Wrestling games have been in a rut for a while now. With the historic decline of the 2K franchise, it’t really been up to smaller titles such as Fire Pro and Wrestling Empire to deliver a glimpse of hope for the genre, and one could say they have filled the empty space in the market with some entertaining romps. RetroMania Wrestling is the latest to throw its hat in the ring, acting as the official sequel to WWF Wrestlefest, which is now right at thirty years old. Thirty years is a long time, so is this offering worthy of your attention, or is it a bit too late to bring out this rivival? Let’s find out.
The story mode in RetroMania Wrestling is something. Players start out as Johnny Retro, which you may know as WWE’s own John Morrison. Retro is on a comeback from an injury, and basically works through bookings in a branching path narrative. Storylines branch through progression and choice, and though short, most will find this little mode to be a lot of fun. Sure, it isn’t exactly gripping in terms of writing, but RetroMania wears its indie booking heart on its sleeve, and managed to pick a roster of stars that are social media all-stars, with Stevie Richards, Matt Cardona, and a good selection of people who I was simply delighted in seeing get time to shine. The narrative is a good time, packed full of humor. Even though most will not know everyone in the roster if they don’t follow this scene, there is enough personality and charm to warrant several playthroughs overall.
The gameplay was what I was a bit concerned about going into RetroMania. Wrestlefest is a big name to live up to, and thankfully, Retrosoft Studios have made a simplistic, yet solid system that feels much like its predecessor. The grappling system basically works a bit like Fire Pro, where you have stages of grapples you can perform based on the strength of your opponent. The more offense you do, the quicker you build up your momentum – allowing execution of medium and heavy attacks. Add in your weapons, stipulations, and general wrestling fare, and you have a polished set of mechanics that flow quite nicely, once one is able to learn the basics.
During my first match I did have a bit of a stall with the controls as the timing is a bit tricky to master, but in just a few matches, it all became relatively easy to perform just about anything. Submissions, pins, and so on rely on a button-mashing competition to execute effective techniques, and even though some may scoff at that, I felt it was such a relief not to be thrown into a maddening mini-game that killed the pace of the fight (2K, that jab was for you). RetroMania’s gameplay takes things back to basics, and even though it doesn’t have the most maneuvers or match types, it does work well within its own walls, allowing those wanting an authentic experience to get some satisfaction without some silly gimmick tied in that hinders combat.
Story mode is fine for the story side of things, but the star of the game in my opinion comes with the “10 Pounds of Gold” mode. This works much like any other tournament, but puts the NWA title on the line and has a sense of importance, offering a huge payoff to those who are willing to make the trek. There is also an offline versus mode as well as a ton of easter eggs buried within, but I do think that it comes as a missed opportunity to not have online play, considering that this game feels like it would be made for that. Due to the lack of creation tools and a short roster, RetroMania’s biggest drawback is that it stands as a bit of a novelty experience rather than a game you can sink hundreds of hours in. I don’t think there is anything wrong with that mindset, but the current market of wrestling titles simply has more content available at launch, and the lack of it here in such a polished romp will surely leave fans of the genre hungry for more in a short time.
The 16-bit pixel art in RetroMania is phenomenal. Colors are bright and crisp, models are well detailed, and animations add in a ton of charm and life with little details such as facial expressions and taunts that bring the larger-than-life personalities out of each one of the 16 stars within. You can tell by the design that this game was made by a team that cared, and that love is sewn into so many places that nothing feels or looks underdone or generic. Even the little picture boxes that pop up during rumbles add a lot of depth to the experience, with characters doing their little entrance bits as they come to the ring, without disturbing gameplay due to the clever placement.
The music is also fantastic. Fans may not know every little theme song, but there is definitely a lot of nostalgia within the soundtrack. The smooth beats are also joined with impressive voice-overs, with in-game commentary (that actually is impressive) and ring announcing, which actually surprised me as I can’t tell you the last time I have seen a 2D wrestling game with competent play by play. The audio is just a welcome addition to all of the detail RetroMania already offers, creating a distinct experience for any player with its quality and charm.
RetroMania Wrestling is a fun throwback with a lot of heart. Sure, it could have done more or checked more boxes in terms of additional content, but what it does do it does well, and novelty or not you will walk away with a smile due to how much fun it can offer in a quick session. Wrestling games are not what they used to be, and the point of RetroMania seems to be to give the fans just that, an experience that is true to the foundation of the genre, with a lot of quirk, atmosphere, and personality that could easily turn into a franchise with enough support.