Imagine you’re a top-flight professional wrestler. You and your long-time tag team partner have toiled and poured years of sweat into your careers, finally making it to the big time by beating your most hated rivals for the tag team championship belts.
Now imagine that this is the only match you’re allowed to fight…every night for the rest of your career.
This is the curious purgatory you’ll find yourself in while playing Data East’s Tag Team Wrestling. Originally released in arcades in 1983 as “The Big Pro Wrestling” and developed by Technos Japan (the makers of Double Dragon and River City Ransom), the game was ported to a number of platforms, including the Apple II, Commodore 64, IBM PC, and NES. You play a pair of “babyface” wrestlers and have to fight against a pair of “heel” wrestlers, whose names and appearance depend on the version you’re playing. The objective is to wear down your opponents using a standard staple of wrestling moves – drop kicks, body slams, suplexes, etc. – until you can pin your opponent for a three-count. Occasionally, you and your opponent will fall outside of the wrestling ring and can fight it out there. However, it’s necessary for the wrestler to get back into the ring before the referee counts to 20 (in real professional wrestling, the count stops at ten) or else their team loses the match. If a wrestler sustains too much damage, he can go to his corner of the ring and tag his partner in, who will enter the fight at full strength while the injured partner recovers. If you win the match (whether by pinfall, count-out or submission), you move on to the next one, and keep going until you accrue enough wins to obtain a belt or trophy. The longer your winning streak goes, the larger and more impressive your trophy.
On the surface, it sounds inoffensive enough, but technical limitations really drag down the experience.
First, the controls are limited to two buttons – one for grappling and pinning, and another for selecting attacks. When you successfully hit your opponent, you’re presented with a menu, where you quickly have to press the “select” button to scroll through a list of attacks and press the “attack” button to use the one that you want. If you miss the timing window, your opponent gets to counter with an attack of his own. Not only is this input method cumbersome, but you’re only given a few seconds to do anything, and you’ll wind up using most of the same attacks throughout the match. This repetitive nature bleeds into the single-player campaign itself. You only fight one set of opponents that gets progressively harder as you move up in the ranks, so neither of you will have to use any different tactics – grapple your opponent when he’s not trying to grapple you, and run away when he turns red (making him untouchable and preventing you from fighting back).
Of the three home ports, the NES version arguably has the best presentation of the three, coming the closest to emulating the graphic style from the arcade game. The sprites are smaller than in their computer counterparts, but somehow manage to have more detail than the larger, blockier computer versions. Each of the wrestlers are mostly distinguishable from one another, with your opponents wearing full facemasks to set them apart from your team (one masked, one not). When the actual fighting begins, however, the wrestlers’ sprites jump around the ring haphazardly as they execute their attacks, robbing the fights of much of their impact.
While none of the home versions have very good sound quality, the NES version once again beats out the others by at least being substantial. Whenever contact is made or your partner is tagged in, the computer versions play a barely audible hit effect. In the NES game, sound effects produced by hits and grapples are at least loud enough to sound like they hurt. Once again, the lone good point about the sound is outweighed by the badness of the music – a singular dull tune that drones on in the background during every match. You don’t have the option to turn it off in the NES version, so you have to listen to it for every single fight. The computer versions are kind enough to make the music optional, but then all you’re left with are the whisper-quiet sound effects.
Tag Team Wrestling was one of the first games to offer two-on-two wrestling, when most games that came before it only handled one-on-one matches. While the concept behind the game is sound, the actual presentation could have used a lot of work. There isn’t much strategy to any of the matches due to the lack of usable controls, the graphics and sound are weak, and worst of all, there’s no variety. Even the early wrestling bookers had to mix things up once in a while to keep things fresh for their audience. Tag Team Wrestling, on the other hand, plays its only good card early and often until it loses all meaning. I wouldn’t recommend playing this game, but if you need to get your hands on any version at all, go with the NES version – the computer ports aren’t worth further mention.