But Is It Art? – WCW Backstage Assault

playstation-ps1-wcw-backstage-assault

Like I said at the beginning of the year, I’ve been trying to focus on reviving series that had fallen by the wayside. Even though I’ve been focusing on the Street Fighter retrospective for most of the year – just one article to go! – I think I’ve done pretty well revisiting old concepts thus far. This month, I’m feeling a little artistic: I’ve honestly had this article planned for quite some time but never really found the time to focus on it. While my colleague SNES Master KI did his own take on the concept, his article was far more sarcastic than mine. Clearly, when discussing fine art, only solemn stoicism and objectivity will do.

After all, the point of “But Is It Art?” is to legitimately attempt to recontextualize games generally accepted as terrible as truly artistic endeavors. If video games are to ascend to the lofty realm of true art, they must emulate their predecessors in every conceivable way. And if the art world has taught me anything, it’s that bourgeoisie concepts like “gameplay”, “aesthetic” and “quality” have no place in the realm of art. No, true art defies convention – only a barbaric philistine would consider the “Super Mario men” to be the pinnacle of video games. We need to dig deeper: after all, if you judge a game on how well it functions, then you’ll never have a true understanding of art.

If the title of the article didn’t give it away, this subject of this article is WCW Backstage Assault on the original PlayStation and the Nintendo 64. While professional wrestling is certainly the lowest of art forms, meta-analysis of such degenerate entertainment is truly art: the 2008 film The Wrestler was nominated for two Academy Awards and won two Golden Globes, as well as the Golden Lion at the 65th Venice International Film Festival, an award I hadn’t heard of before looking it up – which clearly proves its intrinsic worth as a piece of art! If a film, a major motion picture, the pinnacle of what video games have always strived to emulate, could weave such acclaim from such tripe, then surely video games should be able to perfectly recreate this feat, neither exceeding nor falling short of their clear inspiration.

However, while many lesser critics would simply use a beloved game like WWF Wrestlemania 2000, its sequel WWF No Mercy or the SmackDown games for the sake of comparison, simply due to their fun factor, I’ve decided to look at a game considered one of the worst pro wrestling-themed video games of all-time. While most simpletons would dismiss Backstage Assault as nothing more than just a terrible game, only a true genius could realize that the game’s seemingly-horrible overall presentation is nothing more than an allegory for the tumultuous state of its licensor in 2000.

By 2000, the Monday Night War was slowly reaching its conclusion. Despite the financial backing of media mogul Ted Turner, an incredible winning streak of 84 weeks over the then-WWF and several major names still under contract, WCW’s days as the pinnacle of professional wrestling had come to an end. While the company would survive throughout the remainder of the year, it was clearly a shell of its former glory, having attempted several gimmicks in a misguided effort to regain its dwindling viewership.

Ironically, the video games would fair about as well as their inspiration. Through the early days of the fifth-generation, WCW’s video games – at least on the Nintendo 64 – were considered among the best in the business, with publisher THQ utilizing Japanese developer AKI Corporation (now known as Syn Sophia, Inc.) to develop exciting wrestling titles for the brand: WCW vs. nWo World Tour and its beloved sequel, WCW/nWo Revenge. However, by 1999 – the point where the WWF once again eclipsed its rival in popularity – THQ had jumped ship to “the Fed”, releasing WWF Wrestlemania 2000. To make matters worse, THQ also enlisted another Japanese developer, Yuke’s Future Media Creators, to develop a series of games for the PlayStation, which received mediocre titles when THQ still held the WCW license.

By this point, WCW had gone with Electronic Arts as their new publisher. While they lacked their modern-day clout, EA was still considered a fairly major deal at this point, making a name for themselves with quality sports titles like the Madden series and the NBA Live series – I actually liked NBA Live ’97 – as well as original titles like Need for Speed, Theme Park and my personal favorite, SSX. However, the game itself was developed by Kodiak Interactive, a small studio with few games under its belt. Ironically, Kodiak wouldn’t last much longer than WCW itself: both would close shop at different points in 2001.

Ironically, the video game publisher/developer situation actually matched that of WCW at large. A large name (EA) acted as a headliner, while lesser-known talent (Kodiak Interactive) would essentially hold the product together. Meanwhile, their ex-talent (THQ and AKI) moved onto the WWF, where they would achieve popularity and success they would have never seen in WCW. In the end, even the game’s development mirrored that of WCW’s contemporary downfall, truly a brilliant move on everyone’s part. This even bled into the game itself: to pad out the roster, various non-wrestlers like security director Doug Dellinger, managers like Jimmy Hart and Major Gunns and even head writer Vince Russo were added as playable characters, as opposed to showcasing lesser-known talent.

Backstage Assault was unique among other wrestling games not because of any additional features, but due to the lack of an element that is present in pretty much every wrestling-themed video game in existence: the squared circle itself. The game’s action took place exclusively in backstage areas, hence the clever title. Now while many critics reviewing the game at the time of its release deemed this a catastrophic mistake, only a visionary like yours truly could determine the sheer genius behind such a decision. WCW’s in-ring product had declined in quality significantly, with a much broader focus being applied to the soap opera-esque storylines behind the scenes. Of course, it didn’t help that much of the intrigue of WCW by 2000 was focused on real-life issues behind the scenes which the writers would attempt to use as inspiration for storylines, recreate or just outright incorporate into the show itself. Any no-talent developer could create a wrestling game with a wrestling ring, but it took a true master of their craft to eschew the nonsense of depicting wrestling in a wrestling game itself.

On top of that, the plebian press of the early 2000s scolded this game for its poor gameplay. To make matters odder, Kodiak Interactive also developed the previous WCW Mayhem for EA, a game that was released a year earlier but had a far better reception, both with the contemporary press and the nostalgic fans of today. Meanwhile, 2000 saw a one-two punch of quality titles from WWF: the aforementioned No Mercy released on the Nintendo 64, while PlayStation fans in America were finally treated to an excellent wrestling game with the first game in the storied WWF Smackdown series. By this point, the overall perceived quality and popularity of the WCW product had taken a significant nosedive – is it possible that Kodiak Interactive noticed this and sabotaged the quality of their game on purpose? While short-sighted critics might consider such a concept counterintuitive, true art transcends the very boundaries of short-term financial gain. After all, who would value thousands or even millions of dollars over the pursuit of artistic brilliance?

Likewise, let’s discuss Backstage Assault’s unlockable material. While the game’s default offerings are meager, there is a deluge of unlockable content: additional fight locales, alternate costumes for various characters and enough characters to more than double the game’s roster. In that sense, the game truly showcased the major flaw of the original SmackDown: a lack of content. Far more importantly, the game itself once again emulates the WCW product. By this point, the company was focusing on various ridiculous gimmicks, instead of attempting to recreate the quality of professional wrestling that won them fans in the first place. Wrestlers based on rock bands and video game characters, ridiculous stipulations like the infamous “Judy Bagwell on a Pole” and “San Fransisco 49ers” matches and writing plagued by some of the largest egos in the business made WCW impossible for all but the most die-hard fans to watch during its final decline and eventual death.

Perhaps the most eerie similarity between Backstage Assault and its inspiration was what happened after them. Near the end of WCW’s existence, a group of investors led by Eric Bischoff (the man who helped catapult the company to the dizzying heights of its prime years during the mid-to-late 1990s) wanted to purchase the company, attempting to reboot it and salvage the product. Unfortunately, by this point in time, WCW’s parent company, AOL Time Warner had ousted Ted Turner and rearranged their strategies in various ventures. This meant that the guaranteed time slots on Turner’s cable networks – the major selling point of the wrestling promotion in the first place – were at their end. The investors pulled out and AOL Time Warner sold off the company and its intellectual properties to Vince McMahon and the WWF, signifying the end of the Monday Night War. Meanwhile, EA was planning a next-gen sequel for WCW Mayhem, one that was set to debut on the PlayStation 2 and improve substantially on their two previous releases. With the license no longer in existence, EA decided to rebrand the game with a completely different intellectual property: you probably know the final product as “Def Jam Vendetta”. Perhaps the most depressing revelation is that this would’ve meant AKI Corporation would have been able to develop one final WCW-themed video game – THQ had decided to use Yuke’s as their main developer for future games based on the WWF (or the WWE, as it would come to be called). In other words, it seems like the quality of the game and its licensor were equal, inexorably linking the fates of both products.

Now, I’m not delusional enough to claim that Backstage Assault was the final nail in WCW’s coffin, but it perfectly encapsulates the turmoil that was going on behind the scenes in the company in a fashion both allegorical and literal: for years, WCW had been a passion project of Ted Turner, so they were allowed to blow through as much money and resources as they wanted, before the regime change at Time Warner. Most importantly, Backstage Assault succeeds in a way that no other wrestling game that came before or after it has yet to even approach: it essentially acts as a time capsule (intentionally or not) for the state of the company that inspired it. By this point, websites dedicated to scoping out news focusing on behind-the-scenes information about wrestling promotions had begun popping up. Unfortunately, they hadn’t become quite as popular as they would be after 2000. As such, I think it’s safe to say that WCW Backstage Assault was significantly ahead of its time, a true masterwork that provided a brilliant (albeit interactive) look at the turmoil of WCW’s dying days.

But what do you think? Was WCW Backstage Assault a hard-hitting dissection of a professional wrestling promotion during its dying days? Or just a shoddy product that acted as a premonition of the horrible misdeeds one Electronic Arts would be destined to commit in later years? Let me know what you think in the comments section below.

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