Ask most wrestling fans, and they’ll mention the late ’90s and early 2000s as the best era, both for the in-ring product and the collection of video games that were released for Nintendo 64 and PlayStation. games like WWF No Mercy, WCW/nWo Revenge, and the early SmackDown! series were easy to learn but difficult to master. Almost 25 years later, All Elite Wrestling is looking to capture that ease of use and nostalgia with AEW: Fight Forever — and it comes pretty damn close.
Mechanically, Fight Forever is rooted in the golden era of wrestling video games, largely because AEW tapped developer Yuke’s, which made said games. Beginners can button mash their way to victory, but also slowly learn an assortment of showy and acrobatic moves depending on when and how long you press those same buttons. AEW manager William Regal guides you through a series of tutorials to demonstrate how the game’s simple fundamentals can appeal to casual fans looking for a nostalgia rush, while the high skill ceiling holds unlocked potential for hardcore wrestling aficionados. As I spam taunts, I’m brought back to those years spent gripping my N64 controller. As I leap from the corner of the ring, I’m reminded of the days spent playing WWF No Mercy.
stylistically, Fight Forever is also looking to the past, with an exaggerated and cartoonish aesthetic, as opposed to the hyperrealism of the WWE 2K games. Some wrestlers’ faces do seem off or inaccurate on the character select screen, but look notably better in the ring. Each AEW wrestler has a distinct set of taunts and sound effects, along with unique move sets that encourage you to experiment — the better to discover every grapple and strike. Modern wrestling games can pack so many maneuvers that the characters’ identities become diluted. Because of this complexity, I haven’t felt as compelled to sift through their individual cartography, so to speak. Aim Fight Forever‘s combination of simplicity and depth already has me hooked.
In Road to Elite, perhaps the most arcade-leaning mode on offer, you pick a wrestler and carry out an entire year’s worth of storylines. Each week, you travel to a different city while trying to increase your stats and keep your energy levels high. You do this by taking in the local cuisine, working out at the gym, holding press conferences at famous landmarks (US Capitol, Liberty Bell, Las Vegas Strip). These actions mostly require you to talk to NPCs, but you can opt to play minigames instead to boost your stats. Neglecting this regimen can lead to losses, burnout because you didn’t refill your energy through eating, or even injuries. Along the way, you take selfies with wrestlers you encounter on your adventures. Even when playing as an up-and-coming wrestler or created wrestler, you can still geek out.
Storylines are split into four pay-per-view events and often recreate famous AEW storylines. Real-world highlights of the events often play after completing a story to establish the lore for anyone not in the know.
And while this sounds like a seemingly straightforward journey for a pro wrestler on the road, the NPCs in Fight Forever have quirky personalities and their responses often border on the absurd. You discuss the effects of art and gentrification with one wrestler. You can find Sting chilling on Venice Beach. A waitress in Los Angeles sternly tells you that avocado toast is a worthy meal. There’s a ton of self-deprecation and breaking of the fourth wall. Segments can get repetitive, but they help prevent the burnout of playing 20 matches without a break.
Through it all, Yuke’s consistently demonstrates a fervid appreciation for the medium. Attempting a pinfall and not quite getting the 3-count will reveal a 2.99 count, which has become a commonplace phrase in the wrestling world. After creating a custom wrestler, you are greeted with a graphic that reads “[Your player] is all elite,” in keeping with how new AEW wrestlers are introduced in real life. There’s a gym in Austin, Texas, named Fang McFitness, a reference to Fang McFrost, one of the rejected names pitched before a certain wrestler decided on Stone Cold Steve Austin. There are too many of these little bits spread throughout the game to list here, but it’s worth playing dozens of matches just to uncover more.
Fight Forever is not without its rough edges that can feel like glaring, inexplicable omissions. Perhaps because it’s been in development since 2020, the initial roster is relatively small, considering how much the company has grown in just three years. AEW has signed dozens of new wrestlers, and owner Tony Khan even bought former rival promotion Ring of Honor, which has become a sister promotion to AEW. Even then, major players who made their debuts in the middle of development, like CM Punk, appear in the game, while other wrestlers who have been with the company for longer, like Evil Uno, Alex Reynolds, and Sonny Kiss, are missing. The omissions could be remedied with unlockables and future DLC — AEW has already announced a season pass featuring six more wrestlers. But their absences are bummers right now.
Generally speaking, various parts of Fight Forever feel a bit rushed. Most notably, the game features the first version of the AEW Women’s Championship, which has seen two new iterations since 2021. Not updating the assets seems like a result of tight deadlines, or, again, just overlooked opportunities to capitalize at launch. Loading screens pop up highlighting wrestlers with a quote, but the quote is usually a throwaway line from a years-old match. You also won’t find most of AEW’s licensed theme songs in the game.
At its core, Fight Forever is a love letter to the golden generation of pro wrestling video games. It is not perfect, and on the content side, it’s slightly dated — but most of my complaints wash away every time I pick up the controller and start a new match. The nostalgia and finesse of those old glory years emanates from so many angles that it’s hard to nitpick the places that fall short. AEW: Fight Forever is at once a faithful tribute, and a promising signifier of the future.
AEW Fight Forever was released on June 29 on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Windows PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X. The game was reviewed on Xbox using a pre-release download code provided by THQ Nordic. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.