Much like wrestling itself, the pro-wrestling video game market is no longer a two-company industry anymore. Thanks to Electronic Arts’ WCW Mayhem, it’s a three-way dance, and EA hasn’t stepped in at number three, either.

Earlier this year, the wrestling video game licenses did a bit of a spin. THQ, long known for their WCW video games won the WWF license away from Acclaim. (Acclaim is currently working on their next wrestling game for ECW.) The WCW license went to Electronic Arts, long known for their sports sims, but new to pro wrestling. Fans feared their first game would be a washout, due to the traditional learning curve of getting used to simulating a whole new sport, especially since EA chose to build a game engine from scratch, rather than license an established engine, as THQ had done successfully in the past when it started with wrestling games.

There was no need to worry. EA has left the gate at full speed, and delivered a game that matches its competitors, and surpasses them in some ways as well.

The first big improvement is the character design. The basic wrestler shape is a little more squat and barrel-chested that other games on the market, but that’s due to more sculpting to the chest area, giving them a bigger look. The skins themselves are much more detailed — more shading and colour make the wrestlers appear even more three-dimensional. Plus the wrestlers actually breathe; seeing their chests rise and fall as they went at it also added a level of realism to the design.

But check this out — someone at Electronic Arts made an amazing discovery while researching the ins and outs of wrestling .. .wrestlers are DIFFERENT SIZES! And they actually used that in the game! I pitted Kevin Nash against Rey Mysterio Jr., and imagine my surprise to see they didn’t meet eye to eye! And that size difference meant that some of Kev’s moves wouldn’t work on the smaller wrestler, and try as I might, I couldn’t get Rey to lay a powerbomb on Big Sexy.

Yeah, they look great standing still, but how do they work in action? Real damn good. Animation is fast and smooth, with very few cases of wrestlers hitting thin air but the other guy getting laid out anyway. Lots of other details make the playability more realistic; wrestlers hop over their fallen opponent if they want to go from one spot to another, not just float along the mat like they’re on an air-hockey rink. If you pick up a weapon, your opponent can block your attack and dropkick the weapon right into your face. And this is all happening at nearly real time. An amazing piece of work.

Instead of using a health meter, Mayhem bases the tide of the game on the “Momentum Meter” that measures how well you’re doing in the match. The more moves you land, the more the match swings in your favour, but miss a few or get caught with a reversal, and your opponent could get the upper hand in a heartbeat. It works well, and it’s a bit more realistic (not to say quicker) than just beating your opponent into the canvas and finally getting a pin. There’s taunts, finishers, stun moves, run-ins and more. No blood alas…this is the G-rated WCW for sure, but still a treat.

Bret Hart takes down Big Poppa Pump in WCW Mayhem action.

The wrestlers’ entrances is about the only mis-step in the game. They’ve only included entrance themes for a handful of wrestlers, so for example almost all the NWO guys come in to the NWO Red or B&W theme, the luchadores come in to the “La Rasa” theme, and like that. (The only people who have their own themes are DDP, Goldberg, Buff Bagwell, Macho Man, Konnan, and Sting.) Also the wrestlers’ entrances themselves are a little tame. A little shake and shuffle for a moment, but on the whole they just come past cheap sparkly pyro and make their way to the ring. They don’t talk much in the ring, either, but in my opinion this is all to the good — the wrestlers should be wrestling, the commentators doing the patter.

And boy, do they. The commentary quality is a major jump up from Acclaim’s recent WWF Attitude. Ring announcer Tony Schiavone is at his “I’m about to pop a vein” best here, putting lots of emotion into the action. He not only knows what the moves are and calls them properly (proving that in some cases, art can IMPROVE on life…) but if you keep using the same move, the game recognizes that and the commentary reflects it; “There he goes, back to the same move — it worked before…” VERY impressive. And of course, Bobby Heenan on colour commentary is always a treat, peppering the action with barbs and commentary that make sense, as opposed to Jerry Lawler’s non-sequiturs in Attitude. The commentary keeps up with the action perfectly,

Everybody loves to fight outside the ring, so EA took that to the next logical step. WCW Mayhem allows you to take the fight into the backstage area. Go out through the arena entrance, the game switches to “security cameras” and you end up in a randomly selected backstage area: the parking lot, the locker room, even the men’s room (haven’t been able to give my opponent a swirley yet, but try, try again…). Weapons galore all over the place, (and they all do double damage) and adding to the realism, the sound of the crowd is muffled, so you can really hear the wrestlers land those blows.

Adding more new stuff to the mix, EA will be working with the WCW to provide special passwords to allow you to simulate the cards of each pay-per-view in your game. Enter the passwords, and a four-match card is generated, just select a match and play away.

Of course, the big question for people like me who have both systems is, which version is better? There’s more space for extras on the PlayStation disk, including a killer opening video, and the programming space to include Bobby Heenan’s words of wisdom. The Nintendo 64 version does run smoother, and there’s no load delays. But is all that worth the lack of ‘The Brain’? I leave it to you.

To make a long and beautiful story short and ugly, WCW Mayhem has established Electronic Arts as a major player in the world of Pro Wrestling, and THQ and Acclaim have got a real slobberknocker on their hands.  

WCW Mayhem hits stores on Friday, September 24, 1999

Vinnie Bartilucci was born on Prince Edward Island, spirited to New York at a young age, and is living quietly as a computer programmer in New York. He has a wife, a daughter named after a character from “A Pup Named Scooby Doo” and an apartment too small for their collection of toys and movies.