Most wrestling games stick to a pretty tight formula. They try to provide a decent amount of accuracy, which gives the games a slight simulation aspect and makes them feel more like sports games than fighting games. Then there's the extreme number of modes found in most wrestling titles, which range from full-fledged season modes and tons of match variations to pay-per-view creation and create-a-wrestler options. But THQ's first WWF-licensed Dreamcast game, WWF Royal Rumble, eschews all of the standard wrestling game dressing and instead delivers an arcade-style wrestling game, similar to the old WWF arcade game, WWF Wrestlefest.
WWF Royal Rumble has two modes. Yes, you read that correctly: two. Exhibition mode lets you choose a wrestler as well as his partner, who stands outside the ring until you call him in for occasional King of Fighters-style quick attacks. These helper moves can be used as many times as you like, but each of your three helper attacks must recharge before they can be used again. Some moves are simple, like commanding your partner to storm the ring with a baseball bat and take a swing at your opponent. Some are double-team moves, while others command the partner to toss you a weapon. Exhibition mode plays out like a fighting game - it has short intros with a versus screen, and the matches don't last longer than a couple of minutes, as the wrestlers are knocked out if hit with a substantial attack when their health bars are completely depleted. Also, as the match time gets closer to running out, the ring suddenly fades out and is replaced by a backstage area, such as a boiler room or a parking lot. The other mode is the royal rumble, which features nine (!) wrestlers in the ring at once. Needless to say, it can get a little hectic, and it's occasionally difficult to face the right foe. The object of the rumble is to eliminate wrestlers by knocking them over the top rope and onto the arena floor. The mode operates on a three-minute timer. Every time you knock someone out, 20 seconds are added to your timer. Knocking out larger characters (denoted by an S symbol near their feet) nets you a 40-second bonus. If you are knocked over the top rope or time runs out, it's game over, and you must push start to continue - it's almost as if you expect the game to ask you for a quarter first. The mode continues until you have personally ejected the proper number of wrestlers, which defaults to 30, but can go as high as 90. While the lack of modes may seem a little limiting, the multiplayer aspect of the game adds a lot, especially playing four-player royal rumble matches.
The game takes a different approach to special moves as well. Each time your supermeter fills up, you're given an S. It takes three S's to execute your special move, like the Stone Cold Stunner or Rock Bottom. But your special meter can be used for much more than that: Just about anytime you need a little extra boost - say you're dangling on the outside of the ring, hanging onto the bottom rope for dear life - you can hit the R button, and for the low, low price of just one S, you can roll right back into the ring. You can also get out of pins this way, even when your wrestler is dangerously low on energy. It's an interesting way to manage the special meters, and it lends the game even more of an arcade feel.
The character roster in Royal Rumble covers most of the bases - all of the major WWF superstars are represented. Still, even with hidden wrestlers, the character list feels a little confining, especially in royal rumble mode - where you'll face the same handful of characters over and over again.
The game has a decent look to it, and the character models are solid, but the animation is a little jerky. Still, the game runs at a nice, smooth pace, even when the ring is packed with wrestlers. The game is light on music, playing wrestler themes after victories and a little between-match guitar rock. The sound effects - while a little drab - get the job done, but the buzzer that signifies a new wrestler entering the ring in the royal rumble mode will drive you absolutely insane with its frequency.
If you're expecting SmackDown! with better graphics and more modes, you'll be disappointed by Royal Rumble's tightly focused gameplay. That's not to say that WWF Royal Rumble is a bad game - it's just so different from any wrestling game released in the last five years that it may be a bit of a shock to fans of the genre. Also, while its multiplayer picks up a lot of the slack, the two modes and limited roster get old fast and limit the game's replay value such that you'd probably be better off renting it instead of buying it or maybe even seeking out the Naomi-based arcade version, which should be hitting arcades any day now.