Wrestlemania 31 was the other day - what a finish - so what better time to have a look back at one of the best wrasslin' games ever made?
It's been 12 minutes so far, and he's showing little sign of slowing down. Your fingers hurt. Fatigue is forcing your reversal timing to be off. His momentum is dangerously close to peaking, and you've just missed that high-cross body block. It's all going to hell, quickly, and all of your effort is going to go down the pan. You're screaming obscenities at the screen.
This is why WWF No Mercy is still the best wrestling game ever made. There are few games out there that can put you through the ringer like that, physically and emotionally, but still end with you respecting the hell out of the game.
Those epic matches stretch into the tens of minutes, the momentum swinging every way it can in a natural, believable, fair fashion - just like what happens in real wrestling in almost every match. (It's almost as if it's fake or something). You simply do not get it in any other fighting game. We've had 14 years for any other developer to make something fit to even lace up No Mercy's boots, and it hasn't happened. In the decade-and-a-half since AKI Corporation's best game came out, it has achieved legendary status for fans of the not-quite sport. It's unbeatable.
It holds up, too. I've been playing wrestling games since I was wee, and I can honestly say - with the possible exception of the Fire Pro games - that I've never played a tights-and-turnbuckles game better than No Mercy. And that's from a modern perspective - I replayed the N64 game recently, repeatedly, for hours on end. Once you get past those shonky looks and the utterly pathetic combination of tinny music and 'videos' (read: the lowest resolution gifs that have ever existed), the core is rock-solid.
This flies in the face of what publishers - mainly the dearly departed THQ - seemed to think wrestling fans wanted. WWF/E games after No Mercy pushed for pace, presentation and p...shallowness. They eventually nosedived to a level where they could only possibly appeal to the stereotypical representation of a pro wrestling fan. That's why it's so refreshing going back to No Mercy. It's a whipsmart game, which might be surprising given its association with such a dumb form of entertainment. Because of its integrity, just like Kurt Angle, it keeps on performing.
Speaking of the Olympic one, that's another aspect that keeps the love flowing for No Mercy: its setting. Space Year 2000 was the middle of the Attitude Era - maybe not its high point, as the TV product was spiralling into nonsense by then - but you can't argue with Stone Cold Steve Austin, The Rock, Mankind and Chris Jericho. (Well, you could, but it wouldn't end well for you - they're big men.) Cheap nostalgia it may be, but the warmth you feel when you see those familiar faces - and realise you can unlock Ken Shamrock as a secret character - is unbeatable.
No Mercy doesn't rely on gimmicks. It's very much like the Attitude Era of the WWF it represents: straightforward, simple, boiled-down. No bullshit, basically (even if I am wilfully ignoring a hell of a lot of rubbish that came out during said era). You don't see mini-game nonsense, you don't have to manage stamina by holding a button for a bit, and you're not wailing on your opponent with a forklift truck you're driving around.
It's combat system is straightforward and organic; it's got real depth, and rewards skill. Yes, it's harder for newcomers to know what the hell they're actually doing, but it's worth sticking with it beyond the initial confusion. It seems simple on paper: you're given two attack buttons, a strike and a grapple, and holding either initiates a 'power' version of the move in question. Then the layers arrive. Different directions mean different moves, resulting in eight moves for each type of standing grapple, another bunch for a rear grapple, more for ones on the ground, more for ones on the ground when the opponent is facing a different direction, more for...
You get the point. You're always covered. It's comprehensive. And that's empowering - especially when creating your own character. Wrestling is entirely about its characters, and their movesets are a big part of that - they're the calling cards. Being able to make your fake-fighting, tight-sporting musclebound freak have the precise set of moves you want, selected from hundreds, is just wonderful.
Taking said MBF out into the open, however, has its issues. Battling the AI on higher difficulty levels is still an exercise in pad-throwing frustration, with your opponents managing to reverse approximately 98.67% of the moves you attempt to hit them with. It actually made me bite my N64 pad in frustration back in the day. This makes the single-player branching storyline - something that's brilliant when utterly divorced from this cheating bastard AI - a slog. On paper, your championship hunt is fantastic, a mode that perfectly marries wrasslin's fakeness with an actual sense of natural progression. A loss isn't the end of the game, most of the time it just sends you on a different path to glory.
Unless of course you lose the championship match. Then you're just rubbish. Or the AI is cheating again.
But I'll stop bitching about the AI, because if you get three friends around - preferably ones who either known how to play the game or ones who are willing to learn - you'll have some of the absolute Best Fun.
It comes back to those 10-plus minute epic matches. For me, they're like a full-on FIFA match or an endurance race in Forza or Gran Turismo - the ebb and flow, the hard push to the finish, the fact it can all go to pot in a second. No Mercy is a competitive multiplayer masterpiece.
A sadder reason why No Mercy lives on in legend is what happened to its creators, AKI, after its release. The studio went on to make a few other obscure, Japan-only wrestling games - as well as the Def Jam fighting games... then... well, it's hard to talk about, to be honest. The company morphed into Syn Sophia, and the studio's most recent release was an updated version of this thing.
AKI might be dead, but it's no reason to lose hope entirely. Just five minutes - and a brain able to ignore how beautifully dated it all looks - is enough to convince anyone that WWF No Mercy still has the chops. When you add in Showdown 64, a mod that rips up and refits the entire game - well, that's when it actually becomes timeless.
2K Sports is dragging the WWE games back in the right direction. But while we all sit and wait patiently for the next great wrasslin' game to show up, sipping our Steveweisers and checking over our shoulders for any incoming RKO's out of nowhere, it's comforting to know a 14-year old classic is still just that.