You don't become a legend by failing at nearly everything you do. Sure, there are heroes in pro wrestling, some of whom are in this game, who don't wrestle particularly well. But they excel in other areas - they put on a good show in some other way. A few of the guys that just stand in one place and throw punches for half the match still manage to electrify the crowds with their charisma, their larger-than-life presence, or the few moves they have mastered. And in doing so, wrestlers like Hulk Hogan and Steve Austin have changed the focus of the industry.
The Legends of Wrestling series is also known for doing its own thing, but in this case it just isn't working. There is nothing here beyond the roster that will even come close to electrifying the crowd. Just like a washed-up shell of a star that should have hung it up years ago, Showdown: Legends of Wrestling comes through the curtain for another shot at glory only to find itself face down and gasping for air.
And it's a shame, really - not only because the game's underlying concept is laudable, but because beneath all the maddening incompetence lies the potential for a great game. But as wrestlers, athletes, and actors will tell you, there comes a point where you either have to start living up to your potential or step out of the spotlight.
"OH MY GOSH! Low blow!"
S:LOW (interesting anagram there) remains what it was in its two previous installments - a good idea poorly executed. Featuring grapplers from the Seventies, Eighties, and Nineties isn't exactly a surefire way to move a million copies, so you would hope that the gameplay is tight. Unfortunately, Showdown is such a glitchfest it makes last year's Raw 2 seem like a finely polished diamond. It's almost as if someone wanted to make a highlight reel showcasing how many things can go wrong in a wrestling game.
Now, I'm generally forgiving when it comes to frame rates and characters getting stuck in corners, as long as the game is good. But Showdown inspires only two moments of delight: the fun of seeing an old favorite like Abdullah the Butcher or "The Million Dollar Man" Ted DiBiase rendered in smooth polygons and the perverse pleasure of finding still another snafu. And you won't have to wait long - the game is a vast wonderland of defective programming.
Characters (and ring ropes) suddenly freeze in place. Two grapplers going for a tie-up phase through each other and wind up back to back. You go in for a tag only to realize your partner is in the opposite corner, dutifully waiting next to your opponent on the apron. (That kills most of the strategy of a tag match.) A combatant gets caught between his opponent and the ropes and is unable to follow up on a move until the other guy recovers and stands up. Wrestlers from opposite teams crossing to their respective corners get caught arm in arm mid-ring and walk inanely in place while the refere repeatedly shouts, "Get to your corner!"
Truthfully, it doesn't take long for junk like that to get annoying, particularly when it's the norm in a match. I didn't mind it so much when the referee counted down to "0" but didn't call for a count out. When Rick Martel froze like an idiot near the beginning of a battle royal, it was funny in a way. (Even "Model"s get stage fright.) When Terry Funk administered a beating with an invisible weapon, it was distracting but didn't kill the fun. But when you can't rely on your eyes or ears to tell you when a strike connects because the sound and reaction are delayed and the characters never actually appear to touch, you have a problem. Some moments it looked like my wrestler was being protected by a force field or backed up by an invisible partner, because there would be a clear miss followed by the opponent hunching over in pain a little ways up the ring followed by the sound effect a moment later. Other times you couldn't make a move connect to save your life.
And if his adversary doesn't land on the canvas just right, Hulk Hogan will either run from one side of the ring to the other forever or eternally turn from fallen foe to opposite rope instead of delivering his leg drop. Not even the finishing move of the star of the game is safe from gremlins. (If it's any consolation, while Hulk is turning this way and that, running pointlessly here and there, his opponent will stay on the ground and inexplicably redizzy.)
"Blood! Beginning to flow!"
But remember, I did say this game had decent potential. The control setup isn't all that bad and allows for close to eighty moves per character. The arenas are pretty, but they don't present much at all to interact with. Tony Schiavone, Bobby Heenan, and Larry Zbysko are on hand for commentary. While it can get repetitive, it does yield some interesting information on the participants, and it can be turned off when you're totally sick of it.
When it comes to having an authentic collection of moves and taunts, Showdown puts in a journeyman performance. Signature moves are present, but there is little frosting on the cake. Actions get the point across but lack weight. More theatrics would have been welcome, but I assure you their absence is the least of this game's problems.
Cage, ladder, table, first blood, hardcore, and iron man matches are available, as are 8-man tags and a battle royal (thirty participants, up to four in the ring at once). Items like cookie sheets and barbed wire bats can be pulled out from under the ring to help get the blood flowing.
Story mode is not deep. It follows your chosen fighter through three decades of mayhem, five matches per decade. There is sometimes but not always an intro screen to set up the match and a taunt screen afterwards. Each decade is introduced with a "televised" highlight clip to put you in the mood. Best of all, wrestlers' looks change from decade to decade, so you have the poofy-haired Andre the Giant if you meet him early on and alternate versions for the Eighties and Nineties. The different looks are selectable in other modes, and wrestlers like Sting have a range of personas from which to choose.
Speaking of choice, there is still an unfortunate lack of it in Create a Legend. We've come a long way from the one "selectable" face of the first LOW, but don't expect to spend hours wading through submenus and adjusting sliding scales. You get ten heads, about fifteen hairstyles, and a selection of unmodifiable clothes and ill-fitting accessories. You can play with your legend's height and with scales for the major body areas, but don't go in thinking you can micromanage every aspect of his appearance and personality. (Especially not his personality.)
The option is there to use an existing superstar as a base, but unless you're making an alternate version of the same person, you're probably going to be disappointed. I wanted to use One Man Gang's mohawk, but that meant my facial selections were affected. I wanted to use Rick Martel's face, but any changes I made to hairstyle were applied on top of what was there. And I didn't want a manager, but unless I cloned a wrestler that didn't have one, I was forced to pick one from the list.
The selection of moves is tolerable but not well organized. If any one move on a list is more effective than any other, you have no way of knowing it from the CAL - they apparently all do equal damage from any one position. Wrestlers aren't categorized by style and aren't defined by attribute points, so you can just zoom through and put together a flashy moveset without a single thought to strategy.
Not ready for Monday night
Perhaps the best part of Showdown is the Classic mode. In what may be a nod to the Historic Battle mode from Giant Gram 2000 (which was better in every way but wrestler selection), you are presented the background story on a legendary match and then thrust into the boots of one of the characters - mid match. The object is to pull off the victory. In one of the matches (there are fifteen), you take control of comedian/wrestling villain Andy Kaufman at the verge of total destruction, and must overcome the odds to defeat Jerry "The King" Lawler. The match begins with Kaufman about to receive his third consecutive piledriver. Beat all the matches to unlock the mega-hyped Hogan vs. Andre match from Wrestlemania III. You start that encounter as Hogan in the Giant's vise-like bearhug.
Unfortunately, it won't take you long to clear this mode, and you aren't rewarded with anything like the video clips in Giant Gram. You just get a stupid graphic and the sinking feeling that you just wasted your time and money on a game that doesn't like you. It's like always cheering for the losing baseball team (says the writer from Chicago): we'll get 'em next year.
Oh, what might have been.