Wrestling Empire for the Nintendo Switch is the newest wrestling game to be released by MDickie, although it is the first time that one of his games has reached one of the main home consoles. I’m always looking for ways to pad out my Switch game library as I feel almost guilty sometimes that I don’t give the console more attention than I do. When I heard that Wrestling Empire had made its way to virtual store shelves in January of 2021, I decided to wait till payday and slap down the £19.99 required to purchase it as I’m always intrigued to give a pro wrestling game a go due to my pre-existing love for the sport. Seeing as no one else was scheduled to review it here on Gaming Respawn, I felt I might as well throw my hat in the ring, seeing as I’ve sunk some significant hours into the game since purchasing it.
MDickie is the name used by indie developer Mat Dickie, and I’m actually familiar with some of his previous games, such as Big BumpZ and Wrestling Revolution 3D on the PC. Wrestling Empire takes after Wrestling Revolution 3D quite a lot, both when it comes to graphics and gameplay. I first became aware of Wrestling Revolution 3D when I saw the lads from new Legacy Inc. playing it on YouTube. The game actually had a 2D version, which I was intrigued to try, but sadly, it wasn’t available on Steam when I tried to download it, so I had to just play the 3D version instead.
Upon seeing that Wrestling Empire looked pretty similar to the previous game from MDickie, I felt that it would be interesting to see how the game had transferred from the PC to a home console. In some ways the Switch is almost the perfect console for Wrestling Empire¸ especially when you take into account the fact that MDickie has also made quite a few games for the mobile market (and indeed, there is a version of Wrestling Empire itself for mobiles). The capability the Switch gives you for playing games on the go, combined with the fact that Wrestling Empire is hardly a graphical behemoth, means it fits nicely into the Switch’s wheelhouse.
Wrestling Empire and Wrestling Revolution 3D are both heavily influenced by the great N64 wrestling games by AKI/THQ, such as WCW World Tour and WWF No Mercy. Indeed, the control scheme in particular is modelled on those games (which we’ll get into in the next section), with MDickie clearly having nostalgic wrestling game fans in mind when putting these games together. Certainly, it’s easy to see why games like Wrestling Empire always get some attention from YouTubers and the like, especially those who are hoping for the glory days of grapple games to return. Indeed, as we’ve seen with the hype for RetroMania Wrestling, there is a fertile market when it comes to scratching the classic wrestling game itch that a group of video game enthusiasts have.
As mentioned already, Wrestling Empire apes the classic Nintendo 64 wrestling games when it comes to its control scheme. Wrestlers have adrenaline metres that will increase with every successful move and taunt your wrestler performs, and when it fills completely, you will have a brief window in which you will be able to deliver a devastating finishing manoeuvre. To perform the finisher, you simply have to grapple your opponent and flick the right analogue stick again, at which point you will deliver the move.
You can instigate a grapple by pressing the B button, at which point you can then either perform grapple moves by pressing Y, B or A with a direction on the controller or Irish Whip your opponent by pressing the X button. Y attacks tend to be easier to perform but do less damage, whilst A attacks tend to be more powerful but are easier for the opposing wrestler to counter. In a nice touch, you can turn a number of moves right into a pinning situation by holding the right stick down when you perform them, as well as turning some of them into submission holds.
Wrestling Empire has a pretty intuitive grappling system, and you can actually cinch up on holds by moving the left stick when you apply them, with holds often flowing into different positions and situations, meaning that you have to adjust your grip accordingly. For instance, you might sneak behind an opponent by pressing the shoulder buttons when grappling and then apply a standing sleeper hold, but after wrenching on that, you might find that the move organically changes into a rear naked choke, which can then even turn into a modified camel clutch if your opponent rolls onto their front. It really gives the feeling like an actual fight is going on that you have to react to rather than just pressing a button to lock in a hold for a pre-determined amount of time.
Despite having some good ideas though, the general gameplay in Wrestling Empire is sorely lacking in the finesse that the Nintendo 64 games it’s modelled on have. Matches never really feel like they “flow” like a normal wrestling match would, with wrestlers generally popping up pretty quickly after everything and matches normally devolving to frantic slap fights. It’s like MDickie was going for a refined AKI-styled grappling system but tried to ram it together with a more arcade-styled fighting game, and it just doesn’t work.
Often matches just become exercises in mashing buttons and hoping that you’ll win. Counters seem to happen at random as you will go from stomping an opponent into them catching you in a Kimura out of nowhere, and you’ll have no way of getting out of it because you’re not really sure how you ended up in it in the first place. At times matches can be frantic fun, especially when multiple bodies are getting thrown hinder and yarn, but even then the game can be alarmingly buggy, enough that it ruins the gameplay experience.
The game is certainly not bereft of gameplay options, with numerous match types to select from and the ability to jump into any match you like in exhibition mode with minimal loading time. It really is quite impressive the amount of options available for selection, with an assortment of wacky stipulations to pick as well. Fancy a cage match with 22 people where the only way to win is to throw people through office desks? Well, you can do that! I did a multi-person cage match at one stage, which descended into absolute anarchy as everyone just piled onto one another in one section of the cage. Sadly, it was impossible to escape the cage due to so much carnage going on, and I had to eventually just exit the match, and this, unfortunately, happened more than once.
I remember at one stage I put together a ten-woman gauntlet-styled bout where a wrestler would enter the ring every minute, and eliminations were caused via pins and submissions. However, for some reason the referee decided to sprint all the way down to the entrance area, which meant that whenever someone made a pin or applied a submission, you had to wait for the referee to sprint back down to the ringside area to count, which made it impossible to score any falls. I restarted the match a number of times and even played with the settings, but the referee just kept fleeing down the entranceway every single time.
Ultimately, Wrestling Empire has a lot of good ideas, but in execution it just isn’t able to stick the landing from a gameplay perspective. I eventually found playing the game very frustrating, with a number of smaller issues bogging things down as much as the bigger ones. For instance, you climb in and out of the ring by simply walking into the ropes, but this is also how you climb turnbuckles and tag out in tag matches. You can probably see where I’m going with this one. Due to there being no designated button for tagging out, I often found that I would try walking into my partner to tag but end up climbing the turnbuckle or climbing out of the ring. In fact, on some occasions I stepped out onto the apron right next to my partner and sent them flying out onto the floor!
One thing I will say for Wrestling Empire though is that there is a very detailed tutorial mode that you can run through before you start the game proper, and it covers most of what you are going to need in order to tackle the game. What annoys me so much about Wrestling Empire is that the foundations are there for a really fun and deep wrestling game, but the finished product just doesn’t live up to the possibilities, and that’s really disappointing. You can see what MDickie was going for, and that almost makes it worse because it falls agonisingly short of what it was clearly intended to be.
Wrestling Empire isn’t much to write home about from a graphical perspective as it tries to once again ape the visuals of the Nintendo 64 wrestling games. However, the game still has a rather pleasing retro look, and the wrestlers themselves have a lot of character to them, even if their faces are not exceptionally expressive. Not having overly intense graphics actually helps the game in some cases, especially when it comes to how the game runs. I didn’t really experience anything in the form of slowdown, no matter how many people were on-screen scuffling, and there is some impressive item damage on things like chairs when you wallop opponents with them.
In a nice touch, you can choose how populated the arenas are in exhibition mode, with the option to even have screens set up like it’s the WWE’s ThunderDome arena that they’ve used ever since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. There are some decent blood and injury effects, and you’re given a decent selection of clothing and body options in the game’s edit suite. If you go in expecting high-end AAA graphics, then you’re going to be disappointed, but if you want a fun, retro art style, then Wrestling Empire should do you just fine.
I got the chance to play Wrestling Empire in both docked and handheld mode, and I’m pleased to report that it runs smoothly in both. I’m genuinely impressed at how the game manages to hold together at times, especially when you consider just how many wrestlers can be on-screen at the same time.
Wrestling Empire has your standard wrestling sound effects when you’re in a match, with the typical grunts and groans accompanying crowd noise, as well as the assorted crashes and bangs as wrestlers land on the match and clobber one another with nearby weaponry. There is some music that plays during the menu screens, and it’s fine, but that’s all it is. To quote noted wrestling writer Scott Keith, the sound in Wrestling Empire is “perfectly cromulent” and does what it needs to do. There’s nothing wrong with it, but it’s hardly amazing either, and that’s fine.
Wrestling Empire has a very ambitious single-player career mode where you have to select one of the wrestlers from the Wrestling School company and take them as far in their career as you possibly can. Along the way you will form allegiances, get into heated feuds and possibly compete for a number of titles the world over, depending on how successful you are. Career mode is full of numerous twists and turns, and you never quite know what is going to happen from week to week. You will start out working on small shows at the training school, but if you win enough matches and gain enough popularity, you will be offered contracts to work for bigger, more prominent companies.
The wrestlers in the game are based on wrestlers from the real world, with just enough changes being done to their overall looks and names so that MDickie can avoid any unwanted attention from the assorted legal teams of companies such as WWE, AEW and New Japan. For instance, an African-American wrestler with bright green tights called Bird Boy looks suspiciously like WWE Hall of Famer Koko B. Ware, a man who was known for bringing a bird down to the ring with him. It’s pretty easy to work out who each wrestler’s real life equivalent is, and it makes the game feel a bit like classic football games, such as International Superstar Soccer, where they would tweak players’ names for legal reasons, but you still knew that Ronarid was supposed to be the famed bald Brazilian Ronaldo.
I decided to pick convict-themed wrestler “Shank” as my character as he had decently balanced stats, and he was one half of the Wrestling School tag champs with fellow convict Mike Bail. However, as soon as I started the game, the computer instead assigned the in-game Scotty 2 Hotty lookalike as Bail’s partner and even awarded him Shank’s half of the tag titles for good measure! Thus, I was stuck cobbling together wins in the singles division until Strong Style Wrestling (a company that kind of acts as a hybrid of ECW and AEW in the game) offered me a contract.
You have separate stats for Strength, Skill, Agility and Stamina for your character, and you can choose to increase them at the expense of your life bar. In Wrestling Revolution 3D you would actually have to take part in button mashing training sequences in order to do this, but in Wrestling Empire you just hold down a button whilst your character has a kind of fit until the stats eventually go up. Occasionally, the head booker of the company you work for will set you certain goals that you will have to meet stats-wise; otherwise, they will boot you out of the door, which means you might have to sacrifice some matches so you can get your Agility to 67% in order to appease your boss.
Annoyingly though, increasing stats in one area will cause them to decrease in another, meaning that if you boost your stamina, you will see your strength decrease. This is okay in theory, but the problem is that the stats decrease at the same pace that others increase, which means it’s basically impossible to really build your stats up in all areas. Thus, if your wrestler has most of their stats in the 65% range, for instance, then you’ll never been able to get balanced stats in the 75-80% range because it will always be one step forward and another step back, unless you’re lucky enough for another wrestler to decide to sell you some steroids to help you on your way (yes, this is something that actually happens in the game).
You might argue that not being able to max out your stats in a balanced manner adds a depth of challenge to the game, but when you consider that all the best wrestlers in the game have high ranking and balanced stats, it basically adds an unnatural difficulty spike when you finally make it to the big leagues. Obviously, I don’t think you should be able to start your career with your character having stats of 65 across the board and end up with them having 95 or something like that, but it would be nice if you could get them to 75% across the board, you know?
Career mode can actually get pretty dark too, especially if you or your opponents happen to get injured in matches. What can seem like an anonymous, small injury can sometimes lead to wrestlers being out for a long time or even outright dying. Indeed, I ended up killing the in-game equivalent of Kenny Omega by giving him a simple hip toss, and I was then forced to pay money towards his funeral expenses as a result! It was made all the more bizarre as we were both working for Maple Leaf Grappling at the time, whose head booker was clearly meant to be Jim Cornette, and anyone who knows how Mr. Cornette feels about Mr. Omega would probably think I would have gotten a hearty pat on the back as opposed to a telling off!
My character also suffered a horrific injury at one stage, and it basically ruined that career mode save, if I’m being honest, as my stats got sliced to bits, and I had to spend a tonne of money on surgery in order to get better. Because it’s so hard to build up stats, I eventually had to bum around with my character in the low 60s and with my stamina in the low 50s. I still had high popularity owing to my in-ring success prior to my injury, but bookers were giving me unrealistic targets for my stats, and it led to me ending up back at training school, where I promptly got told off for winning too much and was forced to throw some matches to show I was a team player.
Like with other aspects within the game, Wrestling Empire has a lot of interesting ideas and concepts for its career mode, but ultimately, it just doesn’t deliver on the promise. If you want to create a guy with basically no stamina but tonnes of strength, then you might have some fun as a lumbering giant, but if you want to build a strong, balanced character that will allow you to stand on equal footing with the game’s best wrestlers, then you’re going to end up disappointed.
I’m genuinely disappointed that I don’t enjoy Wrestling Empire more than I do. I love video games, and I love pro wrestling, so I’ve always got a lot invested in liking a combination of the two and will always do my utmost to give such a game the benefit of the doubt. However, there are just too many glaring issues with Wrestling Empire for me to give it a positive review. There are a lot of very good ideas, and MDickie clearly has a great appreciation for the sport, and that comes across in the career mode especially. Unfortunately, good intentions alone sometimes just aren’t enough. I’ll keep an eye on the game, and if further updates and patches are created for it, then I’ll certainly return to the game as and when they happen, but sadly, Wrestling Empire in its current form is a middling game that doesn’t live up to its potential.
Release Date: 11th January 2021