Mike Reviews WCW Nitro
By Michael Fitzgerald on 25th October 2023
Happy Wednesday Everyone!
I’ve either reviewed good games or interesting ones with ideas that didn’t quite land in the past month or so, so I think it’s time I review an utter dog of a one. Enter WCW Nitro for the PlayStation (and later the N64), a thoroughly cack game that I’ll now complain about for a bit. Hope that’s okay with everyone. If you’d like to read more stuff like this then feel free to check out Gaming Respawn.
The late 1990s were an extremely profitable period for North American Professional Wrestling, with the World Wrestling Federation and World Championship Wrestling going head-to-head every Monday Night with their Raw and Nitro television shows battling for both critical and commercial success. The war spilled into the video game realm as well, with both companies looking to conquer the virtual wrestling world, as well as the corporeal one. WCW started strongly in the fifth gen with the really good World Tour for the N64 and the flawed, if still interesting, WCW Vs. The World for the PlayStation. However, whilst the quality remained high on Nintendo’s console with WCW/nWo Revenge, WCW’s next PlayStation offering was WCW Nitro, which was a notable drop off, and we’ll explore why in today’s review.
Like WCW Vs. The World, WCW Nitro was published by THQ but actually developed by a different company. Whereas Vs. The World was developed by AKI (the same company that developed World Tour and Revenge on the N64), WCW Nitro was developed by Inland Productions, a company that normally produced fishing and hunting games. This meant that the game both looked and played completely differently from the N64 games, which seemed like a really confusing decision to make seeing as the games on Nintendo’s console had not only been well received but had also sold really well. Why AKI was bounced from WCW Nitro is unknown, but it was to the game’s detriment in many ways.
The game was actually ready for release in 1997, but Vs. The World was still selling well at that point, and THQ didn’t want to release another WCW game to the market when that one was still performing, so they delayed the release until early 1998, which led to a few of the wrestler’s gimmicks and characters being somewhat outdated as a result. Admittedly, this was less of an issue in WCW as their roster tended to change far less than the WWF’s, with the overall staleness of the product ultimately being a contributing factor to the wane in popularity the company suffered from in 1999, but it’s a shame the game was essentially forced into being outdated when it didn’t need to be due to cynical reasons.
WCW Nitro did eventually see ports to both PC and the Nintendo 64, but the roster was updated in time for those games. WCW Nitro sold relatively well and received mostly mixed reviews, depending on which outlet you viewed. Official UK PlayStation Magazine gave it 5 out of 10 and was one of the overall more negative mainstream reviews. Regardless of the critics though, WCW Nitro sold enough to merit a re-release under the “Greatest Hits” label in the US, although it didn’t get a platinum label in the UK.
I’ve never played any of the non-wrestling games that Inland Productions have made, but I certainly hope they haven’t butchered the gameplay in those like they have for the wrestling ones. Wrestling games are at their best when the gameplay is simple enough that anyone can pick it up whilst being deep enough that more experienced players can get more out of it the more they play. The AKI N64 games and the SmackDown series on the PlayStation are good examples of this, as they have control systems that are not only fluid but also easy for a newcomer to grasp. WCW Nitro not only has really stiff and frustrating controls, but they are also overly complicated for any newcomer picking the game up for the first time.
Not unlike WWF Warzone, WCW Nitro uses a system similar to a fighting game more than a wrestling one, with each wrestler having a selection of moves that you execute by putting in button combinations at the right time. Whereas Warzone is able to execute this in a way that can still be fun to play due to having some fluidity though, WCW Nitro is so stiff and unresponsive that inputting the codes is far more laborious, and it’s often unclear just how close you have to be in order to execute them successfully.
In Warzone, for instance, a wrestler will reach out or lunge forward when you input the correct combination to pull off a move, so even if you’re too far away or not in the right place, you will be able to see where you will actually need to be in order to make it work next time. However, in WCW Nitro, your wrestler will just gormlessly stand there doing nothing, so you won’t know if the failure to execute the move was due to you putting in the combination wrong or because you were in the wrong place as you aren’t given any feedback to suggest one way or another.
There’s just a general lack of feedback when it comes to playing WCW Nitro, with there often feeling like there’s a delay in your wrestler doing anything, even when it comes to simple things, like moving around/in/out of the ring itself. The button to climb up to the top rope is the same you have to press for climbing out of the ring, but your wrestler moves so stiffly that you’ll often find yourself climbing out of the ring when you want to go up top and vice versa. You can never actually lock up with your opponent at any point either, which you could at least do in Warzone.
WCW Nitro just never “feels” like a wrestling game, which wouldn’t be a disaster provided that it was still fun to play. As previously mentioned, Warzone doesn’t often feel like you’re playing a wrestling game but rather a wrestling-inspired fighting game, but it executes that gameplay well enough that you can still have fun with it. WCW Nitro feels like you’re trying to fit a combine harvester into a narrow space in a supermarket car park most of the time, so not only does it not feel like a wrestling game, it’s also incredibly frustrating to actually play.
One area where WCW Nitro doesn’t fare to badly is the graphics. The arenas where the matches take place have character to them, even if the crowd are the usual cardboard cutouts you’d expect from a fifth gen wrestling game. Inland have gone to the trouble of recreating a number of real venues, with the Nitro arena itself (of course) making an appearance, along with events such as Halloween Havoc and Souled Out also being brought to the virtual world. The arenas have a good sense of scope to them and definitely bring some life to the proceedings.
The wrestlers themselves aren’t too bad to look at either, with decent sized character models that are well designed and mostly look like their real life counterparts. There is an actual size difference between the wrestlers too, with big men like The Giant and Kevin Nash towering over smaller wrestlers like Dean Malenko. This may sound like a minor thing, but this wasn’t always a common feature in wrestling games from this period, so it’s nice that WCW Nitro has it for that extra touch of realism.
Most of the wrestlers’ real moves are imported into the game, and they are animated reasonably well too, some exceptions aside. The vertical suplex, for instance, doesn’t even look physically possible and looks more like two action figures trying to do the move due to how rigid and stiff the character models are when the move is performed. Other moves, like the piledriver and powerbomb, look great though, with smooth animations and good physical effects to make it look like the competitors really are dropping one another on their heads in brutal fashion. It doesn’t make up for the poor gameplay, but WCW Nitro at least nails the presentation, for the most part.
Outside of the Nitro and New World Order themes on the menu screen, the in-game music in WCW Nitro is mostly generic rock-styled tracks that play in the background whilst you try to grapple your way to victory. It’s not exactly the most exciting music to wrestle to, but it works for what it is, and it doesn’t take away from the action. There is also some commentary from Tony Schiavone and Bobby Heenan, but it’s pretty generic and isn’t mixed very well. Again, it’s not actively bad or anything like that, but it’s not exactly seamless either.
One thing WCW Nitro is known for is the pre-match “rants” on the menu screen, where by pressing Circle, you get a quick video of the wrestler in question telling you why you should select them. Some of the wrestlers are clearly phoning these in (Kevin Nash in particular, who looks like he doesn’t even know what these new-fangled video gaming things are and just wants to get out of the recording booth as quickly as he can whilst counting his money), but others actually put some effort in (Diamond Dallas Page even brings props with him!), and they remain an often talked about and spoofed part of the game.
Outside of the usual Vs singles and tag team matches, the main single-player mode sees you fighting your way through what amounts to an arcade ladder in “Tournament” mode. The computer’s efficiency improves with each bout, and eventual victory nets you a quick full motion video where your selected wrestler is shown battering opponents on episodes of Nitro. It’s hardly an epic prize, but it’s nice that you get something for your toil, and having video clips like this was still a pretty novel thing back in 1998, so it’s an acceptable reward that will give you a reason to complete the game with different wrestlers.
In addition to the video, you can also unlock additional wrestlers by completing the tournament on either medium or hard difficulty. WCW Nitro actually has a pretty sizeable roster for a fifth gen PlayStation game, with not just a selection of real WCW wrestlers available to you but also a bunch of wacky additional characters too, including the foam finger-wearing WCW Super Fan and even the members of Inland themselves. At least after suffering through unlocking everyone, you can then take it out on the developers themselves for some sort of catharsis.
In a nice touch, you can also play as classic versions of Hulk Hogan, Randy Savage and Sting, which makes a change from their darker late 90s characters. The problem is that in order to unlock everyone, you’ll have to complete the game over and over again with wrestlers that, aside from the odd move, will mostly all just wrestle the same. At least in a fighting game there is usually a difference in fighting styles between the characters, so each venture into the arcade mode can at least have its own unique flavour to it. In WCW Nitro once you’ve completed the game with one wrestler, you’re not going to find it much different when you complete it with another, so what’s the point?
WCW Nitro may do well from a presentation standpoint, and have a pretty sizeable roster to choose from once you manage to unlock everybody, but the steak isn’t anywhere close to the sizzle when it comes to the actual gameplay, and that’s something a wrestling game lives and breathes by. It doesn’t matter how many options you have or how many wrestlers you can select, if the wrestling itself is cack, then it’s hard to recommend a wrestling game, and this is the case with WCW Nitro.