Saturday, July 14th marks the 20th anniversary of the release of WWF War Zone, a revolutionary title for its time which has unfortunately fallen by the wayside as time has marched on.
The mid-90s was a period of transition in the wrestling industry, and that includes the licensed video game aspect of it. Acclaim was the proud holder of the license for the World Wrestling Federation, or WWF, which is better known today as WWE.
Their relationship began on the Nintendo Entertainment System with the Rare-developed title known as WWF WrestleMania, and development duties changed hands between them and Sculptured Software numerous times over the years, resulting in games which might have whet the appetite of fans back in the day, but do little to hold up over the long term. During the transition from the fourth console generation to the fifth, things got shaken up as Midway landed the rights to produce the 1995 arcade game known as WWF WrestleMania.
Gone were the hand-drawn graphics and button-mashing which were prevalent in most offerings up through 1995’s WWF Raw. In their place were digitized graphics and over-the-top special moves which effectively blended the world of sports entertainment with another hit arcade title of the time, Mortal Kombat. Shawn Michaels would bring out a baseball bat from nowhere, while Bam Bam Bigelow’s fists would erupt in flames and the Undertaker would unleash a stream of spirits as a projectile attack before burying his opponent with a literal tombstone over the top of their head. It was different from any wrestling game that came before it, and it was a hit.
A hit Acclaim would not only bring home to consoles across both generations, but try to follow up on the next year. By the time WWF WrestleMania: The Arcade Game hit store shelves, the small roster of eight characters was already dated, and so it fell to Sculptured Software to try to produce a successful sequel in WWF In Your House for the Sony PlayStation and SEGA Saturn. But despite a more contemporary lineup and each wrestler having their own custom stages and finishing moves (more akin to Mortal Kombat‘s Fatalities than the kind seen on TV), the game was critically panned by those who bothered to review it.
As the new generation of consoles set in, it was time to go back to the drawing board for “WWF ’98,” a project that would ultimately go on to be known as WWF War Zone.
Sculptured Software, now under the name Iguana West, evolved the WWF video game concept by bringing it into full 3D, keeping some of what worked in the previous installments while discarding what some would say didn’t. As with WWF WrestleMania: The Arcade Game and WWF In Your House, WWF War Zone featured digitized versions of the WWF Superstars, only now the images were mapped to 3D polygonal models that performed motion-captured moves. The over-the-top special moves were gone, bringing things back to the more basic styles of brawling and grappling, but now different moves could be performed by inputting different button combinations like a fighting game.
In addition to changing the style of play, WWF War Zone also added a plethora of different match types and modes. These would range from the single-player WWF Challenge, versus modes for up to four players, tag team matches, steel cage matches, weapons matches, a training mode, and more.
But the biggest and greatest lasting innovation came in the Create-a-Wrestler mode, wherein a number of options allowed players to create their own Superstar. Even though the move lists and themes would be taken from other featured members of the WWF roster found in the game, it was nonetheless a revolutionary feature that would go on to be refined numerous times over the years, and is still a prominent feature in WWE video games even today.
As noted at the top of this article, the mid-90s were a period of transition in the wrestling business, and one of the biggest took place as WWF moved from a more family-friendly, often “cartoony” form of wrestling to the Attitude Era of controversy and more “mature” fare that skyrocketed wrestling to mainstream popularity almost overnight. The timing could not have been better for Acclaim and Iguana, as WWF War Zone for the PlayStation played into this more dramatic aspect of the product by featuring full motion video promos from various wrestlers who would call the player out for a grudge match. Along with the CD quality themes and commentary, this brought the in-game experience closer to what fans saw on television in a way never seen before.
Unfortunately, the Nintendo 64 version (which would release the following month on August 11th) was unable to support the full motion video and CD-quality audio. In their place, an effort was made to make it up to N64 players by including two exclusive match types: The Gauntlet match and the over-the-top-rope Royal Rumble.
While sales figures are difficult to come by, it seems that both games did extremely well in the rental market, with both versions placing on IGN’s Top 5 charts for several months — and with the Nintendo 64 version almost surprisingly coming out on top over its PlayStation counterpart (I personally preferred the latter).
Though other (and arguably better) WWF/WWE games have come out since WWF Warzone first landed (including its own sequel, WWF Attitude), WWF War Zone is still a title which deserves some respect for the waves it made upon its arrival. Unfortunately, a re-release seems largely unlikely — in part due to Acclaim’s eventual shuttering in 2004, with it being anyone’s guess as to who the program belongs to now.
Meanwhile, WWE is happy to march forward with 2K Games in producing the WWE 2K series, which features a number of WWE Legends as well as current members of the roster. And while most of the roster of WWF War Zone seems to be on largely good terms with WWE these days, the inclusion of the late (and unquestionably great) Owen Hart would probably provide one of the largest barriers to a straight-up re-release.
Finally, if you’d like a fun little blast from the past, you can still visit the original 90’s official website for WWF War Zone via the Internet Archive.