling game in the US and Europe, but in Japan, it was an officially licensed game under the promotion Wrestle and Romance. Instead of real wrestlers, it used fictional versions of well-known stars like Lex Luger, Road Warrior Hawk, Yokozuna, and Stan Hansen. The game featured up to 60 moves to choose from as well unique finishers for the wrestlers.
Annoyingly, Hammerlock Wrestling had the potential to be very good, but the decision to split the screen into three horizontal windows as its main unique selling point was a terrible idea. Because the screens were split permanently, they were a distraction and made it almost impossible to stay focused on the action.
WCW Wrestling was released in 1990 on the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) in the West. It was the very first video game based on the National Wrestling Alliance’s WCW (World Championship) wrestling brand. It featured classic and legendary wrestling stars such as Ric Flair, Lex Luger, Dr. Death Steve Williams, Kevin Sullivan, Ricky The Dragon Steamboat, The Steiner Brothers, The Fabulous Freebirds, and The Road Warriors Hawk and Animal – who had already left WCW for the WWF and became known as The Legion of Doom.
Wrestling games on the 8-Bit console generation were obviously very limited repetitive with regard to the move sets, but WCW Wrestling was quite innovative in that it let you choose your own selectable move sets prior to each match. The ability to choose your own moves helped keep each match as fresh as could be achieved 27 years ago.
WCW Nitro was released on the PlayStation in 1998, and it was the second WCW wrestling game to release on Sony’s platform after the very good WCW vs. The World in 1997. A port of the game was later released on the Nintendo 64 and PC in 1999 and featured an updated roster from its follow-up WCW/nWo Thunder.
However, not even the updated roster and a boost in visuals on the more advanced platforms could save WCW Nitro from being the hideous mess that it is. Its issues were made more glaringly obvious by the fact that the AKI developed WCW games were so good. Instead of using the tried and tested gameplay engine that featured in the AKI games, Inland Productions opted for style over substance. Despite capturing the atmosphere of the WCW arenas the arcade-style gameplay suffered even more from poor animations, bad hit detection, and control lag.
WWF WrestleFest was an arcade classic released by Technōs in 1991 and featured WWF legends such as Hulk Hogan, The Ultimate Warrior, Big Boss Man, Jake “The Snake” Roberts, Earthquake, Mr. Perfect, and the tag-team known as Demolition. Although the Legion of Doom featured in the game too they weren’t playable characters.
Developers Technōs was also responsible for other arcade games such Double Dragon and Renegade, and their unique and colorful cartoony style did a fantastic job of representing the larger than life characters in the WWE from the early 1990s. The gameplay wasn’t anything technical, but it still required some strategy, and its beat-em-up style was perfect for an arcade machine
Activision’s Power Move Pro Wrestling was an unlicensed wrestling game released for the PlayStation in 1996. It was the first of its kind on the system and it was an attempt by the developers to capitalize on the gap in the market at the time and the all-time popularity of wrestling at the peak of the Monday Night Wars between WCW and WWE.
Unfortunately, not only did Power Move Pro Wrestling lack the licensed wrestlers, but it suffered from a complete lack of character, and we’re left with a rather a forgettable, dull, and bland title that has no appeal whatsoever. The game only has a selection of 12 characters with floaty limbs – that resemble joined up sausages – and virtually identical move sets.
Wrestler War was a Sega developed arcade game that made it to the Megadrive/Genesis consoles in 1991. Despite being an unlicensed wrestling title, it featured the likenesses of wrestlers such Hulk Hogan, Stan Hansen, Bruiser Brody, Road Warrior Hawk, and Abdullah the Butcher, under different aliases.
The game’s story is pretty standard as you take on the role of a rookie wrestler working his way up the ladder to fight the champion. The gameplay is very challenging, but fun as you battle to win the advantage in the grapple positions. Each wrestler you face has their own distinctive style, from power wrestlers to high-flyers, and game’s visuals were excellent and colorful at the time and on par with the likes of WWF Wrestle Fest.
WWF RAW was released in 1994 for the Sega Megadrive/Genesis, Sega Game Gear, Gameboy, and Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) and featured wrestlers such as Lex Luger, The Undertaker, Shawn Michaels, Bret Hart, Razor Ramon, and more. All of them complete with silly exaggerated finishing maneuvers, sometimes not even accurately to the specific wrestler.
Not only are some of the wrestlers movesets inaccurate, but their likenesses are more like palette swaps with no differences in the characters heights. So characters like The Undertaker look exactly the same height as Shawn Michael. However, the game does feature a good selection of match modes such as Royal Rumble, Survivor Series, Bedlam Matches, and more.
Acclaim Sports WWF Warzone was released for the Nintendo 64 and the PlayStation in 1998, although the PlayStation version featured video and audio not present on the N64 cartridge, the Nintendo version of the game was the lead platform for the game. It was the first game to represent WWF’s Attitude Era featuring wrestlers like Stone Cold Steve Austin, Kane, Undertaker, Mankind, and much more from that generation.
Although WWF Warzone continued the tradition of arcade-style wrestling over the technical wrestling system seen in the WCW games by AKI, there was still a deep and heavy emphasis on strategic wrestling not previously seen in any of the WWF games that came before. The presentation was also top-notch, with decent commentary, and character specific music and entrances.
Released in 1994, and featuring wrestlers such as Sting, Ric Flair, Rick Rude, The Steiner Brothers, and Big Van Vader WCW Super Brawl should have been a dream come true for WCW fans waiting for a chance recreate their favorite matches. Unfortunately, the game’s awkward and animations made it incredibly frustrating lining your character up with your opponent just to pull even the most basic of moves.
It’s a shame the gameplay was such a let down because, for a game released on the Super Nintendo in 1994, its presentation was quite impressive with some limited commentary and wrestler catchphrases, the visuals were quite decent too although strange ¾ overhead camera perspective only added to the game’s stiff combat mechanics.
WWF Attitude was released in 1999 on the Nintendo 64, Sega Dreamcast, and the PlayStation. WWF Attitude was a sequel to WWF Warzone, and it was also the very last WWF/WWE game that Acclaim developed and published.
The game continued with the focus wrestling’s Attitude Era and retained the same gameplay mechanics from the previous game but this game added more match types such as a new career mode and First Blood and I Quit matches.
Customization was also very in-depth, allowing the player to change the appearance of the arenas and venues even going as far being able to change the color of the lighting and turnbuckles. The game’s commentary was very well done and manages to put the commentary in the recent WWE 2K games to shame 17 years later.
WWF Superstars 2 was released exclusively for the Nintendo Game Boy and featured just six wrestlers, Hulk Hogan, “Macho Man” Randy Savage, The Mountie, The Undertaker, Sid Justice, and Jake “The Snake” Roberts. The game was one of the first to feature a sort of comeback mode by pressing the select button to regain strength.
However, despite this small innovation Superstars 2 features even less wrestling moves than the original game, no signature moves or finishers and all the characters have exactly the same move set. The game featured only four modes of play, with its career mode limited to fighting the other five wrestlers to win the title.
WCW vs The World was released in 1996 for the PlayStation, it was the first wrestling video game by AKI Corporation who was known as Man Breeze at the time of its release. It was the first WCW game released during the Monday Night Wars era and was in many ways the prototype for the popular AKI wrestling games from WCW vs. nWo to WWF No Mercy on the Nintendo 64.
The games wrestling mechanics are very similar to the later N64 games and was the first proper 3D wrestling game that required more from the player than just bashing the buttons or pulling off special moves for the win. WCW vs. The World laid the foundations for some of the best wrestling games ever made in a three-dimensional space.
The decline in WCW’s programming and quality seemed to coincidentally happen just after THQ started making games for the WWE. Even though the door was open for the publisher to produce games for both wrestling promotions, instead WCW opted to part ways with THQ. A new deal was done with gaming Electronic Arts, and they quickly churned out WCW Mayhem as their first title in 1999.
By focusing on backstage brawling, and a glitzy presentation, WCW Mayhem tried to mask the fact that its gaming engine didn’t come close to the AKI engine that made its appearance in WWF WrestleMania 2000 the same year. Hit detection was close to being non-existent, and the reversal system was completely useless – a big no-no for any wrestling game. It is clear to see that EA rushed Mayhem out as quickly as possible, and the lack of care is very obvious.
After their surprise hit on the PlayStation, THQ would follow their wrestling hit WCW vs. The World with WCW vs nWo World Tour on the Nintendo 64, and it was a massive improvement in every way. Not only did the visuals get a massive boost, but the gameplay was phenomenal for a wrestling game. It features strong and weak attacks that are built upon from grapples, and the submissions can be hit from almost every angle. Also revolutionary was the reversal system, which still hasn’t been bettered in any of the modern wrestling games out today.
The game featured most of WCW biggest stars at the time such as Sting, The Giant, Diamond Dallas Page, and Lex Luger. The game also featured some fictional versions of popular Japanese wrestlers such Hayabusa who was renamed Hannibal in the game.
WWF European Rampage World Tour was released on the Amiga, Commodore 64, Atari ST, and MS-DOS in 1992. The was released to capitalize on the company’s growing popularity in European markets and featured wrestlers such as Hulk Hogan, The Ultimate Warrior, and Bret Hart. However, despite having perhaps their most popular European wrestler, the late British Bulldog was noticeably absent from the game.
WWF European Rampage World Tour featured no one-on-one matches and instead forced you into Joining a tag team to work your way up a ladder of matches until you win the WWF World tag team titles. Unfortunately, there are only three teams to choose from, resulting in very little replay value, one-dimensional matches that don't stretch beyond kicking and punching.
Super Fire Pro Wrestling X Premium was released in 1996 for the Super Famicom and is part of one of the longest-running wrestling series in the world. Although the Fire Pro series have always been unlicensed wrestling titles the games have always featured the likenesses of famous wrestlers from Japan and the West.
Despite the almost dated look of the games, the Fire Pro Wrestling series are incredibly technical games, and the level of detail is astonishing when you have to get to grips with over 300 wrestling holds and moves. The game’s customization options are almost limitless, with ability create up to 80 wrestlers of your own.
The biggest drawback to the series is beyond fan translations it’s never seen a proper 2D release outside of Japan. Thankfully, that’s all changed as a brand new Fire Pro Wrestling game was released on Steam Early Access, with a PlayStation 4 version to arrive at some point in 2017.
Rather than giving wrestling fans what they wanted, there was a time when the WWF/WWE line of video games experimented with genres which resulted in quite a few awful games -- WWF Crush Hour being one notable example of WWE game that had nothing to do with wrestling. While not as much of a deviation as that game, WWF In Your House barely qualifies as a wrestling game at all. The game was actually a Mortal Kombat clone with the occasional wrestling ring and over the top representations of a wrestler’s signature move thrown in for good measure.
Considering that the game was released in 1996, the same year as WCW vs. The World, a game that set out to be as definitive a 3D wrestling experience as possible, WWF: In Your House was an absolute disaster of a game. WCW wasn’t just destroying WWF in the television ratings at the time but in the video game market too.
WCW/nWo Revenge was the third and final AKI developed WCW wrestling game. It featured an enhanced version of AKI revolutionary grappling system, with improved visuals with an added 700 frames of animation, and a larger roster of characters with accurate finishers.
Revenge featured a number of new game modes, entrances, instant replays, and several real-life arenas and championships. However, it was the game’s improved grappling system that scored big with fans, the system was easy to pick up but difficult to master, and the reversal system is better than ever. Reversals can be reversed, and countered almost endlessly, resulting in entertaining and often long matches that required a deep level of skill.
WWF WrestleMania: Steel Cage Challenge was released for the NES, Sega Master System, and the Sega Game in 1992. It featured ten wrestlers which included Hulk Hogan, Bret Hart, Ric Flair, Shawn Michaels, Papa Shango, The Mountie, “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, “Macho Man” Randy Savage, Jake “The Snake” Roberts, I.R.S and “The Million Dollar Man” Ted Dibiase.
Although the game featured some of the most distinctive wrestlers in the WWE, all the characters in the game were lumbered with the exact same move set and no finishing moves at all. There’s no focus on any actual strategic gameplay or grappling, and aside from the addition of a steel cage, there was nothing to distinguish this wrestling game from any other button mashing fighters released prior to it.
Released in 1999, WWF WrestleMania 2000 was one of the last wrestling games of the 1990s, and it’s also the very best. Even though it was topped by its sequel the brilliant WWF No Mercy, WrestleMania 2000 fans should still experience the excellent story mode. Your character rises in the ranks to fight for the title in the main event at WrestleMania and get involved in feuds, wrestler call-outs, Royal Rumbles, King of the Ring tournaments, and you can even attempt to hold all the gold defend every belt at the all of the game's Pay-Per-Views.
The amazing AKI engine was tweaked and improved again, but now wrestling fans had the chance to recreate great matches in the most iconic and dominant wrestling promotion, the WWE. With characters likes The Rock, Stone Cold Steve Austin, The Undertaker, and more. Now that THQ had the rights to the WWE gaming franchise their developers AKI and the WWE were a match made in wrestling heaven.