Crispy Gamer

WrestleMania Diary: You Can't Beat Her. She Has Infinite Health.

Wednesday, March 26

What a strange sight it was. When WWE founder Vince McMahon and big-time wrestler John Cena appeared on TV icon and on-set farter Larry King's CNN show, I didn't expect much. King gets everyone who's anyone on his show because he's been around forever and asks softball questions. I wondered, Would THQ's SmackDown vs. Raw 2008 be featured in the show at all? It is, after all, an old-ass demographic. Lo and behold, in the first 10 minutes, there was the game for all the Metamucil-takers to see. The THQ people had created a Larry King avatar to fight amongst the best of the wrestlers, er, superstars. I guess you can't say wrestlers anymore; it's so 1990s. Now, you say superstars because wrestlers want to be thought of as big-time entertainers worthy of Hollywood or Disney or, at least, the Catskills. Hunched and suspender-ed Larry kicked ass in the ring, wreaking havoc, and thereby promoting the game. Fart on, old man, fart on.

Thursday, March 27

In Orlando for WrestleMania, I dropped my bag off in the scummiest room at the Disney Swan, right above where the shuttle buses stop. At least my room wasn't infested; someone else had ants in his room. Ah, the Magic Kingdom -- so down-to-earth, so down with the bugs. I put in for a room change, and ran to the elevators. This evening at the House of Blues, there wouldn't be blood, but there would be wrestlers, er, superstars -- superstars playing Smackdown vs. Raw. Would the losers stomp on their controllers in fits of rage?

See, THQ puts together the Superstar Challenge every year. Journalists drink, interview the entertainers, and drink some more, and then 16 wrestlers compete for about four hours.

As the sunlight waned, we sat on one of the balconies overlooking a fake lake over which black cormorants, who knew nothing of superstars, flew. Part of me wished I were one of those birds as one British pencil-dick got so nervous when four superstars entered that he started twitching when he asked his questions -- and twitching is about as fun to watch as puking is. To him, these weren't wrestlers or even superstars; they were gods. Actually, dreadlocked Kofi "The Angry Jamaican" Kingston; quadruple lip-pierced diva Ashley Massaro; the Irish brogue-spewing 50-year-old Dave Finlay; and the quiet, shy and muscular Beth Phoenix, were all affable, humorous, entertaining and occasionally deep.

Kofi was the gamer and kept saying how authentic SVR 2008 is, and he's not wrong. He also came just short of predicting a possible win for himself. Finlay was the non-gamer Irishman poking fun, calling me Nosferatu (yeah, I've heard it before, and I'm proud of my vampire nature). He called out one journalist out for being dressed in a pirate suit and Mickey Mouse ears courtesy of the Magic Kingdom's souvenir stores. Then he said he was going to come after some guy whose questions he didn't like. We loved it, for what would be better than to be stomped by a superstar? You could brag. You could tell your grandkids. Heck, you could sue.

Two hours later, as they talked and played the game, I saw each of their personas shine through. In that sense, they are like Disney characters, each unmistakable from the other, but each with a slightly nasty edge, Captain Hooks and Jack Sparrows and Cruella DeVilles for the prime-time TV crowd who still believe wrestling's real. Hell, let 'em believe. Men need their soap-opera Kane as much as women need Erica Kane.

The Challenge wore on too long, but the fans in attendance loved it -- and the swag that was doled out to the crowd. The weird thing was that Ashley, who says she's not much of a gamer, came in third, while Kofi almost won, but lost it in the clutch to the bragging Elijah Burke. Kofi kept smiling, but everyone knew he was p.o.'d.

Saturday, March 29

Every year, just like clockwork, just like Madden or Mortal Kombat, you can count on seeing a new SmackDown vs. Raw from THQ. With slides, photos, videos and a Wii demo, skinny lead designer Cory Ledesma from THQ began a sometimes humorous spiel about the wonders of the 2009 edition. He even dissed Midway, the competition, by using its game as a coffee coaster, implying it was so bad that's all the offering would be good for. See, videogame companies can bring the smackdown, too, in the form of trash talk and trash photos.

In addition to online play, the coolest new feature will be the Create-A-Finisher mode to annihilate your opponent and put him out of his simpering misery. Why? Because nerds like us want to bring the pain. We want to taunt, goad, and bully, give the eyebrow like The Rock and howl "Wooo" all woolly and Wolfman-like as Ric Flair did. We want to act like our stocky, musclebound brethren, believe we could be them for one moment or maybe a few. With this accessory, you can string together a potpourri of match-ending moves that are so intimidating, you just might feel like the big man you aren't in real life. That's the point of wrestling: to take you out of (as Nellie McKay sings so brilliantly in "Real Life") your "bland and broken false reality" to a boisterous and boo-yah-filled false reality.

Sure, there was posturing on the part of THQ, who said the game will be so good, it'll "knock you on your ass." Why will it be so good? "Because we've listened to what the fans want." This is a clich? everyone says at press conferences, but it looks like THQ has actually done so. From the detail of every superstar's tattoos to a better artificial intelligence that takes advantage of many special moves to "three commentating teams" to the mammoth addition of 330 animations to new ways to tag from the behind the ropes, the company seems to have thought about everything to make SVR 2009 an experience worth 50 or 60 bucks. So, taunt, strike, grapple, pin -- and when you're bored with that, there will be online downloadable content for you, as well. Whether this will be a new robe for Undertaker, a new venue or something more useful was not discussed. The story mode has a twist, too: an option for co-op stories. While it wasn't made completely clear, perhaps you and your pal's adventures will somehow intersect as you climb the ladder of WWE notoriety.

Wrestling on the Wii? They'll have that, too -- with online play. Even the Nintendo DS version looks pretty packed as well with its Create-A-Wrestler feature. Hey, don't they mean "superstar?"

Oh, yes, full disclosure. There were swag bags, a book, a DVD, two t-shirts, a CD, a pack of trading cards with bubble gum and an Xbox 360 skin and faceplate. There were too many swag bags, in fact, so many that WWE journo-fanboys raided the leftovers like rabid rats from a horror movie, feasting upon a human carcass. Have some decency, people. Have some pride.

Sunday, March 30

I don't think I completely understood wrestling until I was witness to WrestleMania XXV in Orlando. For on that humid night, which stunk of ripe, sweaty humanity even in the outdoors of the Citrus Bowl, I comprehended more fully this melodramatic form of entertainment. As I stood among the throngs that were 74,000 strong, it was pathos meets bathos when the beta-carotene skinned Ric Flair, grizzled and looking 20 years older than his age, fell to Shawn Michaels, who took no pleasure taking Nature Boy down for the final time in his 35-year wrestling career; it was the stoned-out bling look of Snoop Dogg, ever over-the-top with his old-school shizzles as he drove his pimpmobile to the stage to introduce the divas in their match; it was the David and Goliath matching of miniscule boxing welterweight champ Floyd Mayweather, Jr. against the 441-pound Paul "Big Show" Wight, and the abject humor when said boxing champ ran from the ring like a scared schoolboy when he appeared to be losing; and it was the anger and shock when Floyd won by hitting Big Show across his giant mug with brass knuckles. For the first time the false reality mimicked real reality. Life is unfair. People cheat. People do anything to win. You may get the girl, but she leaves when you can't pay that adjustable mortgage.

Life sucks and then you die: Perhaps such knowledge was too much in this stinking drunken venue for those who wanted only easy entertainment upon which to muse -- but not for me. I expect a "life sucks" storyline in SmackDown vs. Raw 2009. For now, WWE, I appreciate ye, and I can't wait to play ye.

On the bus ride back, the journos were drunk, get-lost-and-make-us-wait-an-hour-in-the-bus drunk. They talked about love and love about to be lost, the seemingly bottomless and profound things you ramble on about when too many Buds have passed the palate. Someone advised someone else about the vicissitudes of a relationship, "Dude, you can't beat her. She has infinite health." That's when it all came together, that's when it was a metaphor for life. You can't beat WWE, and you can't mock it. For she, in her earth-godly glory, has infinite health. The only recompense you have is that you can beat the game. In that wonderful false reality, you, too, can be earthly-godly.