RetroMania Wrestling Review: Boys Club Nostalgia
Few wrestling games are thought of as fondly as WWF Wrestlefest, a 1991 arcade game from Technos Japan. Between improving on the visual fidelity and sound quality of WWF Superstars and getting worldwide distribution, Wrestlefest was a hit that helped shape wrestling in video games for generations to come.
Some 30 years later, RetroMania Wrestling from Retrosoft Wrestling is a sequel to WWF Wrestlefest, trading the necessity of a bulky cabinet for a gamepad and Steam account. The WWF license has been replaced by the National Wrestling Association and House of Hardcore, and a cavalcade of today's wrestlers are the new would-be arcade heroes.
A follow-up three decades overdue, RetroMania Wrestling celebrates modern pro wrestling through the pixel art and sound of yesteryear. As a throwback to when the best way to settle a grudge was using an arcade cabinet, it lays a strong foundation, but as a showcase of contemporary professional wrestling, it leaves something to be desired.
RetroMania Wrestling Review: Boys Club Nostalgia
Two single-player modes are available in RetroMania Wrestling, each offering its own distinct narrative.
In Story Mode, you guide Johnny Retro (based on WWE superstar John Morrison) through a dramatic comeback following a career-threatening injury at the hands of Zack Sabre Jr. Once he's completed rehabilitation, Retro hits the road, traveling to territories in the United States and around the world for his chance at revenge. Stylized versions of Matt Cardona (previously Zack Ryder in WWE), Jeff Cobb, hardcore legend Tommy Dreamer, and many others make appearances along the way, either teaming up with or challenging Johnny across the various shows.
Matches use three movesets; weak, medium, and strong. Landing hits requires good timing and no small amount of button-bashing to win grappling contests for bigger moves. There is a tutorial, but like its forebears, RetroMania is best understood through trial by fire, trying out combinations against wrestlers in actual matches.
It can be frustrating having the standard AI pull off suplexes and other combos that seem impossible, but once you start to understand the overall rhythm, elaborate techniques become a gratifying cinch. Eventually, dwindling your opponent's stamina for the 1-2-3 is but a forgone conclusion, at which point you can dial up the difficulty.
Short animated cut-scenes break up story encounters, where Retro talks to other wrestling figures in a kayfabe-like environment where everyone is their in-ring personas. Names and faces, such as Dave Meltzer of the Wrestling Observer, pop up to help further the plot, and you occasionally have choices about alliances or your next adversary that affect your proceeding matches and create some replayability.
If you aren’t much for melodrama, the second mode, 10 Pounds of Gold, lets you choose your wrestler in a bid to defeat Nick Aldis for the NWA Worlds Heavyweight Championship, one of the oldest belts still in active competition.
You face a series of random opponents, in matches varying from one-on-one to a fatal-four-way, before getting to Aldis on an NWA pay-per-view, complete with an animated pre-match Aldis promo. Should you win, you defend a number of times, leading to Aldis getting his rematch.
These are rounded out by Royal Rumble and Exhibition, where you can play against friends using any of the 16-strong roster, with Exhibition giving you full control over the venue, rules, and so on. Going above four participants does put a wrinkle in the game's general smoothness by making it hard to keep track of where you are without a cursor. I was pinned after losing track of my character on more than one occasion.
It's a fairly robust package for anyone pining for another alternative to WWE’s dominance in wrestling games, but it's held back by not having any talent on the roster that isn't a cis-gendered man.
RetroMania positions itself as the recapturing of a bygone era of wrestling video games, one that hoists up the modern generation and highlights legacy beyond that of WWE.
I'm a man who grew up watching WWE and WCW in the 90s, with an older brother who started in the 80s. I'm the obvious target audience for a game like this. But as much as I love seeing the banner for NWA's 70th Anniversary as if it was somehow added to a cabinet from the early 90s, and hearing a heavy metal chiptune following my chosen athlete to the ring, without a single woman or non-binary performer, my rose-tinted glasses aren’t so rosy.
Absent a more inclusive roster, RetroMania dwells in retrograde boys club nostalgia, a vision of wrestling as purely male-dominated and male-defined, without any kind of internal critique or self-awareness.
Journalists and T-shirt companies are name-checked and given dialogue over Serena Deeb, Candy Lee, Thunder Rosa, or any of their peers (despite the NWA World Women's Championship predating the Worlds Heavyweight Championship).
This is especially conspicuous given that WWE unceremoniously cut a women's title match on a recent PPV, and AEW's controversial choice not to air its women's tag tournament on TV, proving these issues persist on a systemic and cultural level.
Thankfully, this is something the devs are aware of, and there's potential here to retroactively acknowledge wrestling outside of the masculine paradigm through-out history, piggybacking on Netflix's GLOW in shedding light on the workers that led the way and their struggle for mainstream recognition.
Right now, though, it's a game that avoids acknowledging these problems at all, and though I had some fun with it, it's not something I'm keen to return to.
RetroMania Wrestling Review — The Bottom Line
- Looks good and soundtrack is catchy
- Wide variety of moves
- Cool to see smaller companies in video game form
- Roster lacks diversity
- Too many people in the ring is chaotic
- Learning controls can be frustrating
Retrosoft clearly understands the kind of game it wanted to make in RetroMania, and aesthetically, it succeeds. Gaining the momentum in a match that's in full swing, and keeping it until victory, is exhilarating.
But as of now, RetroMania perpetuates aspects of pro wrestling that are better left in the past.
[Note: Retrosoft Studios provided the copy of RetroMania Wrestling used for this review.]