There’s something magical about the late ‘80s/ early ‘90s era of WWE (or WWF as it will always be known in my wrestling-loving heart). Yes, it was filled with drugs, alcohol, questionable morals, and even more questionable mullets, but it was an era of professional wrestling that was larger than life to the impressionable viewers who watched what was essentially the craziest cartoon in existence play out in front of their young eyes. It was like receiving a transmission from another universe.
Years later, I realized that part of what made that era of wrestling so fascinating was the scarcity of it. At a time before weekly TV shows, the internet, and the WWE Network, you rarely got to actually watch wrestling. You might be lucky enough to stumble upon a new tape at the video store or catch a WWE show in your hometown, but, for the most part, actually watching wrestling was a rare treat that only made the already magical nature of the show that much more mythical.
It’s also why anyone who grew up in that age will never forget the first time they walked into the arcade and laid eyes on WWF WrestleFest: the best wrestling game that you’ll probably never play again.
Released in 1991, WWF WrestleFest found itself alongside classic arcade games like Pac-Man and pinball machines as well as new releases such as The Simpsons, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and the juggernaut that was Street Fighter II: The World Warrior. Not every arcade featured the same cabinets, but that’s a real murderers row of arcade games competing for attention and quarters.
Yet, WWF WrestleFest had little trouble capturing the attention of wrestling fans. For someone like me, whose main exposure to wrestling at a young age came from hoping that the feed store or the gas station in our small town who also rented videos would happen to get a new wrestling tape in, the sight of WWF WrestleFest was overwhelming.
That’s really the first thing you need to understand about WWF WrestleFest as a game. From a visual perspective, it was astonishing. I mentioned earlier how WWE at that time was, essentially, a Saturday morning cartoon, but here was a game that used then top-of-the-line arcade visuals to actually turn wrestling into a cartoon.
It’s an art style that only really existed in that era of gaming, and it’s really the only art style that could have properly captured that era of wrestling. You have to remember that most console wrestling games back then were like most other licensed games at the time: they sucked. They slapped a familiar logo and face on the box to lure you in and punished you for being a fan with abysmal graphics and gameplay that resembled actual wrestling about as close as it resembled actual entertainment.
WrestleFest was different With their neon attire, cel-shaded frames, and exaggerated animations, the wrestlers in WrestleFest not only looked like their real-life counterparts, but they looked like the superheroes that these performers were to so many young fans. Not even WWF Superstars, which was developed by the same company behind WrestleFest and released just two years earlier, featured the bright palettes and smooth moves that made WrestleFest stand out.
The wrestlers on the game’s roster certainly helped the title’s cause. While Macho Man Randy Savage’s presence is missed (what a perfect character for the game), the fact that WrestleFest features both Hulk Hogan and The Ultimate Warrior at what may be both men’s popularity heights already makes the roster special. On top of that, you get the blend of incredible tag teams (Demolition and The Legion of Doom), pure workers beloved by fans “in the know” (Jake the Snake Roberts, “Million Dollar Man” Ted Dibiase, and Mr. Perfect), and low-end novelty acts that were memorable despite their place on the card (Earthquake and Big Boss Man) that showcased the depth of the WWE roster at the time and how the company somehow managed to turn so many of those performers into legends.
Gameplay-wise, WWF WrestleFest was far from a revolution. Actually, its gameplay was closer to 2D brawler with a competitive multiplayer mode. Aside from kicks and punches, you can grapple with your opponent, which doesn’t translate to more than a few additional moves determined by an algorithm (with the exception of your finisher and some cool double team moves). Modes are equally limited, as you can either work your way through the tag team circuit or participate in a Royal Rumble.
Yet, WrestleFest’s limited gameplay carries a charm of its own. Anyone looking for a serious fighting experience could head over to the Street Fighter II cabinet. This was about replicating the experience of early ‘90s WWE wrestling, which was all about larger-than-life wrestlers wowing the crowd with simple – yet exhilarating and devastating – feats of strength. Anything more elaborate wouldn’t have been true to the vast majority of wrestlers featured in the game.
Besides, we’ve seen what happens when wrestling games become too complicated. They lose the simple charm of titles like WWF No Mercy that manage to appeal to more than just the most hardcore wrestling fans. WWF WrestleFest may have spoken loudest to wrestling fans, but its simple gameplay and wonderful visuals could be enjoyed by anyone who wanted to battle their friends without having to memorize elaborate combos and 3/4 joystick turns.
Sadly, fans and the casually curious alike have about the same chance these days of playing WWF WrestleFest as it was meant to be played.
Even if you ignore the fact that WWF WrestleFest developer Technōs Japan declared bankruptcy in 1996, you’ve still got to account for the fact that this game is called WWF WrestleFest. The rules governing when WWE can use the old WWF logo are tricky, but we’re guessing that the process of porting this game to the modern age isn’t worth the headache that comes along with those legal hurdles. There’s also the tragic fact that 6 of the 12 characters featured in the game are now dead.
Besides, WrestleFest reportedly didn’t perform that well in the first place. Unless you want to resort to an illegal download or spending over $2,000 on a WrestleFest machine, you’re going to have to settle for the inferior WWE WrestleFest mobile remake, which somehow looks and plays worse than the original it so shamelessly shares its name with.
In a way, though, I’m somewhat selfishly glad that the modern WrestleFest is so bad and the original WrestleFest is so elusive. As nice as it is to have so much wrestling at our fingertips these days, there’s a part of me that’s always going to miss when my exposure to wrestling came through the odd TV special or the latest WrestleMania tape. It was a time when the simple presence of wrestling felt magical.
WWF WrestleFest deserves to stay forever young in that period. Release it today and it will almost certainly be fun, but by remaining elusive, WWF WrestleFest retains chronological invincibility in the same way that Hulk Hogan retained his championship at least one too many WrestleManias. Whenever I think about it, I feel the same as I did when I walked into an arcade and saw it for the first time. It was something I never knew existed, always knew I wanted, and it only cost a quarter.
Matthew Byrd is a staff writer for Den of Geek. He spends most of his days trying to pitch deep-dive analytical pieces about Killer Klowns From Outer Space to an increasingly perturbed series of editors. You can read more of his work here or find him on Twitter at @SilverTuna014.