3 Count Bout: a rarely-witnessed demonic event where a trio of Draculas try to beat the crap out of each other. It's also the name of SNK's 1993 Neo Geo wrestling game, erm, 3 Count Bout (known in Japan as Fire Suplex)!
I'm looking forward to this one, because the manic, over-the-top antics of pro wrestling and the sprite-wrangling, colour-packed power of the Neo Geo seem like a match made in heaven. It also promises to be entertainingly bizarre, with underwear-clad slabs of meaty manliness brought to life by a developer who named one of their most famous villains "Geese" surely providing fertile ground from which something even more insane than the regular WWE can flourish.
Because 3 Count Bout is an arcade experience about big men picking each other up and then putting each other back down really hard, there's no messing about and the only delay between the player inserting their coin and the action getting underway is choosing your wrestler. As I walk you through the thrills and spills of 3 Count Bout I'll be controlling Terry Rogers. I chose Terry because he's an all-American hero with the patriotic tights to prove it, a hungry young kid who looks the most likely to be a wrestler with average stats all around. I have unconfirmed reports that he fights for the rights of every man. You might think I chose Terry because as he's the first character highlighted I accidentally picked him when I was impatiently tapping the buttons, or that I chose him because he's one of the characters with a name I felt I could reliably spell, but no, it's definitely that first reason. Don't worry about all the other wrestlers I ignored, either - we'll meet each and every one of them soon enough.
My first rookie match and the prize money is already set at $10,000! Amateur wrestling is a career with an earning potential only rivalled by Multiple Lottery Winner, and as Terry strides to the ring his head is filled with visions not of gladiatorial glory or the adulation of the crowd but of earning enough money in one night to pay off the rest of his student loan (Terry studied for four year at Oxford to gain his BSc in Slamology).
I assume "SWF" stands for SNK Wrestling Federation. Can you have an acronym inside another acronym? Is that allowed, or should it be "Shin Nihon Kikaku Wrestling Federation"? I'm rambling, but only because I'm trying to avoid talking about that ring announcer. He demands attention, but what can you say about him, other than that he misheard "wrestling ring" as "centre ring" and arrived for work dressed as a circus ringmaster?
Speaking of sartorial choices, Terry makes his entrance while wearing a cape. I don't think you ever get a clear shot of it, but if the reverse of that cape isn't an American flag I will be shocked to my very core.
If you look at the bottom-left of the above screenshot, you might notice a member of the crowd wearing a red baseball cap and a red jacket who appears to have long blonde hair. Could this be a cameo appearance by SNK's other, more famous Terry - Terry Bogard himself? I kind of hope it isn't, because if it was Terry Bogard I'd want to play as him in this game. I know how all his moves work, for starters.
A terrifying vision of what the Batman movies would have become had Joel Schumacher been allowed to continue making them!
Not really: it's just The Gandhara, Terry's first opponent. The Gandhara's bio states that he's from India despite looking like a Muay Thai fighter and being named after an ancient Buddhist kingdom located in what is now Pakistan. Not that there's anything to stop an Indian learning Muay Thai and picking a new name for himself. This is wrestling, after all. I don't think Yokozuna was actually Japanese, nor is the Undertaker undead.
The battle begins with Terry giving The Gandhara a big slap in the chops. Start as you mean to go on, that's what I say.
The gameplay in 3 Count Bout feels like it's been assembled from three different pugilistic genres. There's the one-on-one combat and quick-step moves of a fighting game, the multi-plane, light attack combo, separate-button-to-jump systems found in side-scrolling brawlers and elements that are very much in the wrestling game tradition, like grappling and the basic concept of reducing your opponent's energy before going for the pin. The first two of these styles work well, and combat flows intuitively - there's a button each for punch and kick, a jump button and one that either pins your opponent or makes you taunt, depending on the situation. Climbing onto the turnbuckle, bouncing off the ropes and launching jumping attacks all comes naturally, with the only move you might need to make an effort to remember is the quick dash, an extremely useful technique performed by pressing the A and B buttons together that will feel very familiar if you've ever played a King of Fighters game.
So, the punching and kicking parts work well, which leaves only one question, the question that hovers over every wrestling videogame and which in some cases seems to have no answer - how the hell does the grappling work?
To my great relief, for 3 Count Bout I have a definitive answer, even if it's not as clear-cut as you might expect. Step one is simple enough, mind you: just hammer the A button. Hit that button as though each press resulted in a member of the English Defence League getting an electric shock to the groin. Wail on the controls like they just suggested a remake of A Matter of Life and Death starring Justin Bieber. Hit it until your fingers cry out in agony, and then stop, because that's only half the procedure. The button-mashing doesn't last long, and if you win the contest (as indicated by the blue section of the bar being longer than the orange part) then it's time for action.
"Use Wrestling Techniques," it says. Really? I was going to read him some Shakespeare sonnets, maybe offer The Gandhara a foot massage, but if you insist...
What this really means is that upon winning the grapple, you get a choice of what move to unleash. Pressing A results in a flurry of strikes or in you throwing your opponent across the ring, while the B button breaks out the big wrestling moves: powerbombs, piledrivers and the like. However, these more damaging moves only seem to work if you won the button-bash by a considerable margin.
Terry's main wrestling move is to pick up his foe and throw 'em at the canvas as hard as he can, which is simple but effective.
That's most 3 Count Bout's gameplay covered. Damage your enemy with strikes while avoiding their special moves, such as The Gandhara's ability to spit fire. Grapples are started by simply getting close to the other wrestler, but here's a very important thing to remember about 3 Count Bout: if you hit your opponent a few times before grappling them, you'll start with a big advantage during the button mashing. It works the other way, too, so if you're taking a battering then try to keep your distance for a while because it's nigh-impossible to overcome the advantage your opponent will have if they've been knocking you around.
Fights are ended in the usual wrestling ways. You can be counted out if you stay outside the ring for too long, so there's no time for schmoozing with the crowd. If you can get a foe who's been weakened enough in a submission hold you can make them give up, which is what Terry's trying to do in the screenshot above, utilising the kind of chokehold than anyone who grew up with brothers around their own age will recognise. In the end I had to settle for beating The Gandhara using the basic method of pinning him to the canvas with my bulk, our sweat-slicked torsos pressed together as Terry's hot breath tickled The Gandhara's ear. It was all terribly romantic.
Just when I thought I had 3 Count Bout all figured out, the second bout starts with a twist: it's a no rules, no-holds-barred street wrestling match! "Street Wrestling" is short for "Off Street Parking Wrestling", because this battle will take place half-way up a multi-storey car park. And who will I be challenging today?
It's Canadian street punk and chain enthusiast Leo Bradlay! He's dedicated his life to changing the stereotypical view of Canadians as decent, polite people one brutal chain bashing at a time, and today it's Terry Rogers' preconceptions that are going to be thoroughly challenged.
As I might have mentioned, Leo Bradlay has a chain and he likes to use it, swinging it around in a highly damaging attack that covers a wide area. If only I had a weapon of my own to counteract Leo's clear advantage, something like a baseball bat with barbed wire wrapped around it or a taser.
Yeah, a taser will do. Wrestling definitely isn't fake here in the SWF. I put so many volts into Leo that he started floating. You can't fake that.
Because there's no rules and no referee, to win a street wrestling match you have to reduce the other wrestler's health to zero and then hit them with a big attack to knock them unconscious for ten seconds. I fared much better in this fight than I did in the first, mostly because I realised early on that I could grapple Leo and throw him head-first into the cars that make up the edge of the "ring". Also, the taser. Leo is defeated, slinking away to lick his wounds and wonder why he ever thought that combining Guile and Sephiroth's haircuts into one super-do was a good idea. Terry, meanwhile, gets back to the safe and responsible world of professionally sanctioned sports entertainment.
Then a Japanese man spat poison in his face. I think I'd rather get whipped by the chains. This unhygienic fellow is The Red Dragon. Yes, I know he's wearing blue. It's his alternate colour scheme. I have no idea why he's wearing it during this single-player game, though. Perhaps he thought the red would clash with Terry's tights.
It might not look like it here, but I'm starting to get a handle on how to succeed at 3 Count Bout. It's mostly about positioning, and knowing that each wrestler has essentially the same set of moves: a special attack that hits right in front of them, like Red Dragon's poison mist, and a dashing attack. The key to victory is to keep moving, trying to spend as little time as possible on the same plane as your opponent and striking while they're recovering after attempting a move. For instance, Red Dragon kept trying to hit me with a running windmill kick that was easily sidestepped, allowing me to kick him while he was lying on the floor afterwards.
As a Japanese wrestler who spits poison and wears facepaint, it seems likely that Red Dragon is inspired by the real-life wrestler Great Muta. Aside from Red Dragon, however, 3 Count Bout is rather lacking in the really obvious, barely-altered parodies of famous wrestlers that you usually see in wrestling games of this vintage. They almost always have a Hulk Hogan copycat, usually defined by encroaching baldness and a big moustache, but not in 3 Count Bout. In fact, I can't spot any other likely contenders for real-life inspiration amongst this game's cast, but then I don't know that much about wrestling. If you think you've noticed a famous face amongst 3 Count Bout's cast of freaks, then let me know in the comments.
The next bout sees Terry facing a fat masked Spaniard by the name of Gochack Bigbomb. Gochack "accidentally" put on his wife's sports bra this morning. The graphics in 3 Count Bout are excellent throughout, with big, smooth sprites that are packed with colour, but the game reaches an aesthetic zenith with Gochack's exquisitely rendered gut. Someone at SNK put a lot of love and attention into getting that pot belly just right.
Speaking of graphics, you might have noticed that this wrestling ring looks different to the other one. That's because this is an Electricity Match. What, like, it's so exciting it's going to electrify the crowd?
Nope, it means that the ropes are electrified, as Gochack has just discovered. I'm doing so much better in these brutal gimmick matches than I do in the regular bouts. Does that mean I'm a bad wrestler, or just that I'm good at improvising with whatever tools are at my disposal? I think it's the former. I don't seem to be winning many grapples, that's for sure, because SNK don't just want you to mash that button, they want you to pound it into its constituent molecules.
It's Terry Rogers vs. Terry Rogers, and there's not much to say about this one, folks. Clone Terry's distinctly un-American tights are making me wonder if he's a fighter for Catalan independence. A trainer watches from the edge of the ring, confused as to which Terry is the one he's rooting for. To my eyes, the trainer has the looks of an anime Kyle MacLachlan.
Next up, another street match, this time between Terry and Blues Hablam. Blues Hablam is a very large man with a Satanic pentagram painted on his torso and surprisingly dainty little frills at the top of his boots. He's a man of deep contradictions, this one, but the most confusing thing about him is his hands. Is he wearing gloves, or has he just painted his fingers white? Maybe he finger-painted that pentagram onto himself.
Whoa whoa whoa, what the hell are you doing, Blues? 3 Count Bout has taken a really dark turn here, I'd better get over there and kick Blues in the head before he can proceed with his planned self-mutilation.
Never mind, Blues was just taking a knife out of his trunks so he could stab me with it. Keeping a knife inside you skin-tight briefs as another man throws you around seems like a recipe for disaster, frankly. I'll be doing the world of wrestling a favour by defeating Blues Hablam, protecting his opponents and saving him from himself.
Well, this could be going better. Instead of going for the coup de grace as Terry lies wounded on the concrete, Blues saunters off-screen. Where the hell are you going, Blues? This is a wrestling match, not a boring conversation with an insufferable work colleague, you can't just walk away!
Oh, you're back, and you brought a friend. Yes, Blues wandered into the audience, picked up an understandably terrified businessman and threw him at Terry. For this, I have no reservations about awarding 3 Count Bout ten out of ten, full marks, a perfect score. Just look at the human missile's face. That's art, that is.
Terry is set upon by a straggly-haired, hairy-chested wild man! A wild man called Roy Wilson. Roy Wilson? That's the name of a septuagenarian greengrocer, not a pro wrestler. Couldn't he have named himself something more appropriate like The Beast or Killer Caveman or, given his tendency to bite his opponents, Luis Suarez?
3 Count Bout is starting to get difficult, mostly because winning grapples now requires a level of high-speed button-mashing technique that I don't possess. Hit-and-run tactics have become my only option, making this a wrestling game where I'm actively avoiding any wrestling, but because it's fast-paced and exciting it's still plenty of fun. It's not exactly fair, but if I wanted a fair game I wouldn't be playing an SNK fighter.
Another electricity match now, this time against Big Bomberder. Big Bomberder is just Gochack Bigbomb without a mask. I guess he had a face turn somewhere along the way.
The hit-and-run tactics continue in this fight, as I get plenty of use out of Terry's jumping kick. He's quite good at jumping kicks, or at least the first two-thirds of them: his take-off and execution are great but his landing needs work, especially when you miss and have to spend several seconds lying on the mat looking slightly embarrassed.
My god, look at this exquisite specimen. A tomato in a massive sombrero. My word. His name -get this - is Blubber Man. Ha ha, Blubber Man. The thing is, his weight is listed as 352lbs. Big Bomberder weighs 441 pounds. How in the hell is the character called "Blubber Man" not the heaviest wrestler in this game? It beggars belief, it really does.
So yeah, Blubber Man is another headswap, this time of Blues Hablam, and he's just as keen on knives as his identical predecessor. He also likes flying headbutts a lot. Hey, when you look like that people don't expect you to be launching yourself at them face-first. I can appreciate that level of tactical thought. If I hadn't made an infernal pact with Satan Goat, Blubber Man might well have become the new VGJunk mascot.
Here it is: after all the blood, sweat and tasers, Terry has reached the final match against the world heavyweight champion: Master Barnes. Master Barnes is Dutch. I'll be honest, I'm struggling with the concept of a huge wrestling champ being from The Netherlands. My stereotyped view of the Dutch as laid-back, friendly people is stopping me from taking Master Barnes seriously.
For a final encounter, it's pretty underwhelming. It's still the same old 3 Count Bout fun, but that's all it is. Master Barnes is just another wrestler, one who doesn't have any incredible new moves (beside the ability to win almost any grapple easily) or exciting tricks up his sleeves. He's hard to beat, nigh-impossible to pick up and he can break out of pins even when his health bar is completely empty, but mostly he's just a bit dull.
The most notable thing about him is that he likes to taunt, far more often than any of the other wrestlers. I suppose that's your prerogative if you're the champion, but when he stands around posing that's your chance to get a hit in. Keep chipping away and eventually even the mighty Master Barnes will fall... unless you run out of time, which is what happened to me the first time I fought him. If the timer reaches zero then you lose, no matter who has more health. The second time I kept using dash attacks. That seemed to work, and Terry Rogers claims the belt!
It's a good job I'm playing as Terry, I don't think that belt would fit around Blubber Man's prodigious girth.
My button-mashing finger feels like it's been run through an industrial mangle, but aside from that I've got a lot of love for 3 Count Bout. It doesn't have the depth or finesse of SNK's dedicated one-on-one fighting games, but that's okay: it's still unabashedly fun, with just the right balance of complexity, a nice cast of weirdos, excellent graphics and good music.
3 Count Bout's biggest flaw is the gradually increasing imbalance in the computer-controlled characters' grappling abilities, but even that is mitigated by the more unorthodox match types and the ability to play against a second human player. 3 Count Bout is definitely a game to be played against a friend, where there's more balance, more emphasis on skill and more opportunities to swear at them when they roll out of the way of your big off-the-top-rope body splash. In conclusion, if you like your wrestling games big, bold and filled with Blubber Man, and you don't mind not playing as real WWE superstars, then I can give 3 Count Bout my firm recommendation. Just make sure you do some warm-ups with your button-mashing hand before you play it.