Kefin on Wrestling Games: No Mercy N64
It’s been a pretty rough couple of years for wrestling game fans. WWE's 2K series churn out annually with fewer ideas and features each year. 2K17 stumbled into our midst this year with all the pomp and circumstance of a wet fart at a baptism. Better I suppose, than its older, fouler, big brother WWE 2K15 which burst into the church drunk, fighting all the guests and refusing to let them make female characters. And then we have the likes of WWE Immortals sheepishly wandering into the mix. The unwanted weird uncle who makes everyone feel uncomfortable and stared at the priest for too long. In the last six or so months I have found myself trying to fill the wrestling game shaped hole in my life by revisiting titles of years gone past. This has turned out to be a thoroughly pleasant experience, and I am happy to say that revisiting No Mercy on the N64 is the most fun I’ve had with wrestling games in years.
Most wrestling fans from the late 90s and early 00s have suitably fond memories of No Mercy. WrestleMania 2000 was the first truly excellent WWF game, taking the amazing gameplay of WCW vs NWO and giving it the slick presentation and variety of one of wrestling's most memorable periods. In terms of childhood memories, tearing into my copy of No Mercy on the N64 ranks up there with attempting to bomb through Mount Moon without Flash, or discovering a warp whistle on Mario 3. While non-wrestling fans may struggle to understand the special place this game has in wrestling die hard’s hearts, No Mercy on the N64 is almost guaranteed to be on the top 10 list of anyone who had the system and even a passing interest in wrestling.
That’s not to say the game is for fans only, something which is unlikely to be said of recent titles, that have seemed to rely on wrestling fandom to tolerate technical and gameplay shortcomings (I will never stop burning you 2K). I have fond memories of lengthy after school sessions with horny teenage boys whose only tentative connection to wrestling was a fondness of Trish Stratus and the ability to make teachers they didn’t like in Create-a-Wrestler mode. No Mercy, much like the Attitude Era itself, was a peak of creativity and success for wrestling games in the eyes of many, and also like the Attitude Era, its most diehard fans are steadfast in their belief that it’ll never be topped or that “things need to go back to this”. Unlike the Attitude Era itself however, No Mercy doesn’t have miscarriages, rampant homophobia or Paul Ellering in a funny blazer, so these arguments are easier on the ear. While I’m someone who has the task of going back through my childhood and finding out I was watching some mind-warpingly inappropriate stuff on Raw back in the day, I’m pleased to say that revisiting No Mercy was nothing short of pure blissful fun; plain and simple.
At the time, I recall many folks who were playing the Smackdown! series on Playstation complaining that the gameplay in No Mercy was too slow and sluggish. As we were all hyperactive just-pubescent boys at the time, it seemed that speed was objectively better, and this was not up for debate. So while I remained in the minority at the time, and the arcade-y and frantic action of Smackdown! was undoubtedly fun, No Mercy was the clear winner for gameplay. Wrestling wasn’t always that fast or frantic. If Steve Austin ran as fast as he did in Smackdown! his legs would’ve fallen off. No Mercy dialled down the speed, turned up the weighty feel of the wrestlers and used a "simple to learn, difficult to master" control scheme that built on its previous iterations.
Matches felt even sided, and if you squashed someone in 90 seconds, it was because you were an A+ player, not because you spammed the spear attack 90 times in 90 seconds. While tactics and a meticulous approach were always smart things to have in your arsenal, the time limit on your special meter, the need to not only build but maintain momentum, and the genuinely tough AI meant that spontaneity was also a requirement. While at the time its pace made it stick out like something of a sore thumb amongst players who were probably spending their down time eating chilli dogs with Sonic, the years have been very kind to this game. No Mercy manages to replicate the pace of an actual wrestling match in an organic way, something that developers have been frantically trying to put across in wrestling games in recent years, and mostly failing.
No Mercy continued the fabled THQ/AKI style of blocky character models with faces stamped on. It is, on first inspection, rather ridiculous looking, but the consistency of the character models, and the attention to detail is still astounding. In a time when cart space was at a premium, it was always amazing to see the rough scans of superstar faces, logos and designs. Even the paper thin crowd seemed alive, their two frames of animation syncing with the excellent crowd noises to give matches a big fight feel. Arenas are lovingly recreated, with the infamous “pokey sword/Jeff Hardy's facial hair” Backlash arena even making an appearance! Even though the models are simplistic, the game had a much ‘cleaner’ look than its Playstation counterparts, with virtually no clipping or grain in comparison.
The graphics also were an impressive step up from the predecessor “Wrestlemania 2000”. Much like the product at the time, changes in lighting and presentation were replicated on this title. Arenas were dark and shadowy, and the never-before-seen-on-a-Nintendo-console backstage area featured excellent representations of Boiler Rooms, Parking lots and even a bar/pub/liquor house! No Mercy’s graphics made you feel like you were playing with action figures, with trademark faces constantly gurning. Seeing X-Pac stick out his tongue constantly, or Edge and Christian sporting big shit eating grins, even when they were covered in blood made the characters seem larger than life, and oozing personality. Given the limitations of the graphics, this was truly an accomplishment.
How best to describe the themes in No Mercy? Philistines would say they’re muffled, compressed and chopped until they resembled the themes as closely as the 3 second gifs resemble the titantrons they’re based on. But those people are simply monsters, who cannot appreciate the joy of N64 interpretations of Attitude Era classics. Nothing soothes the soul quite like the abrasive, looped rendition of Dean Malenko’s theme, or the maximised efficiency version of Chris Jericho’s theme that reduces it to a 6 second loop, basically resembling a prehistoric Vine on a cartridge based system. The game offers a wide variety of classic groans and growls throughout every match, with series favourites including the submission struggle noise “OOOOROOOOW” and the match ending and childhood scarring “tap out” noise; the sound of a bone popping and cracking, complete with blood curdling “GLLLLAAA HARGHHHH” (not to be confused with established and celebrated iconic wrestling grunt Gla—gegh”). Punches smack and explode with absurd satisfaction. The sounds your wrestler makes as they attack add to the game’s impressive sense of weight and immersion. If possible, THQ managed to replicate the heavy feel of a doubled barrelled shotgun in the likes of Perry Saturn, whose strong striking attack swoops with the intensity of a black hawk helicopter being piloted by Perry Saturn.
The game has also found itself to have the notable distinction of having the best menu music in a wrestling game ever. More recent wrestling games subject you to lengthy, unskippable assaults on the ears such as Lance Archer’s headache of a theme, or “Big Train”; songs that if you hear them more than once in a sitting, your brain starts to swell and itch, or worse, think of Great American Bash 2006. But No Mercy’s odd, funky, jazzy “dig-diggety dog” is infectious and brilliant in equal measure. While it may seem unfitting music for a wrestling game, the use of sound bytes like “….is cooking!” and “socko!” make you feel like the whole team from the ground up who made this game were wrestling fans. It’s one of the isolated cases of feeling that the game was made primarily by and more importantly, for wrestling fans, and garnished with touches that wrestling fans would enjoy, as opposed to a team meeting where jaded former THQ employees engage in blue sky thinking exercises in order to come up with new and innovative ways to shoehorn aesthetics from FIFA games into WWE games. A final massive nod for the game’s sound goes to its amazing way to circumvent Kid Rock not being cool with his track “American Bad Ass” being compressed into a dot matrix file. One of the game’s custom tracks was in fact a bootleg “American Bad Ass”, craftily dropped into the customisation mode for us Booger Red-Heads. It truly was the game design equivalent of using a tape deck to record top 10 hits off the radio. Not that I ever did that. You can't prove I did.
I truly believe in my heart of hearts, that if my life was to inevitably to come down to some sort of duel like scenario, that pistols at dawn would be abandoned in favour of a no time limit hardcore match in No Mercy. Unless, of course, it was a duel with my brother who once after having lost to me under these rules pressed “Rematch”, unplugged my controller and beat “Kefin Devil” in less than 20 seconds, before leaving the room. In that instance, it’d be pistols at dawn all the way and I’d shoot the fucker for pulling that kind of Eric Bischoff heelery. 4 player options, including the chance to finally play ladder matches led to legitimate hour long wars. Unlike recent WWE releases, where reversal times are learned easily and hitting a move that isn’t a running grapple against a seasoned human rival is considered a victory, No Mercy was a more drawn out experience. If playing against an opponent of reasonable skill, you could expect the two of you to beat the bejesus out of each other before someone finally etched out a victory. Contrasting this with modern “who can reverse the most until they get a finisher which hopefully won’t get reversed” style-contests shows you that THQ/AKI actually stumbled upon that elusive “wrestling ebb and flow feel” 10 years before it started being touted as a (actually non-existent) feature.
Customisation is king in No Mercy. Where to even begin? This game, despite being older than the average John Cena fan (sick 2009 burn), still has, in my opinion, the greatest customisation suite ever. Adopting the basic “face scans from a gameboy camera” approach to character models, everyone on the roster is built from the same standard blocks, like meaty lego men. But what this results in is created characters being in line with the core wrestlers in the game like never before, or arguably since. What’s that? Big Show is being punished and isn’t getting a royalty fee for a 64 bit appearance? Whip one up in no time and give him the midi jazz track. Boom. Big Nasty Bastard is in the game. No Raven? Or Tommy Dreamer? Or any 90s hardcore wrestler? Whip them up with the wide selection of jean shorts and track pants and give them Chris Benoit’s music, the placeholder theme for 90% of created characters in the game. Customisable items range from the unexpectedly joyous (TAJIRI’S PANTS!) to the truly weird (Sailor outfit/Cheese hat/giant copy of The Rock’s shite book) and the trickle on unlocks from the Smackdown! Mall using in game cash feels constant.
I've spent a good number of years debunking my own nostalgia, figuring out that what appealed to me as a child is not necessarily appealing to me as an adult. As I currently play the remastered Crash Bandicoot Trilogy amidst a cacophony of people saying it's aged horribly and those saying it's aged brilliantly, I challenge any former No Mercy fan to blow that cart and fire up your N64, which almost will definitely still work. Barring you having a copy without that soul destroying (and Mahon family Christmas 2000 destroying) bug in it, you'll have fun and wish current games could learn a lesson or two. I introduced Jo to No Mercy for #How2VideoGames and was amazed to see its appeal for not only a new wrestling fan, but a new fan with limited experience with wrestling games. Car boot sales and rock bottom eBay sales are calling you. PLAY THIS GAME.