The AKI Chronicles - Part 2: WWF
WrestleMania season is upon us, and just as I dropped a hefty powerbomb of old-school wrestling game history onto the pages of Kulture Shocked heading into the Royal Rumble, I’m back again with Part Two of my look at the games you would still probably rather fire up instead of WWE 2K17, the classic AKI engine wrestling games for the N64. Before I jump right into the two classics that make up the WWE’s relationship with THQ and AKI Corp., there’s a bit of a history lesson that requires incorporation into this tale, if for no other reason than the way it represents the Monday Night War in a way that you’re not likely to hear WWE talk about in any documentaries.
I think it would be tough to argue that the period of 1998 into 1999 was the most heated during the battle between the WCW and WWF, with Nitro’s infamous 84-week ratings victory streak was finally broken in the midst of the classic Austin-McMahon feud. As the weeks went on for the remainder of the year, the shows traded victories while the tide slowly but surely turned in favor of Raw as Nitro victories became less and less common. The tail end of 1998 serves in a way as the last full measure for WCW’s stand against Vince McMahon’s empire, and coincidentally, it was also the last time that they would come out on top in the video game war that accompanied the fight for ratings.
In the second half of 1998, both WWF and WCW were featured in video games for the current generation of consoles. For the WWF, longtime partner Acclaim released WWF War Zone for both PS1 and N64, their first attempt at a simulation since 1995’s WWF Raw on 16-bit systems (and the 32X). Despite selling huge numbers on both systems for the remainder of the year, the whole package reeked of old news, both in terms of gameplay and roster (they were apparently too stubborn to take Bret Hart out of the finished product despite the fact that he had been gone for over six months by the time it was released).
While comparing the game engines themselves may seem like an apples-to-oranges matchup, the fact was that Acclaim’s fighting-game based engine was going to be left behind for sure when WCW followed it up with WCW/nWo Revenge in November of that year. N64 exclusive or not, Revenge’s touched up AKI engine and absolutely stacked roster (from the last time WCW’s roster really was “stacked”) blows War Zone out of the water in a head to head comparison.
The following summer’s WWF Attitude (again, for both N64 and PlayStation) would be Acclaim’s last chance with the lucrative WWF license, as even though it improved on War Zone in just about every way it could have, it still feels like the game that War Zone should have been in the first place, and still way behind what WCW was getting out of their THQ/AKI titles. Unwilling to share a bed with bitter rivals WWF on any level (and possibly with THQ in their doghouse after an abysmal N64 port of WCW Nitro -- which was not made by AKI Corp.), WCW jumped ship and took their license to EA (a company that had never made a wrestling game before) and, of course, tanked shortly thereafter.
WWF WrestleMania 2000
Regardless of when work began to put the license onto the existing AKI engine for the first collaboration between THQ and the WWF, I don’t think anyone would have objected to simply putting a new paint job onto WCW/nWo Revenge, or whatever work had been done to follow the game up in the period before the deal came through. I don’t think anybody could have anticipated such a wildly different and vastly superior product to WWF Attitude, which had released only three months prior to the arrival of the N64-exclusive WrestleMania 2000. Considering that even the simple job of putting together a new roster and their respective movesets and such would still be a fairly daunting task (even if existing stars like Chris Jericho and The Big Show née The Giant were already in the engine having changed companies since Revenge), the improvements from the previous year’s game read off like a Christmas list that only complement the impressive roster that, even with a lot of the guys just breaking into the company and still developing personas, shows exactly why the tide was turning in the WWF’s favor.
While WWF Attitude had still boasted an equally strong Create-A-Wrestler mode, WrestleMania 2000 and its continuing improvements to the feature introduced in Revenge still holds the advantage over it due largely to its ease of use and the greater level of satisfaction that would accompany using your new or altered character. The generated cycle of build, play, repeat is one of the most endearing features of the AKI engine that made leaps with each successive iteration, and it continued to be complemented better and better with more options and better campaigns with which to use the characters. New match options like Steel Cage and First Blood bouts, the ability to create belts and pay-per-views, and modes such as the Royal Rumble and King of the Ring tournament up the replay value even further by offering so much of what made the original product so great at the time.
The only real negatives to WrestleMania 2000 are that its Championship/Campaign mode, while another improvement from the previous title, is rather bare-bones without much to be found for storyline or other accoutrements that you’d find on TV. And of course, WrestleMania 2000, despite being the greatest American wrestling game ever made at the time it was released, was a bit of a transitional champion in the grand scheme of things, as it would only hold that title for roughly a year before WWF No Mercy came along and dethroned it for good.
Virtual Pro Wrestling 2 and WWF No Mercy
WWF No Mercy is the epitome of wrestling games. Perhaps only rivaled by the PS2’s SmackDown: Here Comes The Pain iteration, ask any fan of wrestling games about the best one ever made, and they’ll almost certainly tell you one of those two. Everything that was great about WrestleMania 2000 has been fine-tuned and everything that wasn’t has been fixed. It would be easy enough to explain the near-perfection of the engine in No Mercy by virtue of the fact that WrestleMania 2000 was so close already, but realistically, No Mercy was actually not the first chance at perfecting the previous year’s product.
Virtual Pro Wrestling 2 finally brought the engine back to the fold of the Japanese promotions that had formed the basis for the series’ original iterations. Wrestling purists are incredibly blessed in this day and age by the existence of N64 emulators and the simplicity of importing cartridges from Japan, and VPW2 is the crown jewel of that trend, which many (including Samoa Joe and AJ Styles, to name a few of its fans) will claim is even superior to No Mercy for the way it portrays the Japanese wrestling product with every bit of detail and quality as No Mercy does for the American product of the WWF.
And on that note, the game represents the company perfectly, introducing extensive backstage brawling that had become a massive part of watching Raw every week (the Hardcore title had been around since late 1998, but the 24/7 rule was implemented when Crash Holly won the belt in February 2000), as well as an even deeper Create-A-Wrestler mode, a hefty catalog of unlockables, and new match types, including Special Referee and the long-awaited Ladder Match (which had become more and more common on WWF television in recent years).
The roster is even stronger as it was in the previous entry, and many characters are better developed at this point than they were a year before (for example, Brian Christopher and Scott Taylor had officially become Too Cool, while The Godfather’s different costumes allowed players to choose between his classic persona or his Right To Censor “Goodfather” alias). Even the sole low point of WrestleMania 2000, the simplistic story mode, was finally revamped into something truly special with unique, in-depth storylines that boasted promos, backstage segments, and even changed and branched based on whether you win or lose the match.
No Mercy’s popularity has remained so persistent throughout the years that the game has become the wrestling equivalent of MVP Baseball 2005 and ESPN NFL 2K5 (two titles that continue to receive fan updates because of their perfect game engines) in recent years as the modding community has exploded on the internet. Countless Create-A-Wrestler guides and even fan made versions of the game now exist online to be played on emulators that continue to build No Mercy’s legacy as the be-all, end-all of wrestling sims, with some of the absolute best mods available being based on classic ECW, Lucha Underground, Legends of Wrestling, and, of course, modern WWE. In other words, if you’re not happy with WrestleMania this year, you can book and play your own in No Mercy just the same as you could in WWE 2K17, and probably have more fun doing it.
Did video games have a huge impact on the success of the WWF or the failure of WCW? Probably not, though I like to think it was a bigger factor than anybody would let on. It’s always stuck out to me that the WWF coincidentally surged right ahead as the video games based on them improved in quality more and more while games were just one more area for WCW to shoot themselves in the foot.
Both of EA’s efforts with the WCW license saw their video games heading in exactly the wrong direction, as WCW Mayhem boasts the last semblance of the company’s best talents, but is downright anemic compared to its competition and the games that had come before. 2000’s WCW Backstage Assault dug the hole even deeper by focusing solely on backstage brawling, which was about as successful as the company’s own Hardcore Championship: conceptually half-baked and lacking any of the substance that made the WWF’s version of the same thing so much better (backstage sequences were a feature in No Mercy while EA devoted an entire game to it).
Legend has it that WCW had checked its ego not long after Backstage Assault’s critical and commercial flop, re-enlisting THQ and the AKI engine to bring WCW Mayhem 2 to the new PlayStation 2, but neither AKI nor WCW would ever see themselves into a real PS2 era of professional wrestling games, as the latter was famously purchased by the WWF in March of 2001.
The WWF and THQ, meanwhile, opted to go with potentially the most confusing route in succeeding the AKI engine on the new generation of consoles, with individual series for each system. On the PlayStation 2 and GameCube, Yuke’s/Jakks Pacific would develop the SmackDown and WrestleMania/Day of Reckoning titles, respectively, while the Xbox languished with the decent-at-best Raw 2 as its most solid WWE title. Although no longer in business independently, THQ held onto the WWF license up until the very end, after over a decade of ups and downs with the product before WWE was pulled under the banner of 2K’s sports series, though it seems to be established that none of their efforts so far have been particularly impressive compared to some of the classics like No Mercy or Here Comes The Pain. The AKI engine may never have graced another professional licensed game, meanwhile, but No Mercy would not be its last dance, as the company’s relationship with wrestling still has a final chapter that is equal parts strange and enticing.