Update: I was unfortunately not aware of Shamus Young's severe criticism of Fallout 3 available here to link in the original piece and I regret that. It dovetails rather nicely with what I've written and it's much better executed than my piece. I strongly recommend anyone...
As some of you know, I’m not a fan of Top 10 lists, especially ones that saturate gaming journalism for the sake of meaningless weekly features that get hits. Few of them are actually interesting, humorous, or well-researched, but in this business, page hits are the bottom line... which means that next week, I’ll be writing “The Top 10 Things That Jiggle in Gaming”. Look, if I’m just going to be a sell-out corporate peon, then I’m going to be the sleaziest best corporate peon ever. (Oh, the things we do for rent money…)
To be absolutely clear, this list concerns titles for professional wrestling (or wrestling entertainment) and not for the actual Olympic sport of wrestling, which has rarely been featured in a video game unless it’s part of some random mini-game collection. Only titles released in the U.S. are eligible (sorry, Japanese import fans) and no wrestling strategy simulations count, either.
Games are ranked not just by the critical scores they received at their release (you can just go to GameRankings for that), but for their impact on the industry, their dominance in their generation of consoles, their completeness as a package, and any features the game established in the genre. If you don’t see your favorite on your top 10 list (hopefully, Smackdown doesn’t appear in all ten slots), it was likely passed over for one of its better sequels.
Honorable Mention: Fire Pro Wrestling (GBA, 2001)
TheJapanese Fire Pro series, the longest-running wrestling game franchise, doesn't get much love in the U.S. mostly because of its limited release and the dominance of the WWF/WWE and WCW brands. To most gamers who have (sort of) heard about it, Fire Pro Wrestling is that oddball isometric brawler with 2D sprites that looks strange and cheesy. But for hardcore players, its options, features, and roster of wrestlers (though unlicensed) is unmatched.
For the GBA, Fire Pro Wrestling packs 150 wrestlers, which includes palette-swap adaptations of superstars from Pride, New Japan Pro Wrestling, Ultimate Fighting (it even had an octagon ring), and the WWF. Not to mention the countless number of created wrestlers you can make from the hundreds upon hundreds of parts - techniques, A.I. control, offensive and defensive techniques, and skills.
Button mashers aren’t rewarded, either; defeating the opponent requires precise timing, and you can’t just go for the kill early on or you’ll just get countered. Of course, you can just go for bloodshed and cause an instant “give up” (nothing like a itty-bitty blood to make a muscle man cry). The game also features a challenging audience match mode, where you have to impress the crowd by defeating the opponent fast, furiously, or however they want you to. Above all, how Spike and BAM! Entertainment crammed this all into a little cartridge, and for the handheld no less, is mind-boggling.
10. Def Jam: Fight for NY (PS2, 2004, Electronic Arts)
At first glance, it might be strange that Def Jam: Fight for NY is on the list at all since it looks like a MMA Fight Club-styled backstreet brawl, but it also plays like an aggressive hardcore wrestling match on the streets. The fighting does refocus its wrestling origins on mixed martial arts, but it’s still founded on grappling as much as hard-hitting melee combos to get opponents into vulnerable, groggy positions, and then finishing the opponent off with a “blazin’ move” (usually from a grapple) for a satisfying crunch.
Better than that, it gets the best of two worlds: Hip-hop rappers, who woulda thunk? It has a star-studded cast with the likes of Xzibit, Flava Flav, Lil’ Kim, and Snoop Dogg as the villainous Crow, all of whom did unexpectedly solid voice-work. The story was admittedly straightforward and characters shift alignments a bit too often, but it is much stronger than the plot of its immediate predecessor, Def Jam Vendetta, and it’s meant to be campy and over-the-top, anyway.
More than just a game with an “M”-rating, it also had F-bombs that actually worked and it didn’t hold back its gangsta flavor. You could create a fighter from a wide selection of parts from various urban fashion shops, getting new hairstyles, threads, tats, and bling, all of which look like they come straight out of a music video so buck that you want to tackle it. And all those pimp-out clothes meant more respect from the crowd, who would get into the brawl on the sidelines. (My guy was shirtless and wore a chunky silver chain. Don’t be messin’ with my style, ya hear? Or I’ll krump on your face.)
9. WWF WrestleFest (Arcade, 1991, Technos Japan Corporation)
Without question, WWF Wrestlefest remains the best arcade wrestling title during the short stint the genre had in coin-ops. But if you remember playing it, you likely also remember how many quarters it sucked out of you, if just to recover your health on the fly or, more likely, to add more time to the clock. Not only were the graphics impressive for an early ‘90s title, but it had a great grappling system that cemented the idea that the grapple position could branch into other moves like suplexes and submissions, with additional moves unlocked as you knock your opponent’s health down.
Just as impressive are the incredible production values – audio commentary, the colorful and detailed sprites, and a roster chock-full of WWF wrestlers like Mr. Perfect, Ultimate Wariror, Hulk Hugan, Sergeant Slaughter, and Jake “The Snake” Roberts. Whether you selected the tag team championship, where you had to face The Legion of Doom with Hawk and Animal taunting you the whole way through, or the Royal Rumble (Battle Royale), the first of its kind and with up to six players onscreen at any one time, WWF Wrestlefest was an addictive cabinet that had players come back for more.
8. Tecmo World Wrestling (NES, 1990, Tecmo)
In the realm of retro button-mashing wrestling titles, Tecmo World Wrestling (known as Gekitou Pro Wrestling!! Toukon Densetsu in Japan) for the NES released in 1990 stood out mainly because of its play-by-play text commentary by the animated Tom Talker. As you executed moves with your chosen wrestler – just to name a few, A. Dragon, J. Flacon., J. Kee, and E. Tigre (with the Engrish Northern “Right” Suplex) – Tom would announce moves faster than a soccer commentator on Univision: Brain Buster! Figure Four! Shoulder Throw! A Sudden Turnaround!
Moreover, it had a bevy of moves for its time including ground attacks, aerial attacks, and running attacks off the ropes, and some finisher moves that would end with a close-up cut-scene of an action replay. Winning the match can be done by three-count pinfall, count-out, or submission, all of which were made easier if you knocked your opponent’s health bar lower. Between bouts, you can even upgrade your wrestler’s power in training sessions with sit-ups, squats, and a sumo on your back as you do push-ups. Not only impressive for the NES, Tecmo World Wrestling was ahead of its time.
7. WWE Smackdown! vs. RAW 2006 (PS2, 2005, THQ)
For the last Smackdown! title in the PS2 generation before the series took its first leap to the Xbox 360 (though they still produce PS2 variants of current-gen Smackdown! titles), THQ wanted to leave the PS2 with a bang. Players now had to cope with stamina and momentum bars and couldn't abuse power move after power move without any repercussion, forcing them to play more strategically and with a better understanding of pace. But if you didn’t care for stamina, you could always turn it off.
Wrestlers could select moves from three of seven categories, as an addition to submission and Clean/Dirty grapples, allowing for better customization and division of moves. Other additions included an adequate simulation GM mode, a power Irish whip, doors for steel cage matches, being able to steal your opponent’s taunt and play possum, and having the option to store a finisher for later use. In an allusion to the casket match from WWF Smackdown 2! Know Your Role, the new Buried Alive match type had you send your opponents to the grave literally. Even better, every wrestler in Season mode was voiced by their real-life counterparts, with better dialogue and unexpected enthusiasm. The level of content and depth marks WWE Smackdown! vs. RAW 2006 as the best installment in the Smackdown! franchise on the PS2.