I think even the most diehard professional wrestling fan experienced a time when their interest in the sport lapsed. My own story is not unique in the slightest. Like many others, my WWE fandom peaked in early 2001 when THQ’s wrestling games for Nintendo 64 were still all the rage. It seemed like those good times would last forever, but the start of 2001 proved to be a smokescreen concealing the end of the wrestling boom which began in 1998.
WWE would lose millions of viewers due to cooling public interest and poor creative decisions. By 2002, many fans (myself included) stopped watching altogether. The disappointing WWE Raw video games only made this decision easier for me, so by the time THQ released WWE WrestleMania 21, not only was I done watching wrestling television, I was also done buying wrestling video games.
It was a fortunate decision because WWE WrestleMania 21 was mauled so severely by fans and critics alike, it became the final wrestling simulator THQ ever published on the original Xbox. Playing it for the first time in 2023 feels like composing a post mortem, such is the level of “bad” we’re talking about here.
Before I get ahead of myself though, it’s worth delving into the history of this travesty a little more. Even though developer Anchor Inc. had improved with WWE Raw 2, THQ instead contracted Studio Gigante to develop a new WWE game from scratch. Hindsight suggests this was a very ambitious move considering how complex wrestling games are to create. (The classic WWF No Mercy was built on the back of many prequels.) The point feels relevant considering THQ’s tendency of rushing these games to market, as well as it only being Studio Gigante’s second project.
According to a Polygon interview with one of its co-founders (Josh Tsui), the promise of a lucrative annual franchise was too tempting for Studio Gigante to pass up, even if their hearts weren’t fully into the idea. He also tells how an incorrect build of WWE WrestleMania 21 got printed accidentally; an extra buggy version whose marquee Xbox Live mode didn’t even work. THQ had a history of poor quality control (their early copies of No Mercy also shipped with a game-breaking glitch). Discs were recalled but the damage was done, both to customers as well as the relationship between the responsible parties. Studio Gigante closed mere months after release; an unfortunate end to the whole sorry saga.
I don’t think anyone could play WWE WrestleMania 21 for more than a few minutes without quickly realising how unfinished it feels. Even in the updated build, players must contend with incredibly poor hit detection and numerous glitches including referees getting in the way of the action, rope breaks occurring nowhere near the ropes, and wrestlers teleporting from one side of the ring to the other. You’d be amazed at how easy it is to miss a simple elbow drop, and any match with more than two participants is a nightmare. Tag matches are awful. If you tag a CPU-controlled partner, don’t expect them to ever tag you back in because they don’t really understand when or even how to do it properly.
CPU wrestlers are bone-headed and they act in strange ways, often exiting the ring for no apparent reason or failing to attempt pins even when their opponent is dead to rights. Players can get stuck in endless loops where it’s impossible to stand their wrestler back up, and I don’t even remember the button mappings being shown anywhere in-game. It’s a complete joke.
It’s a shame because the graphics are once again really impressive. The likeness of the real life wrestlers and arenas are mostly very good, with character models and stages looking well-defined and wholesomely presented. Even though the animation is quite jerky most of the time, the occasional strike or reversal does end up looking realistic.
In stark contrast to WWE Raw 2 though, custom wrestlers don’t look nearly as good as their main roster counterparts. The poor creation mode is an entire topic itself, and the first sting comes with its inability to create female characters, despite real female wrestlers being in the game. “Holy Ubisoft, this sucks” was my first thought here, though maybe it’s not so surprising when you consider “Bra and Panties” is also a supported match stipulation.
Players can’t preview the costume parts they’re selecting, so perhaps it’s fortunate there are so few parts to begin with! The mode uses an inconsistent colour wheel and you can’t mirror parts like knee pads for faster creation. Even more dumbfounding is how custom wrestlers can’t use any WWE entrance music, even though they must use a wrestler’s entrance video! And that’s before you get to the anaemic moves list which doesn’t even include a simple roll up. And how do they top this off? By not allowing a custom wrestler’s name to be edited after it’s saved. It’s all so weirdly shit.
Players must suffer through this because only custom male wrestlers can enter the story mode featuring fully voiced WWE stars like Booker T, Kurt Angle, and John Cena. The focus on storytelling isn’t a surprise considering the other co-founder of Studio Gigante is John Tobias of Mortal Kombat fame, but even then the mode is linear and lacks replay value. The voice acting from the real life talent is good (even if your custom dude sounds like an asshole), and it is fun how the commentary team will mention the story beats during the matches.
Custom wrestlers train their stats by purchasing points from an in-game shop. Players must exit back to the main menu to make those adjustments though, which is an irritating process aggravated by the shoddy menu system. A confusing profile loader risks players losing rewards if they don’t manually sign in before every game, but then they must sign out of those profiles to access Xbox Live, which has its own separate wrestler and belt creation features. This is what the early days of online gaming looked like, I suppose, which almost makes me glad I didn’t have a broadband service back then. Not that I could imagine playing this unbalanced mess online anyway.
Even so, the menus are plagued by obnoxious rock music that is much too loud and can’t be turned off. Spend enough time in the creation mode though and eventually the tracks will run dry, resulting in complete silence! It’s just another amusing little screw-up that gives the production its unfinished vibe.
I withstood the awful gameplay as long as I could to see what the story mode had in store, but eventually I was scuppered by a Last Man Standing match of all things. The only way to win these brutal contests is to batter your opponent so badly they can’t stand up before the referee counts to ten. Weapons are permitted, so with my custom wrestler to hand, I had hopes of pummelling my way to victory. However, after what felt like an hour of me crushing my opponent with slams and steel chairs, and slams onto steel chairs, I couldn’t win because my opponent would never stay down. I guess the game only accepts finishing moves as the decisive impact, which left my submission wrestler high and dry because his finisher was a crossface hold which can’t achieve a knockout in this game because reasons. Rather than face yet another trip into those ugly menus to change moves, I called time on the game right there.
No matter how hard they tried, Studio Gigante exposed themselves here. Unsurprisingly, THQ would also go into freefall in the years following this debacle; a fitting end to one of the worst runs of wrestling games there ever was, and (hopefully) ever will be.