I once spent half an hour chasing a man who vaguely resembled Hulk Hogan. I was at Reading Festival at the time. Word spread around the campsite - "Hulk Hogan is working at Dunkin' Donuts!" - and then about a hundred of us descended upon a battered trailer in the corner of a muddy field. As the mob began to chant, the lookalike fled - and then we hounded and pursued him across the festival, until the poor bugger received an escort of security guards.
If there's any part of you that feels you might have done the same, then WWE All Stars might be the game for you. When the main menu pops up for the first time, you'll be greeted by the welcome sight of his Hulkiness, bathed in a celestial light like a wrestling Messiah. Venture to the character select screen and you'll find that half the roster is filled with grappling icons from the 80s and 90s, including The Ultimate Warrior, Rowdy Roddy Piper and Andre the Giant. If you're in your mid-to-late twenties you may not have thought about these characters for a good 15 years, so don't be surprised if the memories come flooding back like a wave of Tab Clear.
Meanwhile the other half of the roster is taken up with more recent WWE stars, like John Cena and Rey Mysterio. The idea is to pit the old guys against the new in a bid to create epic, history-defying match-ups - or if you're more cynical, to cash in on two fanbases instead of one. What Star Trek: Generations did for geeky sci-fi, All Stars does for oversized men in spandex, and the resulting bootmash is surprisingly effective.
Even by the usual clownish standards of professional wrestling, WWE All Stars doesn't take itself seriously. The first clue is in the caricature-like appearance of the participants themselves, who seem so swollen with cartoon testosterone that they resemble action figures - perhaps the same toys we played with before the Ninja Turtles came along. Then when you finally enter the ring, the game reveals a light arcade sensibility, with a scant disregard for Isaac Newton's Greatest Hits. Hulk Hogan swiftly makes good on his Jesus-like appearance by picking up Andre the Giant - ANDRE THE GIANT, for pity's sake! - and hurling him into the air. And just to add insult to injury, Hulk juggles him via a quick melee combo. Has he no shame?
In short, All Stars sets out to be a pick-up-and-play grappler. It seems strange to think of Yuke's WWE efforts as simulations, but that's certainly what they are in comparison to the game THQ's in-house staff have made here. Producer Sal Divita also worked on the 1995 Wrestlemania coin-op title, which may explain the arcade-like simplicity of the design. Strikes and grabs are each governed by a pair of face buttons, offering light and heavy variants. The precise style of your moves varies depending on position and your use of the directional stick, but there's little need to remember the specifics. Certain "basic" attacks can be charged for fuller effect, and there's an upper tier of spectacular moves and finishers that rely upon you charging up an energy meter, but the basics of play can easily be learnt within your first match or two.
Naturally, the main objectives remain the same. You batter your opponents with theatrical moves (the ones that landed you in after-school detention two decades ago) then pin them to the mat or knock them out with a finishing move. Sometimes, for a change, you'll win by climbing out of a big cage instead - a simple act that all wrestlers find mysteriously taxing. Sadly, All Stars avoids many of the more theatrical match types that Smackdown has favoured over the years. You won't be fighting with anyone over control of a stepladder, nor will you be nailing your rivals into coffins or beating them up in their dressing room. More's the pity.
What is on offer is a trio of mini campaigns, lorded over by The Undertaker, Randy Orton, and D-Generation X, but while the bookending cutscenes offer a bit of tongue-in-cheek humour, it's no problem to breeze through all three in the course of a single afternoon. Once that's over, the only major undertaking left is the set of 15 Fantasy Matchups, setting the old WWE guard against the young(er) bloods in themed "what-if" setups. There's some slick presentation here that makes good use of vintage TV footage, and its undeniably entertaining to pit Andre against The Big Show, or Eddie Guerrero against Rey Mysterio. Aside from the usual set of unlocks, that's pretty much it as far as long-term content is concerned. There's nothing in the way of a career mode, and the Create-A-Fighter option does exactly what you'd expect, and nothing more. For a game so concerned with muscle-bound beefcakes, All Stars is disappointingly scrawny.
All the same, there's something undeniably likeable about the wrestling itself. The over-the-top presentation of the moves is as colourful as the game's oversized cast, and thankfully it's still huge fun to batter your friend with a chair you've just retrieved from under the ring. From what I can tell the netcode seems fairly solid, but there's no doubt that the game works best when you're competing with someone in the same room. When played alone it's harder to ignore the game's weak spots - particularly the excruciating load times, the unpredictable countering system, and the clumsiness that arises when fighting more than one opponent at once.
Under such situations you'll remain locked onto one target until you use the right stick to change the focus of your aggression. The AI seems to like ganging up on the player, and since you're largely unable to hurt a foe you're not targeting - even if they're standing right in front of you - you'll often get battered before you've finished switching your aim. And while we're on the subject of multi-wrestler matches, I have to moan about the absence of proper tag-team contests. When competing with a partner they'll always fight alongside you in the ring, so there's none of the drama that accompanies a timely changeover.
In the end, the game's simplicity ends up working against it - both in the sense that it's somewhat lacking in content, and that there's really not that much to learn; after half a day's play you'll have more or less mastered everything the combat has to offer, with the exception of the elusive mechanics for reversing attacks. But despite these shortcomings, this is still the most fun WWE title that THQ has produced in quite some time. Like many of its predecessors it's easier to recommend this as a rental than as a full-price release, but if you're yearning for the heady days of Hulkamania, All Stars may provide a welcome hit of nostalgia.