It all began as a desperation decision made by a floundering television network. The United Paramount Network (UPN) was getting routinely trounced in the ratings and needed a boost to keep itself afloat. At the same time, wrestling, namely WWF wrestling, was undergoing its most extraordinary revival in years, and was looking to strike a deal with a television network to reach even more of their target audience. Finding such a network wasn't easy because the content that the WWF was offering was deemed as far too risqué and controversial. But desperate times called for desperate measures, and UPN struck a deal with WWF president, Vince McMahon, and a two-hour show called WWF Smackdown! was born.
It was a hit right from the word go, and it gave UPN its best nightly ratings in its short history. Advertisers flocked to it to get their hands on the coveted 15-25 year old demographic that tuned in every week. Unfortunately, with the good came some bad for UPN, the saucy nature of the WWF soon became too much for certain advertisers who buckled under pressure from family groups and nervous stockholders. Despite all this, Smackdown has remained a force to be reckoned with. Each week it holds viewers glued to their seats and makes both UPN and the WWF a ton of money. Of course, it was only a matter of time before a wrestling video game based on the same name, WWF Smackdown!, would be released. But could a game on the now aging PlayStation do a fair representation of the show with all its overblown fireworks, sexually charged innuendo, physical bravado and backstage shenanigans? That answer is a resounding yes.
Right from the startup of Smackdown!, I noticed how much the game tries to capture of the self-dubbed sports entertainment just by looking at the sheer amount of play modes and options offered. To start, let me first describe the two more straight-up play modes, the Exhibition and Season. The Exhibition mode in particular really demonstrates how the developer, Yukes, wanted to squeeze in every type of matchup possible. The mode has no less than 11 types of matches in which to participate -- too numerous for me to list here, but you can bet that if you've ever seen it in the show, it's more or less in the game. Nevertheless, it is worth mentioning two types of matches in particular, the Anywhere Fall and Special Referee matches.
The Anywhere Fall match is exactly like it sounds. Players are allowed to brawl anywhere in or out of the ring. That includes backstage, the boiler room, parking lot and even the kitchen. What's even more amazing is how wrestlers can migrate from one location to the next by hurling an opponent through the various entrances. The Special Referee match is where a player can actually participate in the match by serving as the referee! Why would you want to be the referee rather then a wrestler? Well if you're familiar with the WWF at all, you'd know that guest referees are rarely impartial and will try to manipulate matches for their own personal gain. In the game, this translates to control over sneak attacks, count-outs and taunts. It was rousing to be able to step in and out of the action like that, but the experience got old rather quickly. I would have rather seen the mode expanded beyond the gimmick that it is now.
Aside from the Exhibition mode, there is also the season mode, which are the real meat and potatoes of the game. More akin to a career mode, this is where players guide a wrestler though continuous yearlong seasons of matches in his or her quest to move up the ranks and eventually earn a shot at one of the numerous WWF titles. Throughout the season, players will find themselves competing in more regular events like Monday Night Raw or WWF Smackdown! shows. Then of course there are the more special events like Summer Slam, Survivor Series, Royal Rumble and the season finale, Wrestlemania. Players can also expect plenty of backstage antics and politics that take place in the form of secret meetings, ambushes in-between matches and interference during actual matches. It's a nice touch and a clear reflection of the real-life WWF.
Regardless of which ever mode I decided to play, I found that in order to take full advantage of what the game had to offer, I needed to make my own customizations through the games Create-a-Pay -Per-View (PPV) and Create-a-Player mode. The PPV mode (which is now becoming a genre standard) gives players the options to create their own one-time event and set up a card of six matches between any wrestler and any kind of matchup. Once the event is over, its popularity is ranked according to audience reaction. Players can continually try to top their previous rankings by setting up another PPV event. This mode provided a funny little look into the life of WWF president, Vince McMahon, as he must deal with this sort of thing on an almost weekly basis. Needless to say, I am not the best promoter, or viewer for that matter, because I was much more interested in getting in on the action rather then setting it up.
So while I didn't find the PPV mode particularly involving, the innovative Create-a-Player mode is another story. Other games relegate their Create-a-Player modes to something more along the lines of Barbie fashion show, where we cut out nice little outfits for our wrestlers, customize a few moves and then send them off into the season mode. Smackdown! is different in that the choice of skins and body types for each wrestler are drastically limited compared to other wrestling titles in recent memory. But more importantly, this mode is incorporated into the Season mode better than any other wrestling game to date. In the process of creating my character, a set number of points can be doled out to several wrestling attributes, which in turn determine what abilities will be available to that wrestler. The Create-a-Player mode is incorporated into the Season mode in that each user-created wrestler can subject themselves to a preseason. In that preseason, players build up their attributes by points awarded after matches.
Still, all the aforementioned features would be useless if the actual wrestling portion wasn't any good. Thankfully, the gameplay is another great plus for Smackdown!. Taking a huge cue from THQ's own NWO Revenge and Wrestlemania 2000, Smackdown! tosses out any complicated button combinations that were becoming so prevalent in wrestling games. What is in store is a grappling system that is simplistic to grasp, yet feature-rich in implementation. The final results are remarkable. With a simple tap of the triangle button, I could grapple my opponent and throw him to the direction of my choosing. If while grappling I decided I wanted to pull off a body slam or suplex, I found that either could be done with a simple two-button command. And it wasn't just the simplified commands that won me over, but the additions of key defensive moves. The blocking and counter-punch features, although hardly new to games such as this, are far easier to pull off than in any game I've played recently. When the action got heated, I always felt I had some means of defending myself and returning in kind. Having these moves relegated to simple button commands allows the game's pace to be a whole lot quicker and feel a lot more fluid.
If there are any blemishes in Smackdown! to speak of, it's the graphics. They were nowhere near where I would have liked them to be. Even for a PlayStation title, the graphics were course and too jagged for me to get past. It was only worsened when these character models would stand before their full-motion video representations on the faux Titantron screen. Subsequently, after seeing the muscular Rock walk down the rink as a smooth and unbearably pale 3D representation, I couldn't help but be turned off. The facial textures are surprisingly detailed, but the lack of color overall in the models make most of the characters look bland and others downright ugly. Aurally, Yukes almost won me over. Smackdown! comes with 5 unique musical tracks that are loud and provide plenty of thumping, but after a while, they are just become loud and repetitive -- I was glad for the option of turning it off.
Also notable are the wrestler introductions. Here Yukes makes good use of the CD-ROM medium and supplied relatively high-quality, full-motion video sequences to coincide with each wrestler's entrance. The problem is that they are all far too short. It seemed that just as I was getting into the Hardy Boyz music or that of the People's Champion, it was over. To make matters worse, the wrestlers don't even walk down the isle and into the ring. In its place is a load screen for me to sit through.
In the end, the graphics and sound may be lacking, but Smackdown! shows up where it counts the most, in the amount of features and the rock-solid gameplay. It's not without a bit of irony that at a time when wrestling game developers are trying to complicate a player's actions in a misguided attempt to create some sort of wrestling simulation, Smackdown! manages to do just that with a far simpler style. In the highest possible compliment I can pay it, Smackdown! concerns itself with offering a fun gaming experience over all else. In that regard, Smackdown! is not only a fine game, but also a fitting tribute to what pro-wrestling has become and to the wildly popular show by the same name.