Here’s one for all you Hulkamaniacs, Macho Men and whatever the collective name for a group of Jake “The Snake” Roberts fans is – Snakeamaniacs, maybe? No, too derivative. Let’s call ‘em Snake Buddies, a cheerful name to help counter the testosterone-laden heel-face feuds of the World Wrestling Federation. Hey, did you know Jake The Snake’s real first name is Aurelian? I would have gone with that for my ring name, it sounds cool as heck. Aurelian, The Golden Man, beats his opponents over the head with gold ingots. Neat. Anyway, where was I? Oh yeah, today’s game is Sculptured Software and (whisper it and tremble) LJN’s 1992 NES grapple-em-up WWF Wrestlemania: Steel Cage Challenge!
Here’s a title screen that really live up to that name, with the game’s title taking up seventy-five percent of the screen and leaving you in no doubt that this is a product of the World Wrestling Federation. Of course, the WWF is now known as World Wrestling Entertainment – something about a lawsuit involving pandas, I hear – but it’ll always be the WWF to me and, I suspect, a lot of people my age. I know nothing about the current state of wrestling, but back in the early nineties it was immensely popular with the youth, enjoying something of a golden age as famous stars like Hulk Hogan, The Ultimate Warrior and The Undertaker became the idols of young fans across the world. I’ve got fond memories of that WWF era, so it’s nice to see some of these larger-than-life characters again.
Speaking of Hulk Hogan, the self-confessed steroid-guzzling racist takes up the other 25% of the title screen. It’s a pretty decent bit of artwork, apart from the eyes, which have rolled back into the Hulkster’s skull in a manner that suggests either ice cubes down his trunks or demonic possession.
With little in the way of an introduction besides a gameplay demo, let’s get to the various types of wrasslin’ we can enjoy. One-on-one or tag-team modes are available, in either single bouts or nine-fight runs to the championship belt, and for the purposes of this article I’ll be aiming for the WWF Championship itself.
After that, it’s time to pick which of the ten wrestlers in the game you’ll be playing as. For me, the choice was easy: I went with Ted “The Million Dollar Man” DiBiase, a wrestler who was always one of my favourites. I was definitely a “root for the villains” kind of kid, the type who wanted Skeletor to beat He-Man just once, and DiBiase’s character – a millionaire who bought people off and acted smug while wearing a sequinned tuxedo – appealed to a less worldly-wise VGJunk who hadn’t yet been exposed to the worst excesses of capitalism. I sincerely hope Ted DiBiase himself came up with the idea for the character, because that’d mean he said “hey guys, I’ve come up with a great character for me: an extremely wealthy bastard. Of course, you’d have to pay for me to have first-class flights and accommodation and loads of spending money. You know, to maintain the illusion.” Genius, absolute genius.
My first opponent will be The Mountie. He’s, well, a mountie. But get this – he’s an evil mountie, prone to electrocuting his opponents with a cattle prod. Canada didn’t appreciate the name of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police being dragged through the sweaty, baby-oiled mud and demanded the WWF stop using the Mountie character in Canada. Okay, maybe not demanded. It’s Canada, after all. They probably asked politely.
Time for the actual sports entertainment, and as with most other wrestling games the aim is to win the bout by either pinning your opponent for three seconds or having them stay outside the ring for ten seconds – plus another variant we’ll see in a while. Pins are the most common way to win, but before you can get your opponent on the canvas for the full three seconds you’ll need to drain their energy bar using the variety of wrestling moves at your disposal. The most basic are punches and kicks, good for softening up your foe and leaving them open for more powerful and wrestling-appropriate moves.
Initiating a grapple is as simple as walking into your opponent, and once you’re in there it’s all about who’s got the advantage. In the screenshot above, Ted’s in charge. You can tell by the way he’s leaning forwards, and once you’re in that position you can perform a couple of moves, namely slamming your opponent onto the mat or headbutting them right in the face. Apparently you can also throw the grapplee into the ropes, although I don’t think I ever managed to pull that move off for some reason: either the controls listed in the manual are wrong, or the timing on the button-press is far tighter than it needs to be.
As with so many wrestling games of the era, the key to success is button mashing. Yes, get your thumb-brace out of storage, have an ice bath at hand, maybe do one hundred thumbs up as a warm-up because you’re going to be pressing the A button a lot. When you’re in a grapple, if you don’t have the advantage you can regain it if you hammer the A button quickly enough, and given that the CPU opponents do little but invade your personal space at every opportunity winning the grapple contests is mandatory to get past any of the game’s bouts.
Other moves available include a couple of running attacks, most notably something that you could charitably call a flying body press but which looks more like a child pretending to be Superman, and the ability to stomp on grounded foes or slam them with an elbow drop. The Mountie doesn’t put up too much resistance, and by combining the grapples and literally kicking a man while he’s down you should be able to make it through this first match comfortably enough. One proviso here is trying for the pin can be agonisingly fiddly, an considering the command to pin is as simple as "down and B" it always took me about fifty attempts while standing in various different spots before Ted would realise that yes, I do want him to lay down on top of this sweaty, semi-conscious pile of muscle.
Then it’s onward to the next match, and the next, until you’re the champion. Fight number two pits Ted DiBiase against the wrestler who was, at the time of this game’s release, his tag-team partner: it’s Irwin R. Schyster! Schyster is another wrestler I liked as a kid, again because of his ridiculous gimmick: he was an evil tax man. Oh, you wags, I can hear you saying “is there any other kind of tax man?” at the back. Schyster (real name Mike Rotunda) wrestled while wearing suspenders and a tie to complete the financial look, and it’s one of those daft but visually striking characters that made the WWF of the time so appealing to kids – although I’ll admit that having Ted DiBiase and Irwin R. Schyster as two of my favourite wrestlers made me something of an outlier.
The match itself unfolded pretty much identically to the first, although I did discover you can climb up to the top turnbuckle and launch aerial attacks. A welcome gameplay feature to be sure, and one that should be mandatory for any wrestling videogame, but a fighting technique of very limited usefulness. By the time you’ve given your opponent a thorough enough beating that they’ll lie on the canvas long enough for you to complete the extremely slow process of moving to the corner, climbing up the ropes, getting into position and then jumping, you might as well just pin them.
Coming up next is Bret “Hitman” Hart, a favourite of many young WWF fans, and still regarded as one of the greatest performers in the sport and reading that he’s now sixty years old forced me to contemplate the relentless march of time that grinds away at all humanity until we’re nothing more than dust. On a more cheerful note, Bret Hart was also the chief proponent of what I still think of as “wrestler hair” - long, lank, wet and stringy, like seaweed in a paper shredder.
At last, the steel cage is introduced to Steel Cage Challenge. Every third fight in the championship mode takes place in the cage, where to win you have to knock down you opponent long enough to allow you to scale the cage and escape. Other than that it’s identical to a non-cage match, so have at it with the punches and body slams until your opponent’s tired enough to need a good long lie down.
One interesting quirk of the steel cage matches is that the CPU wrestlers don’t seem to realise that the springy, yielding ropes have been replaced with a ruddy great metal cage. This means that occasionally, as pictured above, they’ll sprint across the ring as though they’re planning to bounce off the ropes, only to smash face-first into the cage and fall over. Hey, I’ll take whatever help I can get.
Back to a regular ring for the match against Sid Justice, perhaps better known as Sid Vicious, a hulking six-foot-nine powerhouse. Looking at the game’s sprites, you’ll see that this is not communicated visually by Steel Cage Challenge. That’s a real problem with this game - none of the wrestlers feel unique. The sprites aren’t bad, given the NES’s limitations at the scale the characters are drawn in, but every wrestler is the same height, have the same movement animations and, worst of all, they all have the same moves. There aren’t even any of the WWF superstars’ trademark special moves included. No Sharpshooter leg hold for Bret Hart, no Hulk Hogan leg drop, not even Ted DiBiase's legendary Million Dollar Dream which was, erm, kind of a bog-standard choke hold. I’d argue that the entire appeal of a WWF videogame is the chance to play as your favourite of these larger-than-life characters, but in steel cage challenge you’re selecting a sprite and nothing more.
Ooh yeah, it’s Macho Man Randy Savage, and he’s doing an elbow drop – but so can every other wrestler in the game. It’s all terribly disappointing, and sadly I must report that the gameplay isn’t good enough to rescue the game, either. The interchangeable characters mean that there’s almost no strategy to the game at all, and if you want to win there’s really only one tactic. Land a couple of punches to nick a notch or two off your opponent’s health bar, and then keep grabbing them and hammer the A button. If you have the health advantage, you’ll win almost every single grapple and headbutt your foe, leaving them in the perfect position to grapple them again immediately and headbutt them over and over. Trying to deviate from this strategy usually means your opponent will beat you in the grapple, the lack of moves gives you no chance to try something new and fights quickly devolve into the same headbutt-headbutt-pin situation.
The first time I lost was against the late Rowdy Roddy Piper, who wasn’t actually Scottish but who did star in They Live and as such he’s all right by me. I managed to lose when Roddy escaped the cage, because for some reason Ted refused to get up after a knockdown despite having some energy left. Roddy also has some energy left even though I spent five minutes using my forehead to perform some admittedly crude rhinoplasty. You see, Steel Cage Challenge has an unusual mechanic where, when the CPU gets low on health, they instantly recover a chunk of their energy bar. Presumably this was intended to keep the fight interesting, because if they’ve suddenly got more energy than you they’re going to start winning a lot more grapples, and if you’re running at a deficit energy-wise it’s very difficult to mount a comeback. I wish, then, that I’d realised I could restore my own low health once a fight by pressing select before the very last match.
Next up is The Phenom himself, the terrifying and mysterious Undertaker, who is entirely devoid of any sense of menace or power in this game because he’s the same size as everyone else and he has the exact same head as Ted DiBiase. His little status portrait isn’t helping, he looks more like Danny McBride than The Demon of Death Valley.
By this point Steel Cage Challenge has more than revealed itself to be a very limited offering, almost entirely devoid of excitement once you’ve played a couple of matches and realised there’s simply not much to it. I haven’t played much of the other NES WWF games, but I’d be surprised if Steel Cage Challenge wasn’t the least interesting of the bunch.
I mean, come on, Jake the Snake doesn’t even have a snake! He’s just a bloke called Jake at this point. Okay, that’s a bit harsh on Jake “again, Aurelian’s a way cooler name” Robert’s wrestling skills, but as those wrestling moves don’t appear here – not even the iconic DDT which Roberts is famous for popularising – I feel okay with judging his appearance here solely on his lack of reptiles. No snakes, zero out of ten, please hold still while I load you up with more headbutts than a flock of goats on a rowdy night out in Glasgow.
The final match is against, of course, Hulk Hogan. Hogan’s sprite is at least recognisable as the Hulkster, although that’s probably less due to artistic endeavour and more because of Hogan’s huge fame and the fact that very few other people look like someone stood a sofa on its end and glued a mop to the top.
Hogan is far more difficult to beat than the other wrestlers – or at least he would be if the same headbutting train didn’t work on him. If he does get loose, though, you might be in trouble because he’ll pile on the damage, being especially fond of kicking you while you’re laid out on the canvas wishing you’d picked a less injurious career, like “training police dogs without the padded suit” or “human anvil.”
You also seem to stay floored a lot longer against Hogan than when flattened by other wrestler, presumably to give Hogan a massive advantage when it comes to escaping the steel cage. On the plus side, this game does feature a chiptune version of Hogan’s “Real American” theme music, a song so on-the-nose that it wraps around to being endearing and hey, the central message of the song is admirable, I suppose.
And there you have it – The Million Dollar man is the new WWF Champion and he’s got the belt to prove it. His forehead has vanquished many a foe and now he’s king of the ring (except not, like King of the Ring) after a real royal rumble (again, not the Royal Rumble.) Actually, Steel Cage Challenge is very similar to the 1993 SNES / Megadrive WWF Royal Rumble game, also created by Sculptured Software for LJN, to the point where you could almost consider it a port of sorts. The 16-bit version is definitely superior, mind you.
I’d hesitate to call WWF Wrestlemania: Steel Cage Challenge a terrible game, because the gameplay here mostly works fine and it definitely contains those promised steel cages, but it’s certainly not a good game. Not repetitive, too beholden to the same patterns to get you through the fights and almost completely lacking the razzmatazz and spectacle that is the absolute, foundational point of the WWF. I’m guessing Sculptured Software weren’t give much in the way of time or budget to get this one made, especially considering they were pumping out WWF games on different consoles every year in the early nineties. You might get a bit more fun out of it if you’re playing with a friend, but on the whole it’s almost as effective as sending you for a snooze as the Million Dollar Dream itself.
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