Ever since Karateka showed that video games could contain touches of cinematic progression with the use of scripted cutscenes, developers grew more and more hungry to actually tell stories with their game, even if that meant that they would have to hold the player by the hand as that story unfolded. With the adventure game genre steadily growing on the PC market, these cutscenes grew more and more sophisticated, often lasting several minutes introducing the plot and the characters. On the home consoles, things were taking shape at a bit slower pace due to the more limited hardware - but also here, cutscenes were starting to become more commonplace and more grand. In 1988, Tecmo released their new action platformer, Ninja Gaiden, and with it delivered what is most likely the very first example of successful cinematic cutscenes in video games.
Dubbed the "Tecmo Theater", these cutscenes were presented in framed windows using camera angles, dramatic music cues and dialogue much like what you would find in feature films at the time, especially Japanese animation. It became one of the most popular features in Ninja Gaiden and a true selling point that helped land the game its place in history. Despite the success and stellar quality of the Tecmo Theater, very few Tecmo games actually made use of something similar, except for the Ninja Gaiden sequels. Perhaps more strange is that the games that did were sports games. In Japan the Captain Tsubasa franchise was made into a cinematic soccer game by Tecmo and eventually brought to the West as Tecmo Cup Soccer Game. Tecmo Super Bowl also utilized similar cutscenes during key action moments. One of the other and best known game was Tecmo's only true foray into the world of wrestling, Gekitou Puroresu!! Toukon Densetsu ("Great Pro Wrestling!! Legendary Fighting Spirit"), released in the west as Tecmo World Wrestling. Now as they used to say on Monday nights....
TWW was released at a time when wrestling was red hot all over the world. The WWF saw Hulk Hogan and Macho Man clash at the annual Wrestlemania event phasing out the era of rock 'n wrestling, All Japan as well as New Japan were seeing the continued rise of junior heavyweights, which would eventually come to the forefront in the early '90s and wrestling programming was now available on all contintents through cable television. For most wrestling merchandise, it didn't even matter much if the stars were officially represented, just a close resemblance was enough to satisfy the fans in their hunt for grappling fun. It was often just cheap product tie-ins or badly executed rip-offs that populated the wrestling video game landscape on the home consoles and computers. TWW however would include a number of notable firsts, features and mechanics that it helped introduce for many future games.
Having no official license in either Japan or Western territories, the game featured an all imaginary cast made up by wrestlers that closely resemble and behave like the real life superstars from that decade. Even though the biographies for the wrestlers were quite sparse, Tecmo still tried to flesh out a little bit character in the roster. The American version of the game featured a more simplified take on the biographies found in the Japanese manual and strategy guide that Tecmo put out for the game.
Name: Akira Dragon
Nickname: The Samurai
A Japanese strong style shoot fighter. He harbors the Toukon fighting spirit. Dragon uses strikes and submissions to his advantage and is a master of the Octopus Hold (Manji-Gatame). His appearance and moveset is based on Antonio Inoki.
Signature Moves: Enzuigiri, German Suplex
Name: El Tigre
Japanese Name: Christ Hyper
A Mexican luchadore. El Tigre is a fan favorite using high flying acrobatics and charismatic showmanship to his advantage. He still remains dangerous when grounded with his submissions and suplexes. His appearance and moveset is based on Tiger Mask.
Signature Moves: Back Drop, Northern Light Suplex
Name: Pat Gordon
Nickname: Greek Warrior
A total package trained in Greco-Roman wrestling. Gordon can catch anyone and with his devestating belly to back suplex, do a large amount of damage. His appearance and mannerisms is rather losely based on Lou Thesz and Karl Gotch.
Signature Moves: Back Drop, Power Slam
Name: Rex Beat
Nickname: The British Star
A British punker turned wrestler. He spent his time street fighting before entering the wrestling ring. Though wild and unpredictable, he is still calculated in his approach during a match. His appearance and moveset is based on the Road Warriors with Road Warrior Animal being the most direct influence.
Signature Moves: Power Bomb, Death Drop
Name: Jackie Lee
Nickname: Kung Fu Master
Japanese Name: Genji Murasaki
A former Asian territory bodybuilding champion. Lee is the most inexperienced of the roster, though a quick learner. A well rounded fighter with both power and technique. While his persona in the US version seems to aim for a light hearted martial artist from Hong Kong with a play on words based on Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee, his Japanese backstory and name seems to suggest a deeper character with a name based on Murasaki Shikibu who wrote the world's first novel in 1000AD, The Tale of Genji. His moveset is based on Riki Choshu.
Signature Moves: German Suplex, Power Slam
Name: Boris Chekov
Nickname: The Siberian Machine
Japanese Name: Shuwano Bitch
An amateur ranked heavyweight champion wrestler from the U.S.S.R. Boris Chekov is a Siberian power house and his Giant Swing is poetry in motion. His looks and moveset is based on Stan Hansen, even using his Texas Longhorn finger pose. This seems to be the basis behind his strange name in the Japanese version, Shuwano Bitch. Written out in Katakana, Shuwano is the word for sign language, meaning literally The Bitch Sign.
Signature Moves: Giant Swing, Power Slam
Name: Mark Rose
Nickname: Mr. Tattoo
Japanese Name: Sa Schwartz
A so-called showman wrestler. Despite his flamboyant and beautiful looks, The colorful German's strikes and holds are like poison. His moveset, looks and mannerism are based on Nature Boy Ric Flair and Gorgeous George.
Signature Moves: Back Drop, Northern Right Suplex
Name: Julio Falcon
Japanese Name: Randy Smith
Wrestling runs in the bloodline of this grappler as he is a second generation wrestler. Despite being blessed with skills and technique through his lineage, he has a bad temper and loses control too quickly. The English version states he is from Ecuador, while the Japanese version doesn't state any origin but seems to suggest he is American. His looks and moveset is based on Hulk Hogan.
Signature Moves: Death Drop, Power Slam
Name: Randy Gomez
Nickname: The Flying Grenade
Japanese Name: Jim Falcon
Earned himself the nickname Grenade Monster while training. He combines devestating power moves like the Power Bomb along with some excellent shoot fighting skills. A rough and tough fighter. His name appaears swapped and modified from Julio Falcon in the English version. His appearance and moveset is based on Harley Race.
Signature Moves: Back Brain Kick, Power Bomb
Name: Dr. Guildo
Nickname: The Technician
A man who was appearantly a prisoner in Alcatraz before his entry into professional wrestling. Because of his mask, his true identity is not known. Dr. Guildo is probably the most dangerous of all the wrestlers with his incredible mix of power moves and technical prowess. His moveset and appearance is based on Big Van Vader and Black Tiger.
Signature Moves: Death Drop, Argentinian Back Breaker
Name: Blue King Demon
Nickname: Earl Of Doom
Japanese Name: Black King
Originally scheduled to take part in the tournament, his participation was mysteriously cancelled. Nothing is known about King, though he is extremely dangerous and a master of all wrestling holds. At the end of the tournament, he shows up unannounced and challenges the champion with the claim that one cannot be a true champion before beating him. His name was changed to Blue King in the English version due to the blue color palette used on his in ring sprite. He is not playable. His appearance is based on Super Strong Machine.
Signature Moves: All moves
In addition to the bios, the portraits were nicely detailed and managed to show a bit of character to each wrestler through identifiable facial expressions and gestures. Not only the wrestlers were given a personality but also the ring crew and staff get their own little mention. The commentator, referee/ring announcer and the personal trainer, the only character that remained nameless.
And maybe the most surprising element to the game is the fact there even was a commentator featured. TWW might have featured essentially the very first continuous play by play commentary in a video game. The main game screen consisted of two windows, one for the ring action and one specifically for Tom Talker, the TWW's very own sports commentator. Not only does Talker provide comments on the moves executed but also observations on the wrestlers's condition and strategy. Talker features a wide arrange of facial expressions and stances in his sprite, making him as involved in the action as the player when things pick up. Many of his lines were directly translated rather stubbornly, resulting in some cases of Engrish. Most famously is the line Northern Rights Suplex, instead of Northern Lights Suplex. Jackie Yumeno serves as the referee and would show up during pinfall, and quietly leave the screen again afterwards. Unlike most other wrestling games which had an angled top down view or side angle in order to show the whole ring, TWW only shows the top half with the bottom never being accessible. Once the action goes to the outside area of the ring, the screen switches to show a floor view.
TWW also features an early attempt at customization. After having selected your grappler, the player is free to bestow any name he or she wishes onto the character. Furthermore there is also the choice of muscle training before each match. These training sessions fill up your strength meter depending on how fast one taps the buttons, much like a game of Track 'n Field. While it was not the first time a game used training stages before bouts (Rocky on the Sega Master System used a similar feature in 1987), it made it even more unique with a look behind the scenes in comparison to other wrestling games which only showed the ringside action. The female personal trainer provides encouragement before and after the training sessions.
Despite the choice, all sessions remain the same in execution and outcome. The meters and strength aquired remained the same across all training exercises.
The game controls much like Pro Wrestling did before it, and within the controls and gameplay you can even find various nods to that particular game. Controls are near identical with B triggering a punch and A delivering a toe kick. By walking into the opponent, the grapple initiates and each wrestler had 6 basic moves shared between them - the body slam, irish whip (rope toss), headlock punch, cobra clutch, suplex, backdrop and the piledriver. The button placement of these moves are identical to the ones found in Pro Wrestling. More similarities can be found in the rope toss which allows the player for a wider arrange of offense such as overhead toss and front dropkicks, but also feature a near identical jumping knee attack to that found in Pro Wrestling. Corner offense triggers either a jumping knee drop or body drop. On the outside area even more moves can be performed like ramming faces into posts or suicide dives to the outside from the turnbuckle onto a downed opponent. Ground attacks are also prominent with both stomps and submissions being featured, including fan favorite holds like the Scorpion Death Lock/Sharpshooter and the Figure Four Leg Lock.
What really managed to set this game apart from the others at the time was the way it handled special moves. Whereas in most wrestling games in the old days it was simply a move assigned to a button that could be executed at any time, TWW featured multiple special moves per character that are sensitive to the placement in the match. Once half the energy bar has been depleted, the standard moves slowly fade out in exchange for the much more devastating and eye catching special moves. This could sometimes double the amount of moves a wrestler would have at his disposal.
This was also where the Tecmo Theater was put in use. Using an extension of that system dubbed the Zoom Mode, if both wrestlers are low on energy the action zooms into a framed window where the special moves are shown in dynamically angled close up animations with visual effects that really emphasize the heat of the match. The details displayed during this Zoom Mode are quite impressive and graphically attractive with an unseen amount of attention going into a wrestling game, something that was not as usual then as it would eventually become later on with the Fire Pro and AKI games. The music is also muted on a few channels to allow for more sound effects during the Zoom Mode.
Another similarity to Pro Wrestling is also the ability to actually throw the wrestlers over the top rope with your standard moves. With the use of overhead moves, the action can quickly take place on the outside and the dangerous landing dishes out more damage than the move originally would do. Very few games can provide as satisfying of a moment as when Dr. Guildo uses his Giant Swing maneuver and throws the opponent head first over the top rope and onto the floor.
The rules of the match are very true to the Japanese side of wrestling at the time. Pinfalls and submission are the most common outcome, but also 20 second count out rules apply, as well as a 5 second corner count, meaning that if you choose to stall the match in the corner for more than 5 seconds it will result in a disqualification. Even though several other wrestling games had already managed to implement tag team wrestling matches, TWW sadly did not allow for the choice of any other match than single matches. You have the simple choice of vs. CPU in a tournament that crowns the new TWW champion or go head to head with a friend in 2 player mode. The 2 player mode has a slight different mechanic added where a momentum meter is shown next to the life bar. Timing the attack with your assigned color allows for more damage done.
The most striking flaw is the quite intense difficulty. While not initially nervewrenching, the game often goes into zones of cheating, especially halfway through a match-up. If you manage to take away about 50% or so of the lifebar of your opponent, they suddenly start to turn the tide of the match completely around, rendering the player nearly defenseless against their berzerking barrage. Even with the assistance of a turbo controller, there are times where the game seems to be forcing the player to lose and work up more strength through training sessions even if it wasn't really the case. After each loss the player is also sent back one match, which makes each loss more gruelling and detrimental than the next.
The game still manages to have a memorable and engaging single player campaign despite the difficulty. At first the requirements are as simple as going through each opponent that challenges you and winning the coveted title belt and crown. It's after this trail of grapplers that the mysterious last boss appears. Both the English and Japanese versions allude to a story of this wrestler having been in the preliminary stages of the tournament, but for some reason was removed (though heavily hinted being because of his evil brutality). This final match-up could again be seen as a nod of sorts to Pro Wrestling where a similar opponent shows up at the very end, and both of them are notoriously difficult to defeat. The Blue King (or Black depending on region) is not only faster and stronger than the rest of the crop, he also has all og their moves at his disposal at any time during the match. Only after defeating him can the player truly call themselves the TWW champion and celebrate their much deserved victory.
The music of the game was also top of the line when released. Composed by Ninja Gaiden's More Yamasan (Keiji Yamagishi) and Hiroshi Miyazaki, the dramatic melodic score change in atmosphere as you fight your way through roster. After a number of matches, the background music intensifies and put seven more emphasis on the drama. For workout and other areas of the game, it has a more sportsman generic take and provide a fitting backdrop of the fast workouts and the ongoing exciting tournament. Except for the Blue King, none of the wrestlers have any particular theme assigned to them. The sound driver was handled by Mitsuhito Tanaka while the sound effects came from Mayuko Okamura. Even though it has exceptional quality, the music never saw as much fame as many other titles and has been left forgotten by the many video game arrangement bands that surfaced in the early 2000's. Swedish band NESTunes did a medley of it and offered in on their tour CD, V(anskap) Limited Special Edition. Like with many of the Tecmo games at the time, it also has a sound test that can be entered with a cheat code.
First released in Japan during the later half of 1989, the game was introduced to the Western market in early 1990. A few alterations between them can be found. Most noteably was the removal of the password system found in the Japanese version. This password allowed players to store their progress and resume at their own will, making it a slightly easier game. However this password used Japanese characters and the length of them was quite long. A number of nationalities and appearance were changed on the selection screen of the English version along with the officials of the game, The Japanese commentator, Yasushi Geki, was made into Tom Talker and given a more Caucasian look, the personal trainer went from a dark haired beauty to a blonde haired bimbo and referee Jackie Yumeno had his hair and mustache reduced and removed for a more neutral looking character.
Though today the game is mostly written off as just another NES wrestler, looking back on it sheds a truly impressive light on it even if slightly jaded. The text based play-by-play feels well done and impressive for a game on such an ancient console, and thanks to the text presentation is much more bearable than the oft repeating voice clips in today's wrestling games. The Zoom Mode offers a truly unique look to the many moves packed into the game, and even at standard view, most moves have two different angles depending on ring placement while most other games, even up to the Super NES era just showcased the moves strictly from a side view with no change to them. With such a large list of moves with many of them being visually interesting, excellent music and a good dose of challenge, it shouldn't just be remembered as an excellent wrestling game but an excellent game in its own right.
Tecmo developed the very famous and successful video game versions of the hit manga/anime Captain Tsubasa which saw released one year prior to Gekitou Pro Wrestling. Sharing the same overall team as well as the same composers, there are a lot of similarites in the way the games showcase special moves and cinematics. When released in the West later on, the Captain Tsubasa connection was entirely removed and changed with an all original cast and storyline. A Western exclusive sequel was scheduled to be released for the Mega Drive, but was cancelled. A ROM image of the prototype has since been leaked onto the web.
Jaleco developed their own wrestling game on the Super Famicom called Tenryu Genichiro no Pro Wrestling Revolution, using the likeness of Tenryu Genichiro. This game used a very similar cinematic style to the execution of the moves alongside the view of the ring. Here however there are 3 windows at the same time with 1 animation window for each wrestler framing the action in the middle. It was released as Hammerlock Wrestling in the US. While the Wrestle Angel series do not share any overall likeness in terms of gameplay, being stricly a card battle game, it does use similarly framed animation windows showing still images of the execution. These games were developed by Success.