Originally released in Japan as Exciting Hour – The Prowrestling Network, developer Taito unleashed Mat Mania on North American arcades in 1985. Pro wrestling fans may remember 1985 as the year of the first WrestleMania event and when pro wrestling began its ascent into mainstream popular culture. The timing couldn’t have been better as Mat Mania is one of the first professional wrestling games that players could quickly pick up and begin playing almost immediately.
Earlier games, such as Data East’s 1983 game Tag Team Wrestling, employed a convoluted system of scrolling through a list of maneuvers that had to be quickly selected in order to successfully attack the opponent. Mat Mania simplifies things a great deal by having a “kick” and “punch” button. Once you grapple a groggy opponent, a series of moves can be executed using directional moves with the joystick and pressing the punch or kick button. The simplification of the controls was key as that it made significantly easier to pull off suplexes, body slams, and piledrivers in Mat Mania when compared to previous pro wrestling games in the arcades.
Mat Mania is a two-player game, but in its initial release, the players alternated turns and both faced computer controlled opponents. An update to the game came in 1986, called Mania Challenge, allowed versus play and introduced a second playable character with the same set of moves as the single player hero, Dynamite Tommy.
The non-playable characters are mostly racial stereotypes by today’s standards, but each one appears to be modeled after real wrestlers working during the Eighties. Taito did not sign any wrestlers to a licensing deal. Instead the developers played fast and loose and patterned their characters, sometimes obviously, after real life grapplers.
The playable character, Dynamite Tommy, is believed to be patterned after Dynamite Kid (real name Tommy Billington). Coco Savage appears to be a combination of Bobo Brazil and Kamala the Ugandan Giant. The Insane Warrior, seems to be at least partially based on Road Warrior Animal and the “Mad Max / post-apocalyptic punk” gimmick that several wrestlers working at the time. The Pirania is a masked luchador styled wrestler that is said to closely resemble Mil Mascaras. Karate Fighter has a martial arts gimmick and is patterned after the Great Kabuki and other martial arts based wrestlers of the time. The final boss of the game is Golden Hulk, clearly modeled after renowned wrestler Bruiser Brody, but later altered for the North American market to more closely resemble Hulk Hogan, who was the biggest thing going in the United States at the time.
As Dynamite Tommy, the player fights through the ranks of “The Prowrestling Network” with an announcer named “Cory.” introducing each match as if to a live television audience. The player can win by either pinning the opponent for a three count, or by count out if the opponent stays out of the ring for twenty seconds. Winning by submission or disqualification is not possible in Mat Mania. Each initial play through the first five opponents go in a specific order, however, after beating Golden Hulk and becoming champion, the difficulty level is ramped up considerably and you face the same opponents in a more random order.
Being a pro wrestling fan as a kid, I gravitated towards Mat Mania, and later Mania Challenge, whenever I went to the arcade in town that had those games. It has good replay value as I’ve been able to track down a machine at various points over the years and quickly make my way up through the ranks as if no time had passed at all. While it is definitely very rooted in 1980s styled pro wrestling, it is a fun game and definitely a milestone as far as pro wrestling video games are concerned.