Every Saturday afternoon, just before the football pools results were on, my grandmother would work herself up into a rabid wrestling-induced frenzy that belied the seriousness of her emphysema. Mick McMannus, Kendo Nagasaki, Giant Haystacks, Kid McCoy and, of course, Big Daddy provided more pseudo sporting entertainment than Roman coliseum could ever hope to achieve.
Every so often, however, Shirley Crabtree would take a week off, and ITV would fill the gap with a bit of American wrestling. Undoubtedly this was the bigger brother of British wrestling, as the grandstanding and sheer scale of the events dwarfed our bouts held in smoke filled town halls. But we did get to know one or two American Wrestling names, who’ve since become legends in their own right, and already forgotten by the fickle audiences who flock to the WWE, or WWF, of WTF or whatever abbreviation American wrestling is currently prefixed by.
Which, finally, brings us to THQ’s WWE Legends of WrestleMania. Now, whether this is as marketable a concept as THQ hopes remains to be seen. The most immediate problem faced by Legends of WrestleMania is in finding an audience, as most kids who currently devour the WrestleMania franchise games probably haven’t heard of Andre the Giant. And the rest of us who do remember the struggling co-star of The Princess Bride are pretty unlikely to buy a wrestling game in the first place.
Accompanying the late, great Andre the Giant are the likes of Hulk Hogan, The Rock, Hacksaw Jim Duggen, The Junkyard Dog and a host of other forgotten muscle men in pants. Legend’s point, however, isn’t purely another use of THQ’s wrestling game engine (although it’s also that). Legends of WrestleMania makes a sincere attempt to deliver a wrestling game which pays homage to the giants of the sport. A kind of interactive history lesson, if you like.
Because THQ’s clearly aiming for a much more mainstream audience – considering this isn’t an annual franchise update designed to maintain wrestling stalwarts – it does make sense that the previous, and well-worn SmackDown Vs. Raw control system has been thrown out of the ring in favour of a much simplified set of moves. A cynic could accuse THQ of dumbing down on the control front, but a greater cynic would suggest American wrestling was already pretty dumb, and Legends simply cuts away the dead wood and allows the game to enjoy the raw, escapist nature of its purpose.
So button mash to your heart’s content, and Legends will honour your efforts with a massive array of moves direct from the annals of WWE history. Slams, submission moves, off-the-rope gymnastics and falls are assigned simply to their own buttons, and a good, enthusiastic mashing will make for a very entertaining and watchable bout. Indeed, if the matches of this game were aired back in the 80s, TV viewers would have been unable to tell the difference between Legends of WrestleMania and the real thing (though this is partly because the real life wrestlers were about as believable as their CGI counterparts, but that’s by the by).
But argh! Legends, for some inexplicable, brainless reason, has felt the need to succumb to the awful trend for adding quick time events to certain moves and actions. As quick time events have done in every single game ever made (except God of War), they completely dislocate the gameplay from the action, and chafe violently against the active button mashing the game has been promoting up until this point.
This is another example of where Legends fails to target a specific audience. Those who are practiced and dexterous enough to gleam some enjoyment from quick time events aren’t going to appreciate the rest of the button mashing mechanics (and probably wouldn’t buy a wrestling game anyway) while the casual gamer who’s likely to wander into the Legends ring for a bit of light, nostalgic escapism will find this dreadful sequence punching nonsense to be far too aggravating to qualify as entertainment.
Overlooking this massive issue, there is an aspect to Legends that elevates it above the usual career-chasing gameplay of its brethren. Rather than winning match after match in an attempt to get to the top of some fictional leaderboard and be awarded with a big, fat, gaudy belt, Legends draws upon its nostalgic theme for in-the-ring inspiration.
The game includes a host of classic clips from the history of WWE in the 80s and 90s (gamers in their 30’s, like myself, will enjoy this trip down a tasteless memory lane as much as actually playing). After watching a vintage match between wrestlers of yore (and these aren’t quick vignettes, but full and surprisingly entertaining videos complete with commentary and intro) you can either ‘relive’ the match as the winner, ‘rewrite’ the match as the loser or attempt to ‘redefine’ wrestling history. These three game modes aren’t all that much different, but do offer a unique way of adding genuine excitement to the virtual matches.
The addition of awards, like costumes, new match types and videos, give the achievement junkies something to fight for, and actually do reward the casual gamer, too. This all conspires to make Legends of WrestleMania surprisingly complete, and the tangible 80s veneer is a genuine, camp delight that makes this the first wrestling game for a long time that can actually harbour an appeal for the casual gamer.
But overall it’s quite a short experience and suffers badly from the addition of quick time events. Hopefully this is a test run for a real Legends of WrestleMania game that disperses with the glaring gameplay mistakes but continues to actively cater for gaming fans who can’t quite stomach the usual annual franchise refresh.
Also, let’s take this opportunity to send THQ our collective votes for a Legends of British Wrestling game. If Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks get back in the virtual ring on an Xbox 360, you can guarantee IncGamers will be ringside, swinging a handbag around its head and brandishing knitting needles at the men in tights.