I’m a fan of pro wrestling.
It’s not something I go out of my way to advertise this day and age, not due to any shame on my part, but because it can get tiring to hear the same utterances of the word “fake” from people that seem to be unaware that all of the media they consume is scripted. For better or worse, it’s been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. One of my fondest memories of my late father was when we would push all of the furniture to the walls and emulate epic matches, most of which involved me applying terrible sleeper holds.
But I, like most of us that stayed long after the boom period, can acknowledge how horrendously uncool mainstream pro wrestling is now, marred with repetition, poor stories, and a lack of characters worth investing in. For a while, mainstream gaming followed a similar trend, prompting the fanbases of both to look for other places to consume their medium of choice. Being a wrestling fan in 2016 is rough. Being a wrestling video game fan in 2016 is an exercise in masochism.
The wrestling game problem is one that will probably never be solved in my lifetime. How do you accurately portray a scripted dramatization of a real fight? At its core, a wrestling game has to somehow be an authentic reproduction of a fake reproduction of something real. It’s a Möbius strip of logic, wrapping around itself until returning back to where it started, only now you have a nosebleed from thinking about it too hard.
It’s frustrating when you see how far sports games have gotten, to the point of often looking indistinguishable from the real deal, but that’s because sports are such a regimented thing. There are only so many variables on so many plays within a consistent set of rules. Basketball games don’t have ladder matches. Football games don’t end with another team making the run-in. A pitcher for the Cubs has never taken off his jersey mid-game to reveal he’d been playing for the Red Sox the whole time. If they did, I’d probably start watching.
And that’s the thing non-wrestling fans don’t understand. It’s why we still watch. It’s because there are so many variables, often left to the interpretation of the performers, trying to tell the story that’s been asked of them, making adjustments on the fly to how the audience reacts. We continue to put up with the worst because we know that the nature of wrestling means that it could be great at any time. And when it is, there’s nothing better. It’s a crisp exchange of moves. It’s the vicarious sensation of seeing the good guy in pain and wanting him to overcome it. It’s watching the bad guy fall on his ass and cower after talking so much shit. It’s that morality play, so simple in concept, but so difficult in execution, that we keep coming back for.
It wasn’t until relatively recently that we’d even seen attempts at capturing those sort of moments in the virtual realm. Early wrestling games were really nothing but primitive button mashers with the occasional grapple animation. Even Wrestlefest, an arcade classic, was a cartoonish romp that in no way resembled the actual ebb and flow of a match, even in the plodding 80s style. It wasn’t until the advent of Fire Pro Wrestling and its contemporaries that we started to experience wrestling games as something more than the exchange of moves attacking a life bar, going into territory that’s still largely untapped today, like the editing of AI routines and how they could possibly led to more realistic matches. But whenever a new wrestling game arrives on the scene, you always see someone appeal to the AKI-era of the N64.
No Mercy has been the dangling carrot of the wrestling game world for over a decade and a half. Every year we hear “this feature makes it more like No Mercy” in anticipation of a new release and “why can’t it be like No Mercy?” when lamenting their failures. Is it really that good of a representation of what real wrestling is? No, not at all, and that’s where the irony lies.
Look at any modern WWE game. The detail is astounding. Wrestlers are often modeled accurate down to their birthmarks. The entrances are loud and flashy, often shot for shot emulations of the camera angles used on real broadcasts. And then the bell rings, and these uncanny reproductions have what can be best described as a low-impact play fight in sand, immediately taking you out of the experience.
No Mercy, meanwhile, is full of hideously ugly characters, shuffling down the aisle to a version of their entrance music that sounds like it was recorded on a Victrola. The draw is what takes place in the ring. Instead of trying to solve the problem of the wrestling game, reaching for that impossible goal of perfect simulation, No Mercy embraces that failure. It uses the framing device of a wrestling match just enough to satisfy the urge of hitting a big move, even if the “psychology” of that move would feel wrong in the context of actual pro wrestling. We ignore this as the player because the A.I. Doesn’t. Let. Up. We don’t see the faults in logic or authenticity because we’re in a fight, or at least, because it’s a video game, we’re pretending to be. Just like real wrestling.
That’s the magic of No Mercy. That’s why it’s so fondly remembered, not because of how accurate Triple H’s vertical suplex was rendered, but because the emotional attachment of trying to get up from that move is similar to what it would be if we were trying to will that fighting babyface back to his feet.
No Mercy solved the wrestling game problem by ignoring the problem. It didn’t try to make you mimic the fake fight. It simply put you in one, and even without hot tag mini-games or comeback mechanics, those moments happened naturally, because those moments in wrestling are nothing but a recreation of the ones we see in real sports, the byproduct of people in real competition.
Such is the reason why it’s still that carrot, sadly dangled in front of consumers by people that don’t seem to understand where it came from in the first place. It’s why the game is still being modded, some 16 years later. Nothing else has ever really gotten close. That’s the irony. We’ve been waiting for a game to copy No Mercy, a game that didn’t care that much about copying its subject matter in the first place.
All we can do is sit and lament, waiting, hoping that one day someone will figure it out again. “Maybe one day, this will get better”, we stubbornly say to ourselves.
Just like real wrestling fans.