The History of the Yuke’s Wrestling Engine, Part 2: Laying the Foundations of SmackDown!

Posted in Kulturecade by - February 08, 2018
The History of the Yuke’s Wrestling Engine, Part 2: Laying the Foundations of SmackDown!

If 1999 was the year that the WWF really pulled away from its competition in WCW, with defections like Chris Jericho and former Giant, The Big Show, as the most effective signals that the tide had turned, then 2000 was nothing but cake for Vinnie Mac and company. A great year highlighted by a continued trend of mass defection from the likes of The Radicalz and William Regal, plus consistently solid PPV offerings, a smaller but vital piece of the puzzle as far as monetary success would be further improvement in their video game offerings. Enter the young upstart wrestling aficionados at Yuke’s, who had found success over the past few years with the Toukon Retsuden series (and a few non-wrestling titles in-between such as Evil Zone and Sword of the Berserk: Guts’ Rage) on PlayStation, N64, and Dreamcast.

Just as SmackDown had debuted to trounce WCW’s Thunder in the arena of secondary shows, Yuke’s would begin producing PlayStation-exclusive titles featuring the new blue brand in early 2000, forming a staggering one-two punch of different, but almost equally enjoyable and deep WWF titles along with AKI Corp.’s incredible games for the N64 (both series were published in North America by THQ). A busy year by most standards, Yuke’s would release two SmackDown titles in only eight months apart in the year 2000, plus another lesser-known arcade release, Royal Rumble, in-between, marking one of the busiest years in the company’s 25-year history.

WWF SmackDown!

If 1999 was the year that the WWF really pulled away from its competition in WCW, with defections like Chris Jericho and former Giant, The Big Show, as the most effective signals that the tide had turned, then 2000 was nothing but cake for Vinnie Mac and company. A great year highlighted by a continued trend of mass defection from the likes of The Radicalz and William Regal, plus consistently solid PPV offerings, a smaller but vital piece of the puzzle as far as monetary success would be further improvement in their video game offerings. Enter the young upstart wrestling aficionados at Yuke’s, who had found success over the past few years with the Toukon Retsuden series (and a few non-wrestling titles in-between such as Evil Zone and Sword of the Berserk: Guts’ Rage) on PlayStation, N64, and Dreamcast.

Just as SmackDown had debuted to trounce WCW’s Thunder in the arena of secondary shows, Yuke’s would begin producing PlayStation-exclusive titles featuring the new blue brand in early 2000, forming a staggering one-two punch of different, but almost equally enjoyable and deep WWF titles along with AKI Corp.’s incredible games for the N64 (both series were published in North America by THQ). A busy year by most standards, Yuke’s would release two SmackDown titles in only eight months apart in the year 2000, plus another lesser-known arcade release, Royal Rumble, in-between, marking one of the busiest years in the company’s 25-year history.

WWF SmackDown!

Having played so many of the original game’s contemporaries and close successors, including both its immediate sequel and its yearly incarnations on the PS2, plus its AKI-developed cousins on the N64, the lasting legacy of the original WWF SmackDown, to me, is how closely its release and immediate sequel resembles that of both WrestleMania 2000 on the N64 and Studio Gigante’s WWF Raw on the original Xbox — they are all games with at least a solid engine to build upon (though Raw certainly needed some work), produced on a short deadline that only allowed for so much content on the first try, and are subsequently overshadowed or even bashed in hindsight because of the comparisons.

I’m always impressed when returning to the PS1 offerings from Yuke’s because the gameplay between SmackDown and my personal favorites on the N64 is so different; SmackDown is so much faster, more on pace with Marvel vs. Capcom than anything that preceded it in the wrestling genre, and so much more of an arcade experience because of it. It’s Blitz to No Mercy’s Madden, and yet both offer the same level of accessibility because the archaic fighting-game inspired controls of Acclaim’s offerings had seemingly been left in the dust, despite being less than two years out from WWF Attitude, and ECW Hardcore Revolution occupying store shelves alongside the new school of wrestling games. The idea to have a button to strike, a button to guard, to run, to grapple, etc., is so ingrained in players by this point and it’s because these two completely different series on different consoles popularized it when it was applied to the world’s prevalent wrestling company and there’s been no reason to change that formula since.

On the content side of things, however, the argument will always remain that there is something to be desired, especially considering what was done with only a few months more time for SmackDown 2: Know Your Role. Season Mode is often considered to be rather weak and repetitive, despite being necessary to unlock the last handful of superstars including Albert, Jacqueline, and Gerald Brisco, or rather, the ability to unlock create-a-wrestler parts for them. Imagine grinding through six seasons of a mild variation of “Raw, SmackDown, House Show, Raw, SmackDown, House Show, PPV, repeat,” and still have to put in extra work to be able to use Mideon in game. It’s certainly nothing to write home about. And while the main roster isn’t too shabby, getting a good start at around 40 superstars in total, plus its own robust create-a-wrestler mode to rival those on the N64 (and from Acclaim, one of the few things their games had truly done well), it’s limited strictly to creating characters, and would pale in comparison to the suite offered by its successor, Know Your Role.

The one place where SmackDown is sorely lacking by any measurement, especially without any particularly compelling structure to spice it up, is in its variety of match options. Much like WrestleMania 2000, true stipulation matches are few in number, with only I Quit, Steel Cage, Hardcore, Falls Count Anywhere, and Special Referee matches in its bag of tricks. Unsurprising, since this would clearly be the area that would require the most work to add, modifying the existing engine itself to accommodate new mechanics for different match types rather than simply adding new wrestlers or arenas to inhabit that engine. Regardless of this, though, WWF SmackDown was still an excellent first foray into the North American market for Yuke’s and showed PlayStation owners that they could have something all their own under the WWF brand, separate from the N64, and that the separate series on separate consoles, for at least a few years going forward, would work to some degree.

WWF Royal Rumble

Not to be confused with the middle entry of Acclaim’s 16-bit wrestling titles, WWF Royal Rumble is an arcade and Dreamcast release by Yuke’s from Summer 2000 that takes everything that made SmackDown a simulation in spite of its blazing speed, and brings it up to that same level for an entirely arcade experience that, unsurprisingly, is pretty cool when played on its original cabinet, and still pretty cool for a quick Rumble match on the Dreamcast version as well. Boiled way, way, way down to only two modes and 19 wrestlers (21 in the Dreamcast version), Royal Rumble’s main attraction is its titular match type, while players can also play a traditional one-on-one ladder mode.

One of the big selling points of the game was that it allowed for up to nine characters on screen at once for the Royal Rumble mode, as opposed to a more typical six in other games. This, combined with the small roster that you may have noticed has fewer superstars than a Royal Rumble would even contain, leads to the game mostly consisting of total mayhem, often containing three or four copies of the same superstar, since players can rejoin the game and select any character they desire at any time. This, combined with the uber-simplified version of the Yuke’s engine makes for a game with even less longevity per play session than the original SmackDown but only seems like a truly bad game because Dreamcast owners weren’t offered anything else by way of a WWF license other than a WWF Attitude port from Acclaim.

WWF SmackDown! 2: Know Your Role

The key to Know Your Role’s lasting appeal is that it has more. Judging solely on content, it actually has more to offer than even WWF No Mercy, which was released right around the same time and yet is the more instantly recognizable of the two. That dearth of match options that kept SmackDown from gaining any real lasting appeal beyond the grindfest of season mode has been added to greatly with Casket matches, Hell in a Cell, TLC and Ladder matches, Table matches, and Iron Man matches. The creation modes began to define the term “creation suite” with players being able to create their own managers, pay-per-views, stables, taunts, and edit any and all movesets as well.

The roster is improved too, being bumped up to over 50 superstars, but not without a few weird details in it. When I went to play the game myself for research, I found it odd that both Big Show and Steve Austin were absent — this is because Austin is an unlockable character (go figure, I complain that the unlockables in one game aren’t fulfilling, and the unlockables in the next game are too high-profile), while Big Show was just… cut. He and Ken Shamrock were both intended to be in the game but aren’t playable, though they will both enter Royal Rumble matches in Season Mode. I know this is a small detail but I feel like it’s worth noting because it’s so weird and makes the game feel like it’s missing something vital when you first boot it up.

Season Mode, however, is vastly improved, making it more natural to unlock characters (including other quality superstars like Shawn Michaels and Billy Gunn) like reaching a certain PPV on the calendar or winning the King of the Ring tournament. It’s also less of a formulaic run through cycle after cycle of shows, and instead introduces a wider array of storylines and events that can be experienced through the natural progression through the WWF calendar. It’s not quite on the level of AKI’s No Mercy, which is appropriately credited with finally bringing the sense of actual wrestling storytelling to video games, rather than just the in-ring action.

Were it not for the objective technical superiority of 2004’s Here Comes The Pain for the PlayStation 2, it feels as though the tandem of No Mercy and SmackDown 2: Know Your Role would effectively reign supreme as the everlasting duo of wrestling games. Two different systems, two different gameplay styles, but a bevy of similarities that become all the more memorable through the benefit of the real product having its most popular period ever. There are a few likely reasons as to why No Mercy remains the more popular even when taking fanboying out of the equation — the nostalgia factor always hits harder with cartridge gaming and with Nintendo systems in general, as well as the fact that No Mercy and their developer can be so easily romanticized since they no longer make wrestling games, while the Yuke’s engine has continued through a much longer, ongoing history complete with as many ups and downs as the WWE itself, thereby subjecting itself to the same imperfect history that AKI Corp. never had to associate itself with. It’s that similar sense of bravado that permeates the video game product following the end of the Monday Night Wars and the foray into a new console generation that will define the next chapter of Yuke’s’ history, wherein the overnight success awarded by a more easily-defined vision and set of needs saw the company begin its expansion into an empire by comparison to its early days.

 

This post was written by
He is a video game staff writer and dreamed of being a video game as a young boy. Then somebody told him that you can't really do that, so he compromised by doing a bunch of stuff related to that, playing video games, reading about video games, writing about video games, working at a video game store, and all those good nerdy things. Aside from video games, he's also a dork of all trades, with an interest in heavy metal music, wrestling, sports, and Magic the Gathering.

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