Ever since the release of Fire Pro Wrestling World in 2017 its been hard out there for wrestling video game fans. The mainline WWE 2K games have been nothing short of abysmal and last year’s budget-priced arcadey spinoff WWE 2K Battlegrounds was more concerned with obnoxious grinding than it was in providing any sort of variety to its wrestlers. Thankfully, Retrosoft Studios was able to acquire a license from Arc System Works to create an official sequel to the 1991 arcade classic WWF Wrestlefest made by Technos Japan. And although Retromania Wrestling doesn’t carry the name or the WWE license, it makes up for that by paying homage to its heritage and embracing today’s hardcore wrestling fandom in one enjoyable old school experience.
Retromania Wrestling: Made for the Hardcore Wrestling Fan
Title: Retromania Wrestling
Platform: PC [Reviewed], Xbox One, Playstation 4, Nintendo Switch
Genre: Arcade Game, Wrestling
Publisher: Retrosoft Studios
Developer: Retrosoft Studios
Players: 1-4 on Console (2-8 in Arcades)
Release Date: February 26, 2021 (PC), March 26, 2021 (Switch & Xbox One), April 30, 2021 (PS4)
Price: $29.99 (USD)
Putting a Little Fire in Your Grapples
Although Retromania Wrestling is based on a classic arcade game, its gameplay mechanics actually share a lot more with the aforementioned Fire Pro Wrestling series. After wrestlers lock-up, grapples are a battle of skill and rhythm as you must try to time your button press shortly after an opponent does their own in order to perform a move or a counter. However, a simultaneous button press by both parties results in a button-mashing mini-game with the winner taking the grapple for that encounter. The game does have a bit of a learning curve, and at first, I felt this sense of dread come over me as the A.I. continually just won every grapple, while I was only able to get the occasional “lucky win.” However, patience, determination, and match experience eventually allowed me to understand the timing and nuance of the grappling system. Suddenly I was winning every grapple and my opponents could barely catch their breath with the number of times they found themselves on the mat. Thankfully, there are also visual cues that let you know if you are “too early” or “too late” if the natural timing doesn’t easily come to you. Don’t worry though, if the game starts becoming too easy, there are difficulty settings and a few sliders to bring parity back to the proceedings.
Along with that, it is actually quite impressive the number of maneuvers that are at each wrestler’s disposal, along with the simple delineation of Weak (X), Medium (A), and Strong (B). There are also directional modifiers that add variety to each combatant’s moveset. Pair that with the running, flying, corner, and Irish Whip variations, and together they provide quite a lot for you to mix it up in the ring, or outside of it if you prefer.
The best part of the entire system is how Retrosoft managed to marry the traditional weak, medium, and strong move types into the momentum meter itself. Instead of simply having one long meter that changes colors, this meter is segmented into three sections divided by each move type, letting you know exactly what type of move you can use at that moment. So whether you consistently brawl it out with your opponent, or you progress the meter through other means like taunting, or using weapons, there’s always an understanding of your grappling abilities at any given time. Also, not only does this help create better match flow, but it also helps ease you into matches because opponents will quickly counter moves that are outside of the current amount of earned momentum.
Of course, the point of continually punishing your opponent with all these different maneuvers is to gather enough momentum to cause the meter to start flashing. As in most wrestling games, this means you now have access to a wrestler’s finisher. How you build momentum is super important, as the devastation of the finisher is all dependent on how much damage you dealt out previously. If an opponent’s health bar isn’t even halfway gone, chances are they are going to probably kick out. But if you really let them have it beforehand, you’ll deal that ending blow just as the booker intended. Furthermore, each finisher carries the correct amount of oomph attached with it and many of them are done outside of the standing grapple as well. Truly providing a more authentic feel to each of the wrestler’s signature slams.
The Story Goes Retro
Retromania Wrestling features two singleplayer story modes, one is the 10 Pounds of Gold which sees your chosen wrestler competing in a series of different matches to eventually earn a title shot against the National Wrestling Alliance champion Nick Aldis. Basically, this is a tournament mode with a bit of backstory that gives some substance to the goings-on within it. I very much appreciated the nostalgic feeling this provided of watching an angle progress through various weeks of television culminating in the big title match, just like back in the ’80s and ’90s.
Albeit on the short side, the second mode is a Story mode that stars Johnny Retro (John Morrison in WWE), as he comes back to the ring after suffering a major injury at the hands of Zack Sabre Jr. Still cutscenes and dialogue choices drive forward Johnny’s journey through various companies and locales. And although I was not a fan of its ending, I enjoyed my time with the story mode. There are several cameos from many wrestlers and even one rather famous wrestling journalist who makes observations for a living. Matches vary from multiple man tags and cage matches to falls count anywhere, or just the traditional 1-on-1 too. Not to mention, your decisions in certain cutscenes can actually make Johnny a Face or a Heel, which affects how wrestlers interact with him as well.
What works well for the story mode is that it embraces hardcore wrestling fandom with a lot of insider lingo and is complete with allusions to storylines from certain federations. Leaning hard into that is a major positive as it shows that there’s a clear direction and understanding of who is going to enjoy this type of game the most. There’s something to be said for knowing your audience and this is clearly felt in other areas of the game as well.
Mixing Old School With the New School
One of those areas is Retromania Wrestling‘s roster of 16 characters. Road Warrior Hawk and Road Warrior Animal are the only wrestlers that also appeared in the original Wrestlefest. The rest of the roster is a mixture of legends such as Nikita Koloff, the entire Blue World Order, and Tommy Dreamer, along with some former WWE stars Matt Cardona (Zack Ryder), Brian Myers (Curt Hawkins), and a mix of NJPW, AEW, and other indie talent such as Jeff Cobb, Colt Cabana, and Warhorse. For gamers used to the overloaded rosters of the WWE games this will be a major shock. However the intended audience of the game should be familiar with most of the talent. Retrosoft does have three DLC characters already lined up in James Storm, Mr. Hughes, and Chris Bey with more possibly coming in the future.
Another area where Retromania Wrestling truly excels is in its multitude of arenas. Many of them are clearly meant to be replicas of other famous places like “The Ballroom” or “NWA Powerr,” while there are specialized ones such as the Pro Wrestling Tees and the Major Wrestling Figure Podcast arenas. Plus, there are several others that are just really cool and I don’t want to spoil them. Suffice to say, Retrosoft did a fantastic job in recreating and also using their imaginations for many of these locations. For example, the one based on Warhorse’s Hell, (pictured above,) is an absolute standout and is perfect for a torturous cage match.
Rocking the 2D Style
The game uses great-looking 2D sprites that animate tremendously well. Maintaining the fidelity of the old arcade style but also infusing them with modern visuals. Each wrestler is easily identifiable not only by their unique attires but also there’s just something that makes them pop immediately. This is supremely vital as Retromania Wrestling contains over 50 match variations including an 8-Man Tag Match and the Retro Rumble, each using all 16 wrestlers at once. The well-done characters are distinguishable enough that I never felt like I lost myself in all the chaos. Although if you do happen to find yourself in a sea of bodies the game does have indicators you can turn on if needed.
I should take a moment to mention that the Retro Rumble is the game’s Battle Royal mode, except that the only way to eliminate someone is by pinning them, which is weird because you can throw wrestlers out of the ring in normal matches by doing a weak Body Slam. Not sure why the Retro Rumble couldn’t include the option for both, but at least with pins you know for sure you are eliminated. Going over the ropes would probably have to include a struggle-type system that requires extra development time.
That Textbook Soundtrack
Retromania Wrestling does feature sparse commentary from Ring of Honor‘s Ian Riccaboni and Colt Cabana. Although Retrosoft wants you to think of them as “wrestling meets NBA Jam” this is far from it. Colt’s lines are extremely repetitive and you’ll hear “that’s textbook Ian” or “that’s what he does” multiple times per match. Ian is fine, but again the commentary isn’t that prominent to be a big deal here. However, Josh Shernoff puts in a strong effort as the ring announcer making the pre-match portion feel like a big deal. There are also crowd chants like “This is Awesome” if a wrestler goes on a big run of moves that help add a nice atmosphere to matches.
Outside of running moves not connecting due to a technical issue where you have to be lined up perfectly with your opponent, everything else feels great. As I mentioned previously, finishers and strong moves have this extra power to them that makes them different than the weaker Snapmare and Fireman’s Carry. Getting smacked into the cage or being smashed with a chair all have their own crunch sound too.
One thing that stuck with me was the bumping soundtrack done by Danimal Cannon. In particular, the menu music is so good I just left the game on while writing portions of this review so I could listen to it for some motivation. Another standout is the music that plays when you are having matches at Steven Richards Fitness and the babyface music that plays during story mode just to name a few. I know this is really important for some folks, but overall the entrance music for each wrestler is ok. For the most part, they try to be kinda like 8-Bit versions of one of the themes they’ve had in the past, but I enjoyed the in-game music more than any of the actual wrestler themes.
This game was reviewed using a digital code provided by the developer (Retrosoft Studios).
There is a lot of promise built into Retromania Wrestling. Currently, there’s no create-a-wrestler, female wrestlers, or online play available. In fairness, all of these features are being promised if the game gains enough support. Considering these things are major wrestling game staples it would certainly have helped the game gain a wider audience if they had been included. However, considering this is an indie title it is understandable why they are not. As for what IS included, Retrosoft delivers a very solid and enjoyable product. One that is fun to play albeit for probably brief moments at a time. What matters most though is that the developers truly did a good job in recreating and at the same time modernizing an arcade classic.