Legends of WrestleMania is a retro game in more ways than one. Most obviously, it's a wrestling game that diverts from the shiny new SmackDown path and instead wallows in cheesy nostalgia, offering a line up of WWE's biggest stars from the 1980s onwards in one big ol' rumble. Less obviously, it's a game that abandons the increasingly complex and impenetrable SmackDown gameplay in favour of button-mashing and simple combos, a modern day riff on the old Royal Rumble cartridge games of yesteryear.
In some ways it's a refreshing and long overdue change in perspective. SmackDown has become an increasingly bloated and stagnant affair, catering to a core group of fans who no longer seem to care if the actual gameplay is evolving in any meaningful way. By harking back to a less cynical time, Legends of WrestleMania brings back the fun. The wrestlers are fun, with icons like Hulk Hogan and camp horrors like the tassel-covered Ultimate Warrior making a welcome return to gaming, and the gameplay is fun.
Well, maybe fun is the wrong word. It's accessible. And by accessible, I mean incredibly easy. The finger-mangling grapple system that has taken root in SmackDown like a tenacious vine has been ruthlessly hacked away. What you're left with is the sort of control layout that could fit on a SNES pad. One button is for melee attacks, one for grapples, one for blocks and reversals, and one for pins, turnbuckle and rope moves. The move can be modified by the environmental context, triggering different attacks on the ropes than you'd get in the middle of the ring, and also by the directional stick and the length of the time the button is pressed. Hold it down and you pull off a stronger attack.
The action is augmented by "chains", essentially a stealth term for quick-time events, and a hefty helping of button-mashing. That's not quite as bad as it sounds, however, since the button prompts work for all players. If your opponent has you in a headlock, you can reverse the move by hitting the prompts before them. Conversely, miss the prompts for an attack you triggered and you'll muff it up and get slapped down.
While this welcoming approach bears fruit to begin with, it doesn't do much for the game's long-term appeal. It's far too easy to bludgeon your way through any single-player match with constant melee attacks and submission moves, and while there are a surprising number of unique animations and grapple chains to discover, you soon see the same moves repeated over and over simply because they work too damn well.
In terms of game modes, the retro approach means there are a brace of interesting features for people who can remember when it was WWF. All tucked away under the WrestleMania Tour banner, Relive puts you in a classic WrestleMania match and gives you a series of specific moves or events to pull off in order to recreate the original confrontation. Rewrite Mode, on the other hand, lets you alter the outcome of famous wrestling moments. Redefine mixes up the settings and rules, offering a sort of alternate universe WrestleMania.
There's also Legends, in which you battle through tiers of the best wrestlers, ten at a time. You can import the latest SmackDown vs. Raw roster, and the game also tracks the wrestlers you use most, using them to create a custom Favourite Legends tier to fight through. Of course, there's the usual spread of exhibition bout options, with the expected gamut of match styles to choose from. Cage match, Ladder match, Hell in a Cell, Iron Man, 30 Man Royal Rumble - they're all here, and most are available in the online multiplayer mode as well.
So why does it all feel so flimsy? I suspect that by this point developer Yuke's is damned if they do, damned if they don't. Smackdown is too flabby with complex controls and daunting structure, but when they strip it all down to basics and have some dumb fun, the result feels slight and forgettable. Once you've beaten all the single-player modes, which you can easily do in an evening, racking up overly generous Trophies or Achievements as you go, there's only the diminishing returns of multiplayer to keep you playing, and it's there that simplicity starts to feel like shallowness. The fun of the corny bombastic nostalgia fades away quickly once you have a joypad in your hand.
The ropey game engine certainly doesn't help, with the sort of herky-jerky animation you'd expect from a 1999 wrestling game, plus plenty of wonky collision detection and clipping. Character models, meanwhile, vary from decent to horrible, often in the same match, and some wrestlers look positively deformed. Poor old Ric Flair looks like something out of The Dark Crystal.
Legends of WrestleMania is probably worth a rental for wrestling fans old enough to remember the era of face paint and comedy costumes, and its none-more-simple controls will also appeal to younger fans who won't know who half these guys are, but will still relish being able to make them do impressive things with minimal effort. There's just not enough to it, however. Unlike its glistening, preening stars, Legends of WrestleMania is weak and insubstantial.