Mat Mania title screen
(Taito)

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.

NXT Logo
(WWE Network)

My first memories of professional wrestling are probably similar to most guys my age. I clearly remember staying up late on Saturday nights to watch WWF’s Saturday Night’s Main Event on NBC. I don’t remember the first match I ever saw, but I imagine the ubiquitous WWF brand being found all over mid 1980s culture had something to do with it. At some point in late 1986 my Dad took me to my first live event. A few years later, I went to my first TV taping, a Saturday Night’s Main Event that is now available on the WWE Network.

As the 1990s began, I stopped following WWF as closely, and eventually moved on to other things. Judging from the amount of writing that exists about the early to mid 1990s, I didn’t miss all that much. The late 1990s found me in college, working at the campus radio station. WWF RAW was appearing on our campus (1998 RAW episodes are not available on the WWE Network yet, or I’d link to that show too). I got myself a free ticket to the event and found myself hooked on pro wrestling again. WWF was in full on “Attitude Era” mode and I watched religiously all of the way through the “Monday Night Wars“.

Around 2004, life began to get pretty complicated and I started putting almost all of my free time into my music career. Something had to give and that wound up being pro wrestling.

Over a decade passed where I was casually aware of the, at that point, WWE. However, I never found myself catching an episode of RAW or looking to see if any live events were coming to town.

I’m not even sure the reason, but I found myself starting to read a variety of wrestling websites in the build up to WrestleMania 31 in early 2015. Along with starting to familiarize myself with the 2015 main roster talent, I began to hear more and more about WWE’s developmental promotion, NXT. By then, NXT was a WWE Network exclusive show, so, not being a subscriber I never caught an episode. Still, I was pretty intrigued.  The handful of pro wrestling sites I was beginning to follow couldn’t say enough great things about NXT.

I read the results of WrestleMania 31 online as the show unfolded. The surprise finish of Seth Rollins cashing in the “Money in the Bank” briefcase to win the WWE Championship in the main event impressed me. I, like many online, felt the match would end with Roman Reigns defeating Brock Lesnar. That finish got me to watch RAW the next night for the first time in eleven years. I decided to subscribe to the WWE Network so I could start catching the Pay Per View events. With some time to kill I started poking around on the Network and remembered, “Oh yeah. NXT is on here”.

Having no idea what to expect I dove in to the earliest episodes available on the Network. Within a few episodes I could see that this was something entirely different from the product I was seeing on Monday nights. I found myself hooked within three or four episodes. I began binge watching the show like it was a hot, new Netflix exclusive. Before long I was nearing the end of 2014’s shows and only three or four months behind.

So, why was I drawn in?

The first thing I like about NXT is the way the show deals with talent. They’ll throw someone out with a terrible gimmick, or even no gimmick at all, but that isn’t something that has to stick. Becky Lynch, now throwing down on RAW and PPVs, debuted as a stereotypical Irish girl – even doing a jig in the ring. She then transformed into “generic rocker girl”, before finally settling on a pseudo steampunk look that she’s running with currently. You don’t typically see a transformation like that on the main roster. Talent usually sinks or swims with whatever persona they debut with, with years sometimes passing before a character gets tweaked.

Sasha Banks was an also-ran in a stable called the “BFFs” in the early episodes I watched. I was able to watch her come into her own as an in-ring performer and completely craft her “Boss” character into one of the best overall talents I’ve seen in years.

Oh, and that’s the other thing. WWE had conditioned me to not pay much attention to the female performers. But, notice the first two names I’ve thrown out here are women. NXT showcases their female talent and gives them equal, or sometimes more, time with the male performers. “Diva” matches on RAW would typically end within a minute or two, but NXT would have ten to fifteen minute matches with two women giving a better performance than I’d ever seen from a “Diva” match.  WWE is taking baby steps with their “Diva Revolution” on RAW by infusing it with three of the top female NXT talents, but they still have a long way to go.

NXT also has done a great job in pulling me in and making me give a damn about the feuds they present. I didn’t start out a huge Sami Zayn fan, but got that excited feeling I used to get as a kid when I saw him finally go over for the title at one of the NXT “Takeover” specials. Similarly, I have become a Sasha Banks fan, but I still had ‘all of the feels’ when I saw Bayley beat her for the NXT Women’s Championship at the “Takeover Brooklyn” event the other night. I haven’t felt that way watching any program, especially pro wrestling, in a long time. Nothing the WWE has done on the main roster has even come close to making me actually care enough to see one of my favorite performers lose to someone else. That was certainly unexpected, but, very welcomed.

When WWE runs with disappointing outcomes and missed opportunities on the main roster, I feel like I at least have my breath of fresh air every Wednesday night on the Network. NXT is growing and becoming a force to be reckoned with and I’m sure it will change as its popularity as an alternative grows. It may even end up watered down like RAW is. But, I’ll always be able to look back on 2014 – 2015 NXT and say, that’s what made me a fan again.