When people don’t feel well, they typically eat ‘comfort food’, something which is soothing for them. For some people it’s chicken soup, for others it’s biscuits and gravy, or spaghetti, or apple pie. For me, it’s the blue box of Kraft Mac & Cheese with 3 sliced hot dogs and a healthy splortch of ketchup.
When it comes to video games, however, no game scratches the comfort food itch for me better than Total Extreme Wrestling. Though in TEW’s case, it’s more due to what it has in common with McDonald’s food. than macaroni & cheese, because TEW really wants you to play it ‘your way’.
This One’s for the Smarts
I know what you’re thinking. “A professional wrestling game? Is Neon Cheetahs staffed by 13 year olds?” But bear with me, I was once like you. As recently as spring of 2013, I belonged to the ranks of what wrestling fans would call a “smart” – someone who had no interest in pro wrestling, knew it was fake, and could not understand why anyone would find it compelling.
Unlike most other wrestling games, Total Extreme Wrestling doesn’t try to pretend that the wrestling isn’t scripted.
And then I happened to read a forum thread about Total Extreme Wrestling 2013, and everything changed. Unfortunately, it’s not really in the scope of this review for me to mount a passionate defense of pro wrestling for the readers, so you will have to discover that part for yourself. I will simply say this: if you can accept that despite being scripted, things like Game of Thrones, Power Rangers, Pokemon, or The Walking Dead are still exciting, that is all the suspension of disbelief you need to enjoy the ‘wrestling’ in Total Extreme Wrestling 2016.
Unlike most other wrestling games, Total Extreme Wrestling doesn’t try to pretend that wrestling isn’t scripted. In fact, planning who wins matches (and how) is one of the major components of the game. This is in stark contrast to the Yukes’ WWE games. Because those games try to be more like fighting games, they need to reinforce kayfabe (wrestling term for never admitting wrestling is scripted), despite the fact that nowadays everyone is “in on the joke”, simply to make it fun to play a game where it seems any character could potentially win if you played them well.
This One’s for The Carpenters
Instead, Total Extreme Wrestling is a fantasy booking simulator. What does that mean? Picture a game similar to Football Manager or Out of the Park Baseball. If you haven’t seen those either, imagine something like fantasy football.
I understand that might be hard to translate to a game about wrestling, so if you’re still lost, take a look at this picture. Here you can see most of the options available to you during the ‘front office’ portions (any day you’re not holding a show). Mostly it boils down to hiring, firing and managing personnel; dealing with rival companies; and negotiating contracts for TV shows or training schools. You can see how popular and skilled your wrestlers are, what their gimmicks are, whether they’re ‘good’ or ‘evil’ (Face or Heel), and so forth.
Most of that changes during a show, however. On show nights, you’re taken to the locker room and booking screens. Here, you will first deal with any fights or trouble that may have broken out during preparation for the show. Then, you will start to put together the night’s show – who is going to wrestle against who tonight? What kind of match will it be? When? How long will they go, and who will win? Will other wrestlers interfere in the match? How about ‘angles'(promos and hype)? Are 2 wrestlers who have been feuding for the past month going to yell at each other? Or maybe you’d rather they shook hands and made up?
Basically, you will have control over outlining the entire show, making an episode of wrestling TV (or Pay-Per-View) that people would find exciting and compelling. And then, each match and angle is ‘graded’ based on how much the audience liked it, and then the show itself gets scored. Part of the grade will be based on how skilled the wrestlers in each match are, part of it on their popularity, and part of it on whether the match is related to an exciting ongoing storyline. And then, the show’s score will be tallied by how good the matches and angles within it are, as well as other decisions related to how the show was laid out. Good shows will make the company and its wrestlers more popular, while bad shows will make the show less popular.
This One’s For the Marks
Total Extreme Wrestling’s base game takes place in an alternate universe called the Cornellverse, where a match in 1997 caused a massive rift in pro wrestling, essentially leading to three major wrestling promotions in the United States. One of them, SWF, is basically the modern WWE. The second, TCW, once run by the eponymous Tommy Cornell, is analogous to the WCW of the late 90’s. And the third, USPW, is a nostalgia act, with the style of the WWF of the Hogan era, and many of the aged stars of that era as well. This has caused changes throughout the world. Unlike our own world, in the Cornellverse professional wrestling has flourished, with nearly 40 major promotions throughout the world, in all sorts of different styles – from legitimate Japanese puroresu to hardcore weapons matches. Meanwhile, in our reality, there’s maybe 20 or so companies that would be large enough to be playable in TEW, so this gives you an idea of how big it’s gotten.
There are also a lot of fun shoutouts for people who want to look for them, such as wrestlers like Puffy the Sand Iron Player (the mad golfer turned wrestler), and the Strong family (who are basically the Harts of the Cornellverse); promotions like ZEN, the Australian puro-lucha federation whose logo and characters make it basically a “serial numbers filed off” CHIKARA; and even simple things like moments within the game’s backstory that are clearly referential to actual historical events in wrestling. This results in a world that is accessible for people who know nothing about real world wrestling companies, allowing them to find their own favorites and make them stars while providing some winks and nods for those who live and breathe this stuff.
And each time there’s a new game release, Adam Ryland (the game’s creator) also updates the world the game takes place in. Promotions grow, shrink, and sometimes even close. Wrestlers who were young rookies in older versions of the game have gone on to become major figureheads, older wrestlers will retire, and plenty of them will wind up moving to new promotions. This both makes the world the game takes place in feel alive, and ensures that each version of the game will have its own challenges. It also can lead to a fierce loyalty to various characters, just as one might have for actual wrestlers.
I had no interest in wrestling before I played this game, and it still spoke to me.
But, if the Cornellverse isn’t your cup of tea, there are plenty of modders working on all sorts of variants. Some try to keep up-to-date rosters of real-world promotions – reflecting roster changes every month for player who want to try to fantasy book their own versions of ongoing storylines. Others have modded databases to start at specific dates in Professional Wrestling history – Austin’s King of the Ring speech/The Montreal Screwjob, Wrestlemania I, the death of WCW, and the merging of the Territorial promotions, as examples – so players can try their hands with these scenarios and see if they could have “done it better”. There’s also a number of fantasy real-world scenarios: ranging from plausible – Shane and Stephanie McMahon each take over part of the WWE after Vince’s limo actually explodes; to the less plausible – TNA suddenly gets an influx of cash and is able to compete with WWE again; to complete wish-fulfillment – such as Hogan’s failure to catch on (causing Randy Savage’s rise to popularity) leading WWF into a less cartoonish style; or just the ultimate “dream match” promotion where every popular historical wrestler is able to compete together. Additionally, there’s a good assortment of non-real-world fantasy mods, such as: the Thunderverse – a complete alternate universe with a slightly different flavor to the Cornellverse; the 9000-verse – where popular video game, comic, anime and a few larger-than-life real people came together to create wrestling promotions (if you ever wanted to have a 3-way Spider Man vs M. Bison vs Bulbasaur ladder match, now you can); and even the Cornellverse 2010 – allowing people to step back into the world of the Cornellverse the way it was 7 years ago.
And This One’s For Me!
I know better than to think that this is a game for everyone. It’s a game about managing rosters, comparing numbers, and looking at graphs. It’s also a game about professional wrestling, and the stories and matches inherent to that. It’s aimed at a small group of fans within a small group of fans. But I’ll say again what I said at the top – I had no interest in wrestling before I played this game, and it still spoke to me. I think that there is enough depth and challenge here that people who are fans of management sims might still get a lot out of it, even if they don’t care all that much about wrestling…
Because for all of its weird mystique, bizarre stories, and insane characters, wrestling is pretty simple to understand. It’s about wanting to see someone you like, someone you respect, someone you cheer for succeed and triumph over the odds. It’s about the fight between good and evil. And most of all, it’s about that moment when you no longer care about whether it is real or fake, because it no longer matters – you just want to see your heroes win. And that is something that all gamers can appreciate.
Cost: $34.95 Found at http://www.greydogsoftware.com/home.php
Mechanics: Best there is, best there was, best there ever will be.
Aesthetics: Functional, but basically “enhancement talent”.
Overall: Best in the world at what it does