The Inside Story Of Wrestlerage, Rare's Lost SNES Brawler That Evolved Into Killer Instinct 1
Image: Rare

Rare, as we all know, is responsible for a dazzling array of video games – so many, in fact, that the process of compiling our list of the company's games was a task that was positively herculean in scope.

When you consider just how many games the British studio has produced over the years, it should come as no great surprise to learn that it was involved in a great many projects that never made it to retail – one of which has resurfaced online thanks to a tweet by Matt McMuscles.

Wrestlerage is one of those unmade Rare titles which doesn't seem to be all that well-known, despite the fact that the company has made no attempt to conceal its brief existence. For example, Rare's website once had a description for the game, which reads as follows:

Before Battletoads, there was Wrestlerage; on the SNES, at least. This 1991 side-viewed grapple-fest aimed to capitalise on the success of the two NES wrestling titles previously produced by Rare, but also to break away from the restrictive ring-based play of the licensed games by taking the action out into the streets / parks / fairgrounds / building sites / anywhere else with a bit of free space.

Starring a cast of eight fictitious brawlers ranging from Mr. Mangler through to the Silver Bullet, Wrestlerage was set to transpose the best elements of the popular wrestling game onto a Double Dragon-style scrolling urban background, each of the fighting arenas around three screens in length. The traditional attacks of such games (both unarmed and weapons-based) would be joined by dropkicks, pins, grapples and unique attacks such as carrying your opponents bodily around the screen and even, if the mood took you, bouncing their heads off various pieces of background scenery. A mode of play was even planned where all the contenders jumped into one big on-screen free-for-all rather than slugging it out head-to-head.

According to Rare, the game was about 60 percent finished when the plug was pulled, with the lack of a proper licence or previous version apparently making it a hard sell. "In a tricky period for the console market, with punters becoming more cautious than ever about how their money was spent, the sad fact was that none of the potential distributors were willing to take on board the risk of an original game," said the now-removed page on Rare's site.

Keen to learn a little more, we dropped the wonderful Kev Bayliss a line. Bayliss, as we're sure you're already aware, is the artist behind Battletoads and Killer Instinct and worked at Rare between the years of 1987 and 2005. He is currently working at Playtonic Games alongside several other ex-Rare staffers.

"In the early '90s, I was very familiar with the WWF [now known as the WWE], having created the graphics for WWF WrestleMania and WWF WrestleMania Challenge," he tells us. "At around that time, we were looking at other ways to explore the WWF characters, and I actually remember creating a lot of graphics for an NES concept called 'Andre's Kingdom', where you took control of Hulk Hogan and the Ultimate Warrior as buddies. Characters would have played in a Mario-style platform adventure, and the bad guys would have been enemies who you 'threw' off the platforms as you encountered them with wrestling moves, gaining more moves as you go. To be honest, it was Double Dragon in a fairytale adventure with wrestling heroes and the late Andre the Giant as the villain – but it never happened, mainly because the NES was then at the end of its life span, and we began looking at creating SNES projects."

The Inside Story Of Wrestlerage, Rare's Lost SNES Brawler That Evolved Into Killer Instinct 2
Image: Rare

Naturally, with such a strong connection to the highly lucrative and incredibly famous WWF brand, it made sense to leverage that with Rare's debut SNES outing. Thus, Wrestlerage was born. "This was going to be a side-scrolling adventure again, which I think originally was intended for our Razz arcade board, and I began creating graphics for that," remembers Bayliss. "I basically drew characters based on the wrestlers that I'd been drawing for the past few years in the NES and Game Boy games, but it was all just an experiment. But finally, Tim [Stamper] gave Paul Machacek and myself the go-ahead to make a fighting 'VS' style game on the SNES – so we began actually making a game set in a two-screen arena, rather than a horizontally scrolling beat-em-up as originally planned."

With this being the early 1990s, the game had all of the usual cultural touchpoints. "My characters had questionable anatomy and looked like every cliche you'd ever seen in any WWF match, and I think I was also into Heavy Rock music at the time, so the character you see on the screenshots with the yellow stripey trousers was actually based on the band W.A.S.P.," explains Bayliss. For those of you too young to have been alive during W.A.S.P.'s heyday, the Blackie Lawless-fronted 'shock rock' band were famous in the '80s for their extravagant outfits, massive hair and parent-scaring lyrical content.

While Rare's public statement was that the game was over halfway complete before it was cancelled, Bayliss doesn't recall quite as much work being done as that. "We created a few month's worth of work together, and David Wise created a tune or two for us," explains Bayliss. "I remember making two levels, one set in a swimming pool, which we used to make use of the SNES transparency and hoped to use the water as a hazard or weapon. You could drown your opponent in it, basically! The other level was set in an alleyway, but I remember creating two Lotus Elan cars on either side (by flipping the graphics) because Paul and I loved that car so much."

The Inside Story Of Wrestlerage, Rare's Lost SNES Brawler That Evolved Into Killer Instinct 3
"This second company Lotus Elan at Rare didn't last long," says Bayliss. "Neither did my right knee cap" — Image: Kev Bayliss

Indeed, the Elan has a special connection with Bayliss – as well as some rather painful memories. "The idea was that you could smash your opponent's head onto the bonnet of the Elan and damage it – funnily enough, I had two of those cars; the second one I had did actually get obliterated, and it took most of my right knee cap away after another car collided with me in 1996! Fun fact? It wasn't so much fun at the time!"

Despite all of the work, the game sadly didn't get finished – and it seems that Machacek (who still works at Rare to this very day) was the one who pulled the trigger. "My memory is super vague on this one," he admits when quizzed on the development of the game. "It took most of 1992 and then I told Chris Stamper that we should end it."

However, Bayliss says that the game wasn't a total write-off and actually influenced future projects. "Wrestlerage never happened; it evolved. It was canned, and both Paul and myself moved on to other projects. However, in my spare time, I created graphics for more sideways-scrolling beat-em-up-style games, and after tweaking things a little, the wrestlers became Battletoads, which became Ninjas, which became 3D models, which became Brute Force – which eventually became Killer Instinct. All games I created probably led to Killer Instinct in some way; from the earliest WWF games to Battletoads coin-op, they all had martial arts moves and featured monsters or larger-than-life characters. Fighting games were all I ever wanted to make, and I was really lucky to have the opportunity to create the ones I had; there's a bit of Killer Instinct DNA in all of them."

If you fancy more stories of game development and artistic endeavour, then be sure to check out Bayliss' Twitch channel, where he regularly does live artwork and speaks to special guests from this career.