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key art for WrestleQuest, with cartoon-style depictions of famous wrestlers The Road Warriors, Sgt. Slaughter, Randy Macho Man Savage, Andre the Giant, and Koko B. Ware Image: Mega Cat/Skybound Entertainment

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WrestleQuest might be a love note to pro rasslin’, but it’s an old-school RPG first

Action figures and TV superstars come together in Mega Cat’s four-year labor of love

Owen S. Good is a longtime veteran of video games writing, well known for his coverage of sports and racing games.

Make no mistake, the whole point of investing four years of development in WrestleQuest is because Mega Cat Studios wanted to make an old-school, turn-based role-playing game, like the original Final Fantasy, or Earthbound, or the Dragon Quest series.

But that doesn’t mean Mega Cat is simply exploiting pro wrestling’s video game appeal with an easier-to-develop gameplay loop; there’s a lot of childhood love for the 1980s and 1990s superstars inside WrestleQuest, too. And there are 30 of them from real life — like Jake the Snake Roberts, Diamond Dallas Page, and, most essentially, Macho Man Randy Savage.

“We’re a hardcore sports town,” Mega Cat founder James Deighan said of Pittsburgh, where he grew up and where the studio is based. “Friends, family, co-workers would come over to argue about the Steelers game, or the Penguins, or the Pirates, my dad was more a fan of Bruno Sammartino,” the champion of the primordial World Wide Wrestling Federation of the 1960s and 1970s.

“I think he actually watched that industry come to life,” Deighan said of his father. Deighan and the younger of his six brothers were born later in his dad’s life, in his 50s. “Some of my favorite memories of my childhood are all around wrestling. I remember more about my wrestling toys,” than other sports.

It makes for an unexpected wrinkle in WrestleQuest’s story. The characters — 12 of them playable, 400 of them NPCs, and about 30 of those real-life, old-school heroes from the past 40 years — are all action-figure representations. Some aren’t even wrestlers. The world in which the main protagonist “Muchacho Man” lives is a fantasy realm of toys, the kind a middle-schooler would spread out on the bedroom floor and mash up in glorious crossover, non-canonical throwdowns.

“Something that’s inspired us, heavily, is a lot of us grew up not having a ton of things,” Deighan told Polygon. “So sometimes, the G.I. Joe and the He-Man characters are in the ring with Hulk Hogan, and that bout plays out, and that ended up inspiring this kind of WrestleQuest universe.”

In WrestleQuest, launching Aug. 8 on everything (including mobile, via Netflix), players explore a fantasy realm dotted with gyms, arenas, and even shrines to the legends of yesteryear. Combat takes place in the ring (usually) and follows a familiar turn-based cadence, with wrestling moves and action points nimbly taking the place of spells and mana. Land a particularly devastating move from the top rope, and a guy’s plastic arm might pop off. No worries, he just sticks it back on.

“That’s part of the high fantasy playfulness,” Deighan said. “What inspired the game is that same sense, these two toys are just gonna go hard in that ring. And one of them in the locker room afterward, maybe what he’s doing is twisting his face back around, because he’s a toy.

“This is all part of why we wanted to make games in the first place, and why we started Mega Cat,” he added. “As someone who’s had such a massive reverence for RPGs, we wanted to make sure that we were ready to commit to something that we think fans would want to play, and the time needed to balance and adjust, something that has that much content. It’s a massive design challenge.”

WrestleQuest is the largest game his 11-year-old studio has attempted, Deighan said. Much of Mega Cat’s résumé so far has been work-for-hire projects, some of them using licensed properties (most recently, Renfield: Bring Your Own Blood, a Vampire Survivors-alike based on the Nicolas Cage movie). Those experiences gave Mega Cat some structure to work with as they approached the managers and estates of real-life wrestling stars. But it was still a pitch for them to sign on to a way-out-there concept.

“It is not the same experience talking to Jake the Snake as it is talking to Hasbro’s brand team and licensing agent,” Deighan chuckled.

At first, most of the wrestlers and their agents were interested only in the deal terms. “Most of them weren’t particularly excited about the type of game or the detail of the game,” Deighan said. But he and Mega Cat did find common ground in discussions with the likes of Page, and Jeff Jarrett, early on in their campaign to sign up superstars.

“Almost every wrestler in the game had to have their own indie circuit [wrestling] start,” Deighan said. “In many cases, these folks are in their 50s, 60s, and 70s. And they don’t know what indie games are, but they definitely know what indie wrestling is. I think some of them felt like they were also propping us up, and being a part of that kind of journey, because they knew that this was a big risk for the team and a true love letter. A lot of times, it inspired some unique conversations with them, sharing their own issues they had in their journey, when they were on the come-up, which is pretty relatable.”

The love letter sentiment can be found throughout WrestleQuest, even if the toys-and-rasslers construction is more of a means than the end, creatively speaking. The point of WrestleQuest, always, was to do a turn-based, party-up, story-heavy RPG first. But as Deighan and his Mega Cat colleagues leaned into their work over the past four years, they kept finding things to celebrate from their childhoods and fandoms. The result is they’re making the game they always wanted to make, and using cherished childhood memories to make it.

“The game content was informed more by the love for JRPGs, and wrestling, than it was for the best commercial plan,” Deighan said. “It’s probably a game that could have been 30% of its final size, and viable. The reason so many people worked on it for a couple of years was because of that goal. How we’re measuring the success of WrestleQuest isn’t purely a commercial thing. It’s probably the third or fourth goal.”

WrestleQuest launches Aug. 8 on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Windows PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X.

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