From New Japan to 2K: The History of the Yuke’s Wrestling Engine, Part 1: Toukon Retsuden

Posted in Kulturecade by - November 30, 2017
From New Japan to 2K: The History of the Yuke’s Wrestling Engine, Part 1: Toukon Retsuden

I previously chronicled the history of the AKI wrestling engine in a three-part series spanning from its short lifespan between 1996 and the mid-2000s. Doing so was not only a labor of love, but one filled with nostalgia for a long-gone series of games that still sparks debate to this day about the superior series (and, by proxy, the superior console). While it may not surprise anyone to find me on the side of AKI Corp. and their incredible work that culminated in the release of WWF No Mercy on the N64, what lies on the other side of the coin has earned a few names over its long history, including the Yuke’s Engine, the SmackDown Engine, and its current incarnation in the 2K Engine.

Yes, the series that we wait for with baited breath every single year and tell ourselves that this is when they finally get it right and are inevitably disappointed by its glitchy gameplay, inconsistent portrayals of our favorite superstars, and improvements in all the wrong places (two straight years without a Showcase Mode is inexcusable) is actually the borderline unrecognizable result of over two decades of tinkering and tweaking to a wrestling engine that began in the early era of the original PlayStation. Much like their counterparts in AKI Corp., Yuke’s Future Media Creators was formed from the start with the task of making wrestling games, beginning with their first title, Shin Nippon Pro Wrestling: Toukon Retsuden on the PlayStation.

Since acquiring the WWF license to start producing the SmackDown games for North America in 1999, Yuke’s has produced a WWE title every year, as well as a fair amount of other wrestling games for their hometown affiliate, New Japan Pro Wrestling (of which they also owned a majority percentage and produced DVDs for from 2005-2012), and a few other games in between, such as the Irritating Maze game for the N64 in Japan. Over that time, they’ve experienced as many ups and downs as you might expect from such a long-standing series with such a consistent release schedule, while also being somewhat at the mercy of its bedfellows in the WWE. The Yuke’s Engine has had an interesting history that is well worth telling in the same way it was with AKI Corp. and their ties to the Monday Night War, their almost cocky expansion across to the GameCube in the mid-2000s, to the rebranding and reacquisition of the series and the series we have now.

Shin Nippon Pro Wrestling: Toukon Retsuden series (PlayStation, Nintendo 64, Dreamcast)

Toukon Retsuden 2 (PS1)

The NJPW of the late 1990s was a much different beast than it is today, where it is essentially the Japanese equivalent of the WWE, boasting popularity far above the competition in other Japanese promotions while still giving its competition room to breathe. Antonio Inoki’s puroresu promotion shared the stage with Giant Baba’s All-Japan Pro Wrestling company, who were represented in the fifth generation by AKI Corp.’s Virtual Pro Wrestling games. The interesting thing about the Toukon Retsuden games from this time is that while the AKI titles had North American counterparts of their games to compare to when looking for differences in tone and presentation, Toukon Retsuden has only its own sequels across its first few releases on the PS1, N64, and eventually the Sega Dreamcast.

The Toukon Retsuden games are fairly adept at embodying the Japanese approach of puroresu (the treatment of wrestling as a legitimate fight, low on theatrics and high on athleticism), with little by way of fancy presentation, similar to how many of the wrestlers on the roster approach their profession. The HUD in the first few games shows only the wrestlers’ names and a match timer, the former of which will sometimes flash when a character is able to perform a special move. This HUD would be toned down even further in later games, such as the N64 titles, to not even include the wrestlers’ names or the match time, but only a running list of the moves as they were executed in the match, even further highlighting the serious puroresu focus on athleticism and technical ability. This, of course, isn’t to suggest that Toukon Retsuden or NJPW, in general, didn’t account for a little showmanship, as the special moves would later be reworked into “taunt moves” which required the move’s combo to kick off by taunting your opponent before laying them out.

Toukon Retsuden 3 (PS1)

The feel of these games is noticeably quicker than that of the AKI titles at the time, which somewhat sets the tone for the SmackDown titles to come. Although “feeling too slow” is often my own personal complaint about older wrestling titles such as WWF Royal Rumble on the Super Nintendo (or sports games in general), having a quick pace doesn’t automatically give Yuke’s the upper hand, as the Toukon Retsuden titles, although not as heavily as the Acclaim-released WWF titles of the era, rely on a fighting-game-style series of memorized button presses to execute each wrestler’s moves, rather than the pick-up-and-play style of AKI’s revolutionary chain-grappling system. Eliminating this element of memorization and severing these ties to the fighting game genre would effectively become the key to the success of the entire genre in the years to come, and keep the core gameplay of the series the main, salvageable feature of any future entries, regardless of other issues.

By the time the series culminated in the pair of Toukon Retsuden 2 – The Next Generation on the Nintendo 64 and Toukon Retsuden 4 on the Dreamcast, the presentation of the product within the game had become much flashier, with more TV-like camera angles and a more “big-fight feel” preceding the matches. Although they had always been mainstays of the series and of NJPW, this sense of evolution would greatly benefit the biggest members of the roster, namely The Great Muta and Jushin Liger, who anybody looking to research the game probably won’t be surprised to find are the most popular characters amongst Youtubers and the like. These later pre-WWE titles, Toukon Retsuden 4 especially, likely with a lot of help from the Dreamcast, have also held up fairly well visually, even better in most areas than AKI or Acclaim’s offerings from the time. Animations is a bit more fluid and diverse than in the AKI engine and the character models are fairly well detailed without being overly smooth or round like in the sometimes creepy models in Acclaim’s War Zone or Attitude.

Toukon Retsuden 4 (Dreamcast)

True smarks and wrestling purists will likely tell you that both Virtual Pro Wrestling 2 and Toukon Retsuden 4 are superior to their McMahon-ified counterparts, but that just wouldn’t be true. While the Toukon Retsuden titles managed to come a long way in a very short period of time, and on consoles that advanced very quickly in terms of what developers managed to do with them, the direction that the games were going in by the end of the series’ run was likely to hit a ceiling were it not for the introduction of a more popular and diverse wrestling product in the WWF, who were absolutely on fire by the time they called upon Yuke’s to take the reins (Toukon Retsuden 4 would be the end of the Toukon Retsuden series in particular, save for an early 2000’s GameBoy Advance title). The WWF, and to a lesser extent, WCW, was changing the entire wrestling business around the world, and that showed in the games Yuke’s was making by the time Toukon Retsuden 4 came around, adding bells and whistles on gradually until the attitude of puroresu was forced to give way to that of the appropriately named “Attitude Era,” which opened up a lot of channels for Yuke’s to get more creative and tackle some exciting new gameplay elements, characters, and features that wouldn’t have been possible if they only had NJPW and their smaller audience to work with.

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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