The AKI Chronicles, Part 1: WCW (1996-1998)
The AKI wrestling engine is the stuff of legend for many fans of wrestling and video games. Coming along at just the right time to ride the waves of polygonal graphic development and a massive boost in popularity for the wrestling industry, games featuring AKI Corporation’s work met these new expectations and contributed to the elevation of all the parties involved.
As a result, for over five straight years, the symbiotic relationship continued on strong: the ratings for pro wrestling continued to increase; wrestling games began to sell better; good sales figures create the need for better games; the quality of the games garners further popularity for the business.
The difference in the AKI approach comes down to its unique grappling system, which bases the execution of moves on weak/strong button presses, and begins nearly all move sequences with some type of lock-up or hold. It allows games to be picked up and played by anyone who can grasp the small handful of commands and mastered by the few who acquaint themselves their favorite wrestlers’ moveset and can bend their opponent to their whim with a few precise button presses.
Perhaps most noticeable however is the use of the unique “Spirit Meter.” Instead of a war of attrition that sees participants able to put their opponent away by chipping away at a health bar, the Spirit Meter measures something akin to momentum, which must be accrued and, more importantly, maintained, while doing the opposite to your opponent and leading to one’s own special move to help put the match away. The combination of these two innovative mechanics set the AKI wrestling engine apart from its earliest incarnations, and created a type of wrestling that forced players to really feel their way through a match, rather than rely on the same strategies as they did in the last match and the one before that.
WCW Vs. The World/Virtual Pro Wrestling (PlayStation, 1996)
Of course, we’ve all gotta start somewhere, and beyond being the only decent WCW-branded title on the PlayStation, there's little to say about WCW Vs. The World (known elsewhere simply as Virtual Pro Wrestling) that makes it worth revisiting. The engine is there, though it lacks the fluidity and impressive variety found in its successors. The roster would be considered impressive in terms of sheer quantity, but upon closer inspection, it's clear that casual WCW fans excited for the company’s first game during the Nitro era may be pretty disappointed.
WCW talent makes up only a handful of the 53 included wrestlers, and due to its development with Japanese territories in mind, many main-eventers of the time are missing in favor of guys that had made a name for themselves previously in the East. As a result, names like Scott Hall, Kevin Nash, The Giant, and DDP (despite being seen in the intro montage) are missing, while Eddy Guerrero, Chris Benoit, and Dean Malenko are placed on equal footing as Sting, Hulk Hogan, and Ric Flair for their popularity in Japanese promotions that made them natural inclusions for the initial Japanese release of Virtual Pro Wrestling.
The rest of the roster sets another precedent fulfilled by future games in the series with a number of wrestlers from promotions such as New Japan and All Japan, though their names are changed for the localized “WCW” version, which therefore makes Virtual Pro Wrestling the arguably better iteration if only for its sense of transparency.
WCW Vs. nWo World Tour/Virtual Pro Wrestling 64 (Nintendo 64, 1997)
A year or so of tinkering and tuning, plus a switch over to the Nintendo 64 and a number of further developments in the world of wrestling made for a surefire hit with the next AKI Corp. title. Everything controls more smoothly, with far better presentation and character models from the previous title’s aesthetic that often resembled a community center event flyer with its odd pastel color palette and hasty localization. Even the cheesy hand-drawn portraits on the character select screen actually look decent this time around. The number of game modes has actually been slimmed down with the loss of some tournament options, but the main attraction of League Challenge is still present.
A similar caveat applies to the roster of wrestlers, which is down to 43, but more balanced out by WCW talent, even if the “world” wrestlers are still renamed for licensing purposes. World Tour/VPW 64 is a great wrestling game in and of itself, but in hindsight it's essentially a transitional entry for AKI Corp. and THQ, where WCW’s presence in its own games still wasn't 100%, as it would still take until next year’s game to see features like a full roster, individual arenas, and other similar details to make the localized VPW games feel true to their own license.
(Side note: for a great read, check out the Prima strategy guide for WCW Vs. nWo World Tour, which takes the intrigue of the unknown roster to a whole new level by writing up fake profiles for all of the “DOA” and “Independent Union” wrestlers, which are consistently absurd and hilarious. For example, the profile for Black Belt (Taka Michinoku) claims he was a Green Beret, dishonorably discharged, who literally lives in swamps, while a wrestler called The Claw (Gran Naniwa) is allegedly nearly a thousand years old. Fantastic.)
WCW/nWo Revenge (Nintendo 64, 1998)
The last WCW game to be released on the AKI engine, Revenge is also the first without an immediate counterpart from the Virtual Pro Wrestling brand, and also the first to truly feel like it came from the product it's based on. The roster continues to flesh itself out with more WCW talent, though still with a handful of fictional wrestlers left over (including the new addition of AKI Man!). Revenge also introduced wrestler entrances, which were long overdue for inclusion (though they had been done in WWF War Zone released only a few months earlier), as well as a few real arenas to break up the previous monotony of the same blue-canvassed ring.
Possibly the most important addition of all, however, is the customization feature. The precursor to the series’ beloved Create-A-Wrestler mode that keeps WWF No Mercy alive today (more on that in the future), the customization mode allows any character in the game to have their names and appearances altered at a whim, which adds to the sense of legitimacy (or absurdity, depending on if you make things obscene rather than accurate to whatever might change in the wrestling world). Rounded out with all kinds of other details such as exclusive animations, more weapons, match run-ins, a championship mode to replace League Challenge, and instant replays, and others, and WCW/nWo Revenge is easily the best game to ever boast the WCW brand, released just before the company started its painful decline, which naturally included a departure from THQ and AKI Corp., whose services were instead enjoyed by the rival WWF until the end of the N64 and the Monday Night War.