One of the most stringent daily rituals Chi and I adhered to in high school was not completing homework after school, but taking the trip to the local arcade. We were accompanied by another friend, Alfa, who shared a love of the arcades. I soon noticed that he seemed to have an affinity for one arcade game, WWF Wrestlefest. At this point it was an old game. The cabinet was always well worn, the joysticks and buttons weren't the most responsive and with brand new Street Fighter II machines lined against the wall, it was neglected by the arcade staff. Still, this never deterred him, and he played it loyally. Watching him play was always a sight. He knew the game in and out and could pull off just about any move at will. He seemed to get nothing but satisfaction from hurling those muscle-bound digitized wrestlers all over the screen. The huge wrestling fan that he was, Alfa liked all wrestling games, but Wrestlefest in particular. Unfortunately, since then there hasn't been any new arcade wrestling games. The popularity of the sport was dwindling, and finally Wrestlefest slowly vanished from arcades all over the city. It was only on the rare occasion that we would walk into a deli or pizza shop and come across a dusty Wrestlefest machine. Alfa's eyes would light up as he gave the machine a go. I thought of him as I played THQ's arcade port, WWF Royal Rumble. It would be one game that I think even he would have given up on after a few minutes playing time.
I went into Royal Rumble expecting more of what I got from other THQ wrestling releases. On the Nintendo 64 and PlayStation, THQ delivered the closet thing to wrestling simulations that have ever been made, in WWF Wrestlemania 2000 and WWF Smackdown!, respectively. These titles were loaded to the brim with options, tight gameplay, excellent graphics and customizability modes that made them instant hits with gamers. For its debut on the Dreamcast, THQ had to think the Dreamcast was unworthy of one of their stellar wrestling titles, so it released this straight arcade port. It's hard to look at Royal Rumble and see it as anything but a stripped down version of any wrestling game on the market. It lacks a create-a-player feature, season mode, pay-per-view mode, tag team mode and the other "home game" features that would draw a player in. About all it has to offer are two lone playing modes, Exhibition and Royal Rumble. If there is a plus to this game, it is as sparse as these offerings seemed, Yukes got a lot out of them.
The Exhibition mode is as close to a tag team mode as you will get in this game. A single wrestler is chosen and taken into the ring, but before that a "partner" is selected to stand at ringside to offer temporary assistance when needed. At first this seemed to be a weak trade-off for not having a tag-team feature, but after playing for a few minutes it is easy to see its advantages. Each wrestling partner comes with three sets of three potential team moves to choose from. Each set can consist of purely offensive attacks, defensive tactics, or a combination of the two. If for instance, I chose Tazz as a partner, then I could become an offensive juggernaut, but if I chose one of the Hardy Boyz, I had more defensive moves to choose from. It all came down to my individual preference. That easily makes this option the game's brightest achievement, as it plays pivotal roles in the outcome of every match.
As is customary with Yukes' games, pulling off moves is a snap. Everything from grappling, to throws, to running moves are all executed with simple button combinations that usually involve the D-pad and one of the four face buttons (X, A, B, Y). The same goes for the team moves as well, with the only limitation being that they become momentarily unavailable after each use. That usually meant I had to make each use count, because once they were used, I had to go back to using standard wrestling moves -- it was a compromise, but one that enriched the gameplay. If I were ever being dominated by a computer opponent -- or in some rare cases, Chi -- a few choice double suplexes or double leg drops could swing the match back in my favor. Another benefit of these tactics was that they were just plain cool to pull off on an opponent. For full effect, the camera would switch mid-action and show off a pre-recorded animation routine that was made solely to "sell" the move. Considering how many times I cheered or cringed -- depending on whether I was dishing out or on the receiving end of that punishment -- I think it is safe to say they were successful.
I cannot stress enough the visceral pleasure I got from throwing an opponent around with the help of a partner, but that wasn't the only beneficial element to the game. Royal Rumble comes with a "specials" meter that is filled with every body slam, suplex or whatever moves I use on an opponent. Although, a full specials meter allows a special move to be executed with a tap of the R button, there is more to it than that. Offering temporary immunity or last ditch maneuvers, the specials meter serves a defensive purpose as well. The specials meter could be filled as many as five consecutive times, with each full meter signified by an S icon. I could then choose to either pull off a powerhouse move like The People's Elbow, or in the case that I was being pinned, I could use up one of the specials for a desperation kickout. Success in a match can be predicated on whether care was taken with this technique. If I mistimed or missed altogether with a special move, my entire special bar would be wiped clean. This left me to start over from scratch, and that is something I didn't want to do with only seconds left in a match.
It's ironic that the main event, the Royal Rumble, was the one that I found to be the most underwhelming and demonstrative of the game's shortfalls. Each match starts with four wrestlers in the ring -- this is a multiplayer arcade game after all -- and additional wrestlers enter the ring every couple of minutes. Just as advertised, it is possible for as many as nine wrestlers to be in the ring at once. However, the action doesn't seem to be that much better than any other Royal Rumble effort. Having that many bodies working independently is a sight to see, but this was the extent to which the game innovated. Case in point is their incredibly short attention spans. Many were the times when I was left dizzy after a flurry of combos or hanging onto the bottom ropes on the verge of being eliminated, that my attacker or attackers would simply stop their assault and move onto a far more healthy target.
Royal Rumble seems to stumble in every other aspect of the game, and unfortunately, a lot of that has to do with laziness on the part of the developer. The most obvious are the weak visuals. Aside from well-done facial textures, the graphics look like they were taken right out of the PlayStation version -- only now they are rendered at a higher resolution. There also seems to be a dearth of wrestlers available (a mere 20), which leads me to wonder how a nobody like Tazz could make it into the game at the expense of established favorites like the Dudley Boyz. And why are wrestlers in their old costumes? Many of the wrestlers like The Undertaker and Mankind were stuck in their old gear long after they made the change, but Yukes didn't bother offering alternate costumes -- something that is the cornerstone of these types of games. Don't get me started on the fact that wrestlers don't even enter the ring with their trademark music? I mean, come on -- even Capcom's Saturday Night Slammasters gave you that, and that game is over 10 years old!
Yukes did try to add some interesting elements to boost the variety in the game, but ultimately they all fell short. During any exhibition match, for instance, as many as three wrestlers can run to ringside to interrupt the action and pummel the combatants. I'm sure this looks like a great idea on paper, but seen in action, it has serious flaws. The randomness of their appearance was never shielded, and they always seemed to come into the ring at the same exact time from match to match. What was worse was that they would often spend more time beating up on me than my computer-controlled opponent. Needless to say, I turned off this little novelty as soon as I figured out I could. Another potential selling point was to be the randomly changing settings. Almost halfway through a match, the wrestlers are teleported to one of six different locations. This could including anything from a kitchen to a parking garage and steel cage. The problem is that although these other areas offer easier access all manner of foreign objects, I had more fun in the ring. Many of my superstars' special moves, as well as their double team moves, look better when done within the confines of the ring. These gimmicks ultimately cannot hide that Royal Rumble is really low on things to do and does not offer enough to hold my interest.
WWF Royal Rumble is the perfect game if you have a dollar to blow and half an hour left on your lunch break. Its entire design is such that it can be picked up quickly and mastered before it is over. It also features some great body crunching action that has been missing in the wrestling games of late. However, such a scarcity of features need to be balanced by a lot more than Royal Rumble has to offer when it comes to the home market. The Royal Rumble is repetitive and uninspired and though it showed flashes of ingenuity, the Exhibition mode could be easily beaten leaving less and less reason to continue playing after a few sittings. It is a fun game for a day or two, but it soon wears thin.