8 Times the Wrong Wrestler Won the Royal Rumble (and who should’ve won instead)

While the Royal Rumble is always an exciting time of year, and generally, the match itself is always enjoyable regardless of the winner, sometimes it can be hard to get around the fact that Rumbles are by and large remembered by their winners. This is fine for the most part, but there have been a few instances throughout history where thinking back, the winner seemed somewhat disappointing in the grand scheme of things.

Sometimes, when a Rumble winner is initially disappointing, it’s turned into an interesting story, and the whole thing works out in the long run, but that isn’t always the case. Thankfully, the 2021 Rumble winners seem to be excellent choices; however, in these instances, we’re going to discuss today, the person who won the Rumble either didn’t need it, failed to make any kind of impact in the long run, or was just a horrible choice compared to an alternative.

However, I’m not going to point out problems without suggesting solutions, so I will also cover who I believe should’ve won the Rumble match instead of the real winner, and we can have some fun speculating.

8 – Bret Hart & Lex Luger – 1994

A draw. The match ended in a draw.

Granted, the Rumble was still in its early days back then, so they could get away with more experimental stuff, but could you imagine how pissed off we’d all be these days if the Rumble ended in a draw? We’d be outraged and would mock it for decades to come, yet we all just seem to have accepted this one.

If I were to speculate, I think the reason this is the case is that Wrestlemania 10 ended up being a terrific show that told a pretty interesting story. However, no one ever gives a shit about Lex Luger’s role in that story. Seriously, whenever I hear anyone talk about this situation, it’s about how great Bret’s story was of wrestling Owen in the opener before coming back to defeat Yokozuna in the main event. Luger just gets completely forgotten.

Who should’ve won instead?

Bret Hart, on his own.

If you removed Luger from the occasion entirely, the whole story becomes so much better. You still make Bret wrestle Owen in the opener, and that match goes exactly the same way as it did in real life. The only difference is that you don’t have Luger wrestling Yokozuna earlier in the night, which means that come the main event, you have a fresh Yokozuna going up against Bret Hart, who not only put on a great match earlier in the night but lost.

You couldn’t ask for a better underdog story, and it would’ve added that extra layer of drama to the main event and an even bigger emotional exhale when Bret won the title. Not to mention, you don’t have to end the Royal Rumble in a sodding draw.

7 – Charlotte Flair – 2020

Truth be told, Charlotte winning this Rumble wasn’t actually that bad in the long run. Her story and match with Rhea Ripley was one of the highlights of Wrestlemania season this year, and the Rumble was a great place to start it. I just think there was a far better option on the table.

Who should’ve won instead?

Shayna Baszler.

Now, I know Baszler got her Mania match with Becky anyway, but I’d argue the Rumble would’ve been a far better way for her to get there. Consider what’s at play, Baszler entered in the number 30 spot in the Rumble that year, destroyed everyone in sight, only to get eliminated by Charlotte. It was a pretty underwhelming debut. Sure, she bounced back, but only after we had to sit through the most boring Elimination Chamber match I’ve ever seen.

If Baszler had won the Rumble, she would’ve come onto Raw with the kind of fire very few do, and you could’ve spent longer building her feud with Becky into something a lot more intense. You can still have Charlotte challenge Rhea for Mania because, let’s face it, all Charlotte would need to do is turn up in NXT and demand a match, or have Rhea show up on Raw and get in Charlotte’s face. Then, not only can you build a better story surrounding Lynch & Baszler, you don’t have to waste the Elimination Chamber on a match booked to be a complete and total snoozefest.

6 – Vince McMahon – 1999

I’m of two minds with this one. On the one hand, I can see how this Rumble win served the story, and it’s not like McMahon actually went on to fight at Wrestlemania, so what does it matter? However, I think there’s more to it than that. For one thing, this is one of the less-liked Rumbles as a whole, and I can see why it focused so heavily on McMahon & Austin that it felt like no one else involved in the match was even remotely important, other than maybe Chyna.

In many ways, wrestling fans view the Rumble as sacred. It only happens once a year (unless Saudia Arabia wants one) and to turn it into an hour-long angle like this wasn’t the best use of anyone’s time. I think this is a clear example of how wildly people’s opinion on things can change depending on who wins. The truth is, if McMahon had eventually been toppled at the final hurdle here, I think this match would be far more fondly remembered.

Who should’ve won instead?

Stone Cold Steve Austin

This one’s pretty straightforward. Austin ended up getting the title shot at Wrestlemania 15 anyway, so why bother taking us around in circles like this? It’s like the build to Wrestlemania 35’s main event, the perfect story was standing there, and it was so simple. Then, they added all these extra layers, and it took the shine off the apple, so to speak. If Austin had won this Rumble, even if you’d kept everything else the same, the match would’ve felt like a compelling story that reached the proper climax. Yes, we would’ve gone through some boredom, but it would’ve been worth it for the payoff.

Instead, we ended up with an underwhelming match with an underwhelming winner. Plus, regardless of the circumstances, it’s never a good look when the person in charge of the show books themselves to win a big match like this.

5 – Sheamus – 2012

I’ve made no secret that I’m not a big fan of Sheamus in the past. In all honesty, I like him a hell of a lot more than I used to, thanks to his work in The Bar and recently with Drew McIntyre, but for the early years of his time in WWE, I couldn’t stand the guy. I thought he was boring and not even that good of a wrestler. As such, I’ve never liked the fact that Sheamus won this Rumble.

While I do think he was one of the best opponents for Daniel Bryan at the time, I don’t think we needed the Rumble win to get there, especially when the match ended up being the 18 seconds atrocity that sent the entire wrestling fanbase into a furious frenzy for the next 3 years. While Sheamus had been building as a face over 2011, he didn’t feel like a worthy top guy just yet, and sometimes a Rumble win can serve that purpose, but this one really fell flat.

Who should’ve won instead?

Chris Jericho

The story was so perfect. Not only was Jericho vs Punk a match people were ready to pay like mad to see, but this was Jericho’s big return after a few years away from the business. Jericho vs Punk had a great build and ended up being a fantastic Wrestlemania match, so why the hell didn’t they kick it off the right way?

Well, that’s the thing that makes this sting so much. Jericho was originally supposed to win this Rumble. He was to make his surprise return and immediately become a conquering hero by winning the Rumble and challenging Punk. However, it leaked in the weeks before the event that Jericho was coming back, so WWE decided to completely change plans for the Rumble, cutting off their nose to spite their face.

WWE has never seemed to grasp the fact that just because something’s predictable doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bad. It’s true that sometimes when we’re expecting one thing and get something else, it’s a fantastic thrill (see Seth Rollins cashing in at Wrestlemania 31), but sometimes things are predictable because it’s what should happen. In films, when the hero defeats the villain and saves the day, people don’t complain that it’s ‘predictable’ because it’s the correct way to round off the story in a satisfying way.

It was a stupid knee-jerk reaction to something leaking online (it only leaked that Jericho was returning, by the way, not that he was going to win) and left everyone watching feel deflated.

4 – John Cena – 2013

So you know how I just said sometimes it’s fine when things are predictable? This was a case when being predictable was bad.

After Wrestlemania 28’s main event between The Rock & John Cena was billed as ‘once in a lifetime’, it would’ve been safe to assume that the match would’ve only happened…well…once. WWE would disagree, though, as, from the very beginning, the plan was to do the match twice on consecutive Wrestlemanias. I know we’re always asking for more long-term booking in WWE…but not like that.

As 2012 progressed and Cena’s story continued to focus on his downward spiral with The Rock, only for The Rock to show up at Raw 1000 (in July) and announce that he’s going to challenge for the title at the Royal Rumble (in January), it became clear to everyone what was going on. After carrying the company on his back for over a year, CM Punk was going to get snubbed for the Rock/Cena rematch that no one really cared about or wanted to see.

This meant that everyone knew who was going to win the Royal Rumble in July, half a year away from the actual event. Now THAT is a case of lousy predictability.

Who should’ve won instead?

The Rock

Now, hear me out. While the story between Rock & Cena was boring and no-one wanted to see it, CM Punk vs The Rock was still a match that people were excited to see, and rightly so, it was a good match (even with the weird booking at the end). So, why not have that be the Wrestlemania match instead? That way, Punk doesn’t get snubbed from the main event (potentially convincing him to stay with the company a little longer), and the fans don’t have to endure a rematch from the previous year that was way worse than the first one. Hell, make it a triple threat if you’re that scared about Cena having nothing to do.

It was a simple case of WWE making their plans two whole years in advance and then refusing to budge on them when a new star rose up and took the wrestling world by storm. By all means, plan out grand year-spanning storylines, but if the times change, you’ve got to change with them.

3 – Randy Orton – 2017

The 2017 Rumble was fascinating because it was the first time in a long while where the winner didn’t seem blindingly obvious. See, as much as there are 30 participants in a Royal Rumble, there are usually only one or two realistic contenders to win the thing. Sometimes this is obvious in how stars are booked towards the Rumble, or other times it’s because the dirt sheets have already leaked what WWE is planning for Wrestlemania that year. However, in 2017, everything was still up in the air, and there was a whole host of different people who could conceivably win.

Brock Lesnar, Goldberg & The Undertaker were a heavy focus in the build, and they were all set to collide in the Rumble. Bray Wyatt was building back up after a relatively lacklustre year, and Braun Strowman was seeing momentum like never before. All of these people and more would’ve been exciting choices to set up a match for Wrestlemania. It seemed like WWE had a win-win situation on their hands because the fans would seemingly be happy with any of these choices.

Then Randy Orton won. Unlike over the past year, Orton was still a somewhat dull character in 2017, and no one had any interest in seeing him compete for a world title at Wrestlemania. Everyone knew his current partnership with Bray Wyatt was going to explode sooner rather than later, and it’s not like we needed a Royal Rumble win to make that happen. Not to mention, it wasn’t even that interesting of a storyline, and no one wanted it to be the biggest of Mania season.

Who should’ve won instead?

Chris Jericho

By FAR the most compelling story going into Wrestlemania that year was the story between Kevin Owens & Chris Jericho. They had worked their asses off all year, with both men doing the most entertaining and genuinely funny stuff on WWE TV week to week. With the Universal Championship over Kevin Owens’ shoulder, the pairing had been the focus of Raw ever since the brand split in June 2016, and their story was that should’ve been the most important one heading into Wrestlemania.

The Festival of Friendship, where Owens turned on Jericho, happened about a month following the Rumble. It was one of, if not the best TV segment of the entire decade and think how much better it would’ve been knowing they had a Wrestlemania match on the horizon. Instead of going with what was clearly the most compelling storyline, WWE destroyed Owens’ credibility by having him drop the title to Goldberg like he was nothing for a Lesnar/Goldberg rematch that, while good, did not need the title AT ALL. Jericho & Owens did get their Wrestlemania match, but it was for the US title as the 2nd match on the show, and it felt so underwhelming because the story hadn’t been treated in the way it deserved.

2 – Batista – 2014

Much like with the Cena/Rock situation, this was a case of WWE having already made their plans and stubbornly sticking to them rather than realising what all of the fans were crying out for.

In the build-up to the 2014 Royal Rumble, it leaked that Batista would be returning for the match shortly after finishing filming the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie. Naturally, WWE smelt money in the waters and thought that they quite liked the idea of having the WWE Championship over the shoulder of Batista when he goes to all of those premiers and is all over the news. There was a problem, though, because the fans didn’t give a shit about Batista. They instead had their hearts set on a different, smaller, bearded wrestler.

Who should’ve won instead?

Daniel Bryan

The moment Rey Mysterio came out in the number 30 spot of that Royal Rumble, to the moment the show went off the air, the crowd booed and booed until their lungs gave out, and can you really blame them? Since last summer, people had been clamouring for Daniel Bryan to claim his place atop WWE, and over and over again, the people making the decisions told us no. They had characters tell Daniel Bryan that he wasn’t good enough repeatedly, and then the real people behind those characters would book Daniel Bryan to lose, making it seem like they were right. WWE is so needlessly combative with their own audience sometimes it’s genuinely baffling.

The fans didn’t take any of that shit, though, and essentially told WWE that we’re going to keep booing every ‘top guy’ you put in front of us until you give us Daniel Bryan. At the 2014 Royal Rumble, WWE refused to give us Daniel Bryan and stayed the course, and no-one was happy about it. What’s worse is that immediately after the Rumble, CM Punk (another star beloved by fans) walked out of the company over what we would later discover was a laundry list of horrible things that happened to him there over the years.

What’s so baffling is that making the fans happy in this circumstance was the easiest thing in the world. They were quite literally chanting Daniel Bryan’s name ALL. THE. TIME. And yet WWE decided to plug their ears and push forward because, once again, they seem to despise their own fans. The upside here is that, eventually, it worked, WWE relented, and Wrestlemania 30 ended with Daniel Bryan holding the world championship aloft. However, WWE could’ve saved themselves so much strife if they’d have woken up sooner and given the fans Daniel Bryan at the Royal Rumble.

It doesn’t end there, though, because one year later…

1 – Roman Reigns – 2015

…WWE still hadn’t learnt their lesson.

I’m not going to tease you with this one.

Who should’ve won instead?

Daniel Bryan.

Take what I said about 2014, add a year of Bryan being tragically out of action with an injury, only to return just in time for the 2015 Royal Rumble. The story was perfect. After 8 months of pain and suffering as Bryan recovered from his injuries, he stood with the perfect chance to reclaim the championship he never lost by toppling the company’s biggest monster in years in the form of Brock Lesnar.

Once again, though, WWE had made their plans, and it was time to once again bury their heads in the sand and ignore everything else going on around them. WWE decided Daniel Bryan wasn’t the plan they had in mind and completely ignored the fans for the second year in a row, instead giving us the new WWE manufactured star in the form of Roman Reigns. Once again, the fans weren’t as stupid as WWE hoped they’d be, and they saw it for what it was, a transparent attempt to try and create the next John Cena in the form of Roman Reigns.

What makes this so much worse than in 2014, though, is that this choice didn’t just deny Daniel Bryan. It actively hurt Roman Reigns’ career for YEARS. While there were many other issues with Roman Reigns around this time, I genuinely think that him winning this Royal Rumble is what made it as bad as it was. To be clear, after this Rumble, the fans booed even the mention of Roman Reigns’ name for years. People’s opinion on him didn’t soften until late 2018 when he got leukaemia, and EVEN THEN, people didn’t start to properly enjoy the man’s work until the summer of 2020.

For 5 years, Roman Reigns was this absolute toxic entity that caused the fans to immediately hate anything he was involved with. While him winning this Rumble isn’t the sole cause, I believe that if Daniel Bryan had won this Rumble instead, the fans would’ve got over it a hell of a lot quicker than they did.

And there you have it! Thank you very much for taking the time to read this post. Let me know what you think of these Royal Rumble winners and my alternate bookings, either in the comments below or on Twitter @SStyleSmark. Finally, make sure to come back here next week as it’s Wrestlemania week and I’ll be doing both predictions & reviews for both NXT Takeover: Stand & Deliver and Wrestlemania!

Every Pokemon Rival Ranked

As you journey across the regions of the Pokemon world, it would be pretty lonely if you didn’t have anyone to share your journey with. As such, every game since the very first has had you share your journey with a rival who is exploring, growing and battling just the same as you. They’ve come in many different flavours over the years, but be they friendly, antagonistic or…just kinda…there, they stand to challenge you throughout your journey and hopefully bond with someone as you grow as trainers together.

Each game has its own versions, and they have widely varying personalities, so which ones left the biggest impact on me? Let’s rank ’em.

15 – Calem/Serena – X/Y

Serena may be a great character in the anime, but her game counterpart is the world’s blandest human.

As you’ll see in just a few entries, the rivals that are the gender-swap of the player character tend to be the worst. The problem is that because their identity is entirely dependant on which gender the player is, they had to create a personality that would fit both characters. Of course, the easy solution would’ve just been to create two different personalities, but that’s beside the point.

Calem & Serena are by far the worst when it comes to these situations because they’re SO boring. Everything they say is stupidly generic and just pointless prattle about becoming stronger and growing as a person. Running into them is an absolute chore because they never have anything interesting to say. Even exposition tends to be given to the other characters around them. No attempt went into giving them any kind of character arch. They just copy/pasted the base template they’ve always used for the rival and didn’t change anything.

Most importantly, they’re an awful rival. X & Y as a whole often get derided for being too easy, even by Pokemon’s standards, and Calem & Serena are one of the clearest examples of this. Their team is ALWAYS lagging behind yours in terms of levels, and they just don’t have very interesting Pokemon. I’m so disappointed that THIS was the rival that got an Absol as their strongest Pokemon because…Absol deserves so much better.

14 – Shauna/Tierno/Trevor – X/Y

These three are technically all distinct characters, but they’re so tightly linked to one another that I’m lumping them all into one entry. The general idea of travelling together in a big group was one I liked. It created a real sense of fun on the journey with so many people journeying with you. Unfortunately, the characters that are on that journey aren’t anyone interesting.

Since there are so many characters, and they all have limited screen-time, the writers went to the tried and tested trope of boiling their personalities down to a single trait. Shauna is “girly”, Trevor is clever and Tierno…likes to dance? Characters who only have one trait aren’t interesting at the best of times, but it’s made so much worse when the traits are stupid and generic like those ones. Encountering them is never anything interesting either, they’ll all say a line or two, maybe you’ll battle one of them, and that’ll be that.

Once again, they’re terrible as rivals. For one thing, you very rarely battle them, and when you do, they’re absolutely no challenge. Running into them feels like an interruption to your journey rather than a part of it, and that’s a bad sign. As I said, the idea of having a big group to journey with is a great one, and I hope they try it again, but this was an absolute failure of an attempt.

13 – Brendan/May – Ruby/Sapphire/Emerald

These two suffer from the same problem that Calem & Serena do, only they’re a bit better because they have at least a little bit of character.

While the friendly rival thing has been done to death by this point in the franchise, Brendan & May were the first time it happened in a major way in the series. As such, a lot of what they had to say felt fresh, and the friendly atmosphere was a nice change of pace from the antagonistic rivals of the first two generations. Sadly, that’s where the positives end.

When you actually look into their personality, there isn’t very much there. Most of what they say is just there to move the plot along, but they at least say it in a slightly more interesting way than in X & Y. In terms of their teams, there’s a lot more interest to be had, and they certainly feel like a more well-rounded trainer on that front. I never found any battle with them to be much of a challenge, and once again, I got that feeling they were always lagging behind me, not growing alongside me.

12 – Hau – Sun/Moon/Ultra Sun/Ultra Moon

To me, Hau is the epitome of the boring friendly rival trope that now plagues the franchise. He’s bright, energetic, all too willing to explain everything to you and always loses. Admittedly I’m not as against the friendly rival stuff as many in the fanbase are, but I’d like them to have a more complex personality than this. The Alola games had a powerful story, and many of the other characters were brilliant, so it’s a real shame that Hau was a character that just seemed to get left in the dust.

He’s a better rival than the ones I’ve covered so far, but not by much. His team is a lot more interesting and is quite well balanced; the levelling is the only real problem. The problem of a lack of difficulty is by no means exclusive to the rivals in the modern games, but it’s undeniable that I just kept destroying the guy every time we met because I out levelled him. What’s worse is he just let every loss roll right off his back in an “aw shucks, I’m just happy to take part!” kind of way that drives me insane.

Yes, there’s definitely value in teaching kids that winning isn’t everything, but real people CARE when they keep losing like that, and Hau just doesn’t.

11 – Hop – Sword/Shield

For the most part, Hop is just a copy/paste of Hau. He’s nice and friendly, piss-weak compared to you and will throw exposition in your face until you want to strangle him.

I could end this entry right there and be done with it, but what puts Hop a small step above Hau is that he actually gets a bit of character arc in Sword & Shield. It’s not an amazing one, but it’s certainly more than the rivals I’ve covered so far have got. Unlike Hau, Hop actually gives a shit when he keeps losing. The pressure of his unbeatable brother and you beating his ass at every opportunity weighs on him after a while. Granted, they don’t go very far with it, but it’s something, and I’ve really gotta take all I can get during these lower entries.

10 – Marnie – Sword/Shield

I wanted to put her higher based solely on how much I love her character design, but the truth is, Marnie just isn’t that interesting of a character.

My decision to put her over Hop is a bit arbitrary; I guess it’s because she’s less in-your-face and annoying, but that’s not saying much. Personality-wise, she’s got a bit more of an edge to her, but in reality, the game just treats her like any other friendly rival. The stuff with Team Yell is kinda interesting with how Marnie isn’t into it, but like with Hop’s story, they don’t dive into it very far. She just runs them off when they’re being annoying sometimes. Similarly, there’s her conflict with her brother overusing Dynamax Pokemon, which is interesting, but again, doesn’t go anywhere.

Her team’s a bit more interesting than Hop’s, but the lack of difficulty strikes her down again as someone who never presented me a challenge. She’s got the added disadvantage of only focusing around a single type due to how she becomes a Gym Leader by the end of the game. Unlike the others so far on this list, I didn’t hate it when I ran into her because it usually moved things forward quite quickly, but she still wasn’t all that amazing.

9 – Hugh – Black 2/White 2

Hugh is another who fits into the ‘friendly rival’ archetype, but I think he comes in a step above what I’ve covered so far by virtue of him actually having motivations as a character. He’s still extremely buddy-buddy and tutorialising to your player character, but he actually gets a decent role in Black 2 & White 2’s story. The Unova games emphasised their narratives, so even template characters like Hugh got a nice boost from being involved.

His determination to get stronger is all in service of his goal of recovering his sister’s Purlion from Team Plasma and, while it might not be the strongest of motivations, it means he’s got a clear goal from the outset, and you can see how everything he does is in service of that. It also plays well with his kind and helpful nature, both to the player and to other characters, as he doesn’t want other people to have to go through what he has.

His Pokemon aren’t the strongest ever, but his team is well-rounded, and the generation 5 games are still just difficult enough that battles with Hugh can be challenging if you’re not ready for them. He still doesn’t break out into being one of the best, but Hugh is definitely a tier above what we’ve seen so far.

8 – Barry – Diamond/Pearl/Platinum

Much like Hugh, Barry is a rival who still fits the ‘friendly’ archetype but has some stuff piled on top.

His hyperactive personality is simultaneously annoying and charming in a way that I can’t quite put my finger on. I love how he immediately wants to go out and catch a legendary Pokemon before he’s even got a Pokeball; it actually makes him feel like the youngish child the rivals are supposed to be in this game. Of course, that’s where the annoying aspect can come in because it does get tiresome here and there. Additionally, he doesn’t really progress as a person at all, he becomes a bit more mature at the end, but nothing really noteworthy to make him super interesting.

Barry hits pretty well on the difficulty aspect, though. His levels normally match pretty well with the area he’s in, and his team is fairly well balanced (not the best, but still pretty good). A battle with Barry was almost always a welcome challenge rather than an annoying obstacle which is how it should feel.

7 – Bede – Sword/Shield

I’ve slated the Sword & Shield writing quite a bit in this list so far, but I’d say Bede is one of the highlights.

For one thing, antagonistic rivals tend to feel like better characters just because the writers can go a bit loser with it. They don’t have to be constantly patting the player on the back or espousing the power of friendship. This applies to the Pokemon anime too, just look at rivals like Gary & Paul. Bede’s self-important persona is one you can instantly recognise as dislikable, and the game has no trouble playing up to it. They’re extremely headstrong, and it bites them in the arse a couple of times in the story.

The place where they fall down is when you battle them. Like Marnie, they suffer from focusing on a single type, so things always feel a bit easier, not to mention the difficulty problems I’m mentioned already in later generations. They also don’t have a fantastic end to their story. It’s nice that they got something to do, but the Gym Leader thing came out of nowhere, and they don’t even seem like they want to do it.

Bede is definitely one of the better characters in Sword & Shield, but they just don’t quite follow through to the end.

6 – Gladion – Sun/Moon/Ultra Sun/Ultra Moon

Gladion is by far the most interesting character I’ve talked about so far. The dude’s actually got a back-story, which puts him head and shoulders above the rest so far.

The story surrounding The Aether Foundation and the family at its centre is an interesting one that’s split into many pieces across Alola’s story. All things considered, Gladion is one of the more minor parts of that story, but he still helps tie things together and give a much fuller picture of that life. His downbeat and untrusting personality stands as an essential contrast to Lillie’s open and kind personality. Both of them went through very similar trauma in their childhoods, but where Lillie used it as motivation to be good and kind, Gladion used it to close himself off from everyone but a select trustworthy few.

Aside from that, Gladion is ok as a rival. As I’ve said, the later generations have a problem with difficulty, and Gladion does fall victim to that somewhat, but I’d say he’s better than Hau. His team is a lot more interesting with some rather powerful Pokemon, which makes up for the fact that his levels often aren’t on par with yours. I also love the touch that three of his Pokemon have friendship based evolutions; it’s one of those subtle things that tells you loads about his character.

Plus, his battle theme is kick-ass, so that’s always a positive.

5 – Wally – Ruby/Sapphire/Emerald

Wally isn’t the primary rival in the Hoenn games, and in fact, you only fight him twice during the story, but he still managed to leave a notable impression on me. Initially, a kid you have to escort to catch a Pokemon, Wally grows surprisingly fast into a rather formidable trainer. His vague illness and quiet demeanour make him someone that I feel the urge to be kind towards. He starts off quite unsteady yet determined and eventually turns into a quietly confident trainer that I can respect.

Since you don’t battle him too much, he’s not an amazing rival, but he provides quite a challenge when you battle him at the end of Victory Road. His ORAS battle theme is bloody brilliant, but that aside he has a brilliantly constructed teams with some powerful Pokemon. Even though he goes down in defeat in that final battle with you, he still feels like someone who has achieved his goal. He overcame his hurdles and became the powerful Pokemon trainer he always wanted to be. It’s not a complicated character arc, but it’s all you really need.

4 – Blue – Red/Blue/Yellow

The original, but not quite the best.

While I may not rate Blue at the top, I can’t deny that he is the measuring stick for all the other rivals that came after him in the series. His in-your-face douchebaggery made him an extremely memorable character, and it’s no surprise that he’s still fondly remembered to this day. I’ve got many criticisms to level at Generation 1, but the writing isn’t one of them. I think they nailed this character and how he’s always a few steps ahead of you on your journey. You get the feeling that, even when you beat him, it could’ve gone the other way and, maybe if he had a slight attitude shift, he could actually surpass you.

In terms of strength as a rival, I think Blue does the best out of anyone on that front. His Pokemon are almost always a higher level than yours unless you’ve been doing a lot of grinding, and he does briefly manage to become the champion of the Pokemon league too. Before the games got their own dedicated champions, having to face off against the guy who’s been poking and prodding you the whole game in your final battle was a brilliant conclusion.

Blue is undoubtedly one of the most memorable trainers, and it’s no surprise that the fanbase points to him when asked how they want the modern rivals to be. However, I think there are a few that have more interesting character arcs.

3 – Silver – Gold/Silver

To my mind, Silver is like Blue, but with the intensity turned up. Where Blue is energetic and childish in how he antagonises you, Silver is more calm and collected. It’s not an in-your-face kind of hatred; it’s seathing below the surface and only comes out in dismissive and hateful remarks. His laser-focus on being the ‘strongest’ trainer is the kind of goal that we can relate to, but his methods are despicable, and it can get frustrating to see him constantly dismiss anyone who tries to tell him that opening your heart to Pokemon is how to become stronger. His thought process of those kinds of people being ‘weak’ is weirdly reminiscent of things we see in our society today, such as toxic masculinity, and it brings out similar feelings.

Much like Blue, he’s a pretty strong trainer, although I wouldn’t quite put him on Blue’s level in terms of challenge. His team is a bit less well-rounded, but the levels are still on-par if not above yours and require preparation. His growth as a character is what puts him over the top of Blue for me. While Blue does mature a bit, he doesn’t go through the learning process that Silver does.

His hatred for Team Rocket (which in HGSS we found out was because his father, Giovanni, abandoned him) is driving him to become stronger, but that hatred is what’s locking him off from reaching his true potential. It takes him a while, but he eventually begins to understand this and dedicate himself to diving deeper into the topic. His change in language from being the ‘strongest’ trainer to the ‘greatest’ trainer is a small change, but it’s the perfect encapsulation of the growth that he goes through.

While I think giving characters in Pokemon games a massive story arc is asking a bit much in the modern era, I still think it’s entirely possible to do things like this, even with the sporadic encounters we get with the rivals.

2 – Bianca – Black/White

While the generation 5 games are far from my favourites, I can’t deny that their narratives are what Pokemon games should be aspiring to achieve. Sure, when compared to the gaming industry as a whole, it’s not anything incredible, but it’s by far the best the main-series Pokemon games have ever put together.

As such, both of the main rivals in Black & White had really interesting character arcs that played to satisfying conclusions. Black & White are rather heavy-handed in their themes of ‘Truth & Ideals’, which both work in tandem and in conflict with each other. Bianca & Cheren are two of the clearest representations of this. It’s interesting to see how they go through very similar experiences but come to very different conclusions about their respective lives.

Bianca is more of a representation of truth. She starts off on uneven footing, partly because she can be a bit clumsy and forgetful, but also because she’s taking her journey against her father’s wishes. It’s never been shown as a big deal in the Pokemon world when children wander off around the world at 10 years old, but this finally touched on how it would actually work if they came into conflict. It’s key to showing that Bianca may be full of self-doubt and uncertainty about her abilities, but she still holds a powerful resolve to push towards her goals.

The second half of her story is interesting because she has to come to terms with the fact that she just isn’t good enough to hang with the best of the best (the player). It’s a weird balance because she’s still a formidable opponent, but her battles are by design a bit easier than Cheren’s, and it’s that narrative through mechanics design that I love to see, even if it is rare in this franchise. We actually get to see her reach the conclusion to go out and research instead of battling, and thanks to the sequels, we see the successful person she eventually turned into. I think the excellence of Bianca’s story is why I didn’t connect with Hop’s. Hop’s story just felt like a cheap imitation that the writers didn’t commit to enough.

She serves as one half of a pair of excellent rivals, and the highlights of her character truly sign when you contrast the two together. So, with that in mind…

1 – Cheren – Black/White

Where Bianca represents truth, Cheren represents ideals. Before you even set out on your journey, it seems like he’s got it all planned out. He has extensive knowledge of Pokemon (compared to Bianca & the player character at the start) and seems laser-focused on his goals. Where his conflict comes in is pondering exactly why he’s striving for what he’s striving for.

The generic “become stronger” goal of most of the rivals gets challenged significantly here, and while the game doesn’t push all the way with the examination, it does somewhat analyse what it even means to be strong. Cheren blindly pursues his goals without considering why, and it leads to a great deal of inner conflict with him. What’s great is how he changes his analysis of his situation. He starts out looking to others and seeing how they behave, but eventually turns his questioning to himself and pondering what would make him happy in his life.

Once again, the sequel does wonders for him, as we get to see what path he chose amidst the relative uncertainty we left him in the originals. A Gym Leader & Teacher is an interesting choice, but one that I think works. He gets incredibly frustrated at constantly losing the player in Black & White, and yet, as a Gym Lader – the first Gym Leader, no less – his role is to be beaten. He no longer seeks to increase his own strength but instead aid other trainers in finding theirs.

When combined with Bianca, we see the themes come through strongest of all. The idea that your ideals in life may not be what you think they are, but that’s ok as long as you learn to adapt and find happiness in where you end up. It’s not some earth-breaking revelation, but for kids who play these games and take on board this message, I have no doubt it did wonders for their world view. That’s what games with audiences that skew younger should be doing, and that’s what makes Cheren & Bianca Pokemon’s best rivals.

So there you have it! Thank you very much for taking the time to read this post. Please, let me know who your favourite rivals are, either in the comments below or on Twitter @SStyleSmark. Finally, make sure to come back here this time next week, where I’ll be running down the worst Royal Rumble winners in history!

9 Best Fall Guys Levels

One of my favourite games of 2020, Fall Guys is continuing to entertain well into the new year. People on Twitter can call it a ‘dead game’ all they want, but I don’t think that could be further from the truth. The game is still being supported and seems like it will continue for at least another year with new levels to stumble around on.

We’re three seasons into Fall Guys’ lifespan so far, and there are a total of 37 different levels you could get in any given game. These levels are split into different categories depending on their gameplay style, and they’re mixed up enough that no two games feel the same. However, with that many levels, they can’t all be brilliant, and there are certainly some levels that I’m happier to see pop up than others, and I want to talk about some of those today.

9 – Knight Fever

In comparison to seasons 1 & 3, season 2 doesn’t seem to be all that grand in scope. There were only four new levels added in that season, and it seemed to go by in a flash, probably because a large part of the post-release dev time was focused on bug-fixes and patches than new stuff. The thing is, as much as there were only four new levels, they were four excellent levels, and three of them are going to feature on this list. The first of which is Knight Fever.

To me, race levels are their best, the more complex they are. The more straightforward race levels like Door Dash or Gate Crash are still fun, but I get the most fun out of the races with many different obstacles for me to navigate. Knight Fever ticks my boxes in that regard. Starting off with some very easy to avoid spinning axes, you move onto the pillars of rotating spikes, which can be navigated quite easily with skill, but still catches me off-guard every now and then. After sliding down a slime slope (avoiding more spinning axes that are so easy to dodge, I almost think they’re there just for aesthetics), you have to face the biggest challenge of the level, the swinging spikey logs (screw your meme names). How well you get through these mostly just depends on your timing, but you never feel entirely safe while running through that section. Finally, you have to not be an idiot to get over the drawbridge, and you’re home free.

While I would like a bit more variation in the obstacles, Knight Fever has a good sense of rising challenge as you progress. It’s not perfect, as we’ll see through the other race levels on this list, but it’s probably the best use of the medieval theme out of all the new levels. It’s a level that has just enough random elements that even once you’ve learnt it, you can never reliably get through it on autopilot.

8 – The Whirlygig

In truth, this level isn’t all that complex, but it is a lot of fun to watch beans getting pinged all over the place. There are some Fall Guys levels that forgo some skill requirements in favour of being way more fun, and this is definitely one of those, something I’m very grateful for.

In The Whirlygig, you start out by running across a field of spinning bars, with no risk of falling off of the level, which means that screwing up only leads to comically flinging yourself all over the place instead of failure. Then you have to navigate a couple of small jumps that everyone seems to bitch about, but I’ve never struggled with. The only time it’s a problem is if there’s a bunch of nervous people on it hogging the platform. You pass through the first big fan blade, which can be really punishing if you get caught in it, before running around…some walls and some fan blades that aren’t even pretending to be obstacles.

After passing through the second, fairly slow-moving fanblade, you’re into the final section of the level, where you have a choice. If you’re a gutless coward, you can take the side routes where you have to jump over hovering platforms, each with a spinning bar on them, which can throw you off if you time your jumps wrong. Or, you can try your luck at the massive, fast-spinning fan blade in the middle to cut out half of that section, which is the far more fun way to complete the level.

What I like so much about this level is that you’re level truly ‘out’ of it when you screw up. The final section is just tricky enough that it takes people a little while to complete it, giving anyone who messed up early on a decent chance to recover. On top of that, the choice of the two routes at the end means you get a good variety in what everyone’s doing. No-one’s trying to funnel through the same small section and getting in each other’s way, and it adds to the background chaos of the level.

The middle section is laughably easy, and the only real negative for the level, but the beginning and end are so much fun that I’m willing to overlook it.

7 – Fall Ball

Team games are a controversial subject in the Fall Guys fanbase. Some think they’re the best of what the game has to offer; others think they’re stupid, unfair and unfun. For me, it depends on which game it is, there are some of the team games which are just plainly unfun, mainly the ones where you have to push a ball, but as long as the main content of the game is enjoyable, I don’t mind the unfairness that can come with being placed into teams.

Case in point is Fall Ball. Sometimes, it feels extremely one-sided, and it’s disappointing when you’re put in a team that doesn’t seem to be very good at the game, but also, who cares? Jumping around headbutting a massive football and watching it bounce all over the place is a joyous feeling. It’s one of the gamemodes that I think is far better with more people, as the chaos is what makes it so fun. That’s why I also have a great love for the variants with obstacles included.

While there definitely is room to work as a team (and I’m sure you’d do far better if you did), no-one does, and everyone just does their own thing. Once again, it’s sacrificing skill for fun, and I think that’s great. You can never truly predict where the ball will go when you hit it, it bounces normally, but you’ve no idea who could get in the way, or maybe even jump at the same time as you and send it high up into the air. This is especially true on the rare occasion the game decides to drop you some of the oddly shaped balls or even a banana.

I think that Fall Ball is the best of what the team games have to offer, forcing a lot of chaotic interaction between the teams and lasting just the right amount of time, so you don’t get sick of it.

6 – Jump Showdown

What I love about most of the final rounds is how simple they are. Instead of making a bunch of crazy obstacles, they present you with a simple concept and leave your skill to determine who wins. I know I’ve said so far that I like it when they put fun over skill, but for the final round, it’s different. It’s to determine who’s the best, and that should definitely be a contest of skill.

That’s not to say there’s no fun to be had in this level, though, because jumping over the spinning bar while dodging the top spinning bar is loads of fun. It’s not the same kind of fun as the more chaotic levels though, this is a tense kind of fun. Your attention is being drawn by many things at once: where the top bar is, where the bottom bar is, which platforms are falling away, and where that arsehole who keeps trying to grab everybody is.

The section of the platforms falling away are great for two reasons. One is that it gives you an extra thing to think about as your dodging the bars, you don’t want to be standing on one when it falls, but you also don’t want to be stranded on one with no escape if it falls next. Two is that it limited your movement options and pushes people close together, making it more likely for mistakes to happen. When there’s a full circle, it’s easy to avoid hitting a point where both the top and bottom bar are coming at you together, but when you’ve only got one or two segments to work with, you’ve got to be a lot more careful and plan ahead for where you’re going to make your jump.

At the same time, it doesn’t overwhelm you with too much going on at once. As long as you’re careful, you can last quite a while and have some very intense battles with the few people remaining, especially as the speed of the bar increases seemingly exponentially.

5 – Hoopsie Legends

Am I just putting this one so high because I always do well at it? That may have something to do with it.

This is a great example of how much more fun a level can be when it’s a free-for-all instead of a team game. The original team hoop game is still fun, but it’s nowhere near as hectic or urgent as this one is. With a timer, until the round expires and teammates all over the place, it’s easy to see a ring a little further away and rely on someone else to get it, and I tend to find that just camping a small spot is the best way to go. However, those tactics get thrown out of the window when it’s a free-for-all.

When everyone’s in it for themselves, things become a lot more frantic, and every hoop suddenly becomes an opportunity you need to make a mad dash for. The requirement of just 6 hoops to qualify hits the perfect balance of being large enough so that you won’t be screwed over by bad luck but small enough that you can’t waste time. On top of that, the design of the level in the free-for-all version is far more exciting and creates a lot of awkward positions for hoops, meaning even if there are people much closer to a hoop than you, you can still beat them to it with better platforming.

It’s technically a more skill-based level than most others, but the free-for-all nature injects the needed chaos, as it will always be funny as three of you all jump for a hoop at once but end up bouncing off of each other.

4 – Wall Guys

Wall Guys is a level that takes the chaos of everyone trying to do the same thing at once from team games but tweaks it so that everyone is working for themselves, and that’s all you need to lead to madness.

This is the kind of level that clearly separates the risk-takers and the safe-players but gives them both a fairly equal opportunity to succeed while still allowing those who look to wreak havoc have their fun. The way you have to push blocks around to get over the walls creates this unique blend of co-operation along with a competition where everyone’s rushing to get to the end.

If you get ahead early on, then you’ll probably be alright to sort things out for yourself, but as soon as the bulk of the crowd reaches you, your situation becomes infinitely more complex. Never mind that everyone seems to have a different idea of where the perfect place for each block is or the people who are just there to screw you over; making the jumps with so many people around crashing into you can be enough of a challenge. I say that like it’s a negative, but I think it’s what makes this level so much fun.

Whether you want to run along the top and try to make the risky jumps or push the blocks around and risk-taking too long climbing up, Wall Guys can cater to just about everyone with some very simple design.

3 – Slime Climb

Slime Climb is more or less the archetype of what a good Fall Guys level should include, and it’s no wonder that it’s one of the most popular levels amongst the fanbase.

During the game’s marketing, Fall Guys saw a lot of comparison to old game shows like Takeshi’s Castle or Wipeout, and with good reason. The soft-play aesthetic, combined with big ridiculous obstacles designed to toss you about, is everything those shows were about and give many people lots of fond memories. Slime Climb is the level that best exemplifies those elements, putting through the wringer in terms of the variety of obstacles. In a way, it’s almost the best introduction level to the game (even if you never get it first) in that it has such an extensive variety of obstacles that it’ll prepare you for everything else the game will throw at you.

Rather than forcing you to interact with the other players, these levels tend to use them more as obstacles than anything else. Many of the obstacles would probably be much easier to clear if there weren’t 10 other people trying to do it at the same time, and that’s not even mentioning the arseholes who sit at choke-points to screw people over. Simultaneously, the level wouldn’t feel the same without those people; weirdly, they’ve become a feature of the level.

Slime Climb feels like the purest distillation of what Fall Guys is like as a game. It mixes the race & survival aspects to constantly keep the pressure on while running the gauntlet of obstacles. The more you play it, the better techniques and shortcuts you discover to create one of the most optimised levels in the game in the best way possible.

2 – Freezy Peak

I’m not entirely sure what it is about this one that makes me love it so much, but it’s easily the most finely crafted race-level the game has right now.

The basic concept is a lot more fun than a regular race level. I much prefer the idea of racing around to be king of the hill than stumbling along the straight horizontal line. The level starts off with slightly different obstacles depending on where you spawn, you’ll either have to navigate past some boxing glove pistons or some flippers before players get funnelled through conveyor belts moving the wrong way as snowballs are fired at them. You then fly up to the next platform using some fans but have to be careful where you land, as there are plenty of flippers ready to ruin your day if you land on them.

Then, after hovering your way over another couple of fans, the big climb begins. In the longest portion of the level, you can either go up the inside or outside lane, with the ability to switch at any time. The inside lane has those boxing glove pistons in front of some flippers ready to throw you off the side of the mountain, while the outside lane has giant snowballs rolls down it constantly. Get past that, and you have to climb a small peak of conveyor belts circling around before one massive fan launches you up to the icy road to the finish line.

It’s quite the gauntlet of obstacles, with many chances for failure, but that’s what I like about this level. On top of that, unlike Slime Climb, where falling means elimination, here you can keep respawning, which means you never feel like you’re truly out of the race. It makes brilliant use of almost all of the new obstacles added in season 3, in a level that is as challenging as it is varied.

1 – Hex-A-Gone

Appropriately finishing off with finale round, Hex-A-Gone is a pure and simple fun test of skill.

There’s really not much to explain with the topic, there are several layers of hexes; when you step on a hex, it disappears, if you fall to the bottom, you’re out, last bean standing wins. Much like Jump Showdown, it leans more to the skilful side of things – as finale rounds should – but doesn’t forget to include some fun along the way. Here, the fun comes from the other beans and how they’re constantly getting in your way. Your interactions with other people in this level are probably some of the funniest, as a collision can send you both tumbling a few floors, and there’s not really any way of screwing people over by grabbing them; at least no without the grabber being screwed over too.

What puts this level over the top for me is how tense it can get. You quickly learn you can use the hexes’ animation falling away to delay your move to the next hex, keeping you in the game while longer, and you have to start to think very carefully about where you’re going and how you’re getting there. The round will start off in chaos as a maximum of 20 people start obliterating the top layers, but once it pairs down to a few people, it’s so dense that it’s just as much fun to watch as it is to play.

When you’re in those last moments, where most of the layers have been torn apart, you’ve got so much to think about. Where you’re currently moving; where you’re going to go when the current section runs out of hexes; where you need to land on the layers below you to have the best chance of survival, and where your opponents are. Do you try to crowd out your opponents’ space in the hopes you’ll be able to knock them off? Or do you steer clear of them in the hopes they’ll make a mistake? These are all thoughts that go through your brain in no time at all as you run around this level, and it’s brilliant.

Not to mention, it’s arguably the level where you do the most falling, so I think it’s appropriate that its Fall Guys best level.

And there you have it! Thank you very much for taking the time to read this post. Please, let me know what you think, either in the comments below or on Twitter @SStyleSmark. Finally, make sure to come back this time next week, where I’ll be covering WWE Fastlane!

My Favourite Board Games

I’ve talked plenty about video games on this blog over the past few years, but I’m yet to dive into their analogue counterparts. The truth is, that’s mostly because I hadn’t played very many board games. I’d always been interested in them, and there have been a few that I’ve played a lot of, but it isn’t until the past 6 months or so where I truly understood the massive scope of what the genre could offer me.

Unfortunately, I chose to dive into this hobby during a time when the world has made playing games in a room with other people is exceedingly difficult. Nevertheless, I’ve picked up several new board games over recent months and have greatly enjoyed what they’ve offered me. I’ve even got enough now to make a list of my favourite board games…so let’s do that.

HONOURABLE MENTIONS:
XCOM: The Board Game, for it’s chaotic strategy
Talisman, for being weirdly calming and total bullshit in all the right ways
Blood on the Clocktower, which looks utterly brilliant, but I haven’t been able to play it yet

11 – Sheriff of Nottingham

One thing you’re going to realise throughout this list is that I enjoy lying in games. Whenever a game allows me to deceive my fellow players for my own ends, I jump at the chance to varying degrees of success. While a video game like Among Us is brilliant for something like that, nothing beats the rush that comes from looking someone directly in the eye, telling them a bald-faced lie and them believing you without question. Implications for what that could say about me aside, Sheriff of Nottingham is one of several games on this list that provide such opportunities.

The premise is quite simple, each player takes turns being the Sheriff, and everyone else are traders trying to get their goods into Nottingham to sell them at the market. Each player fills their hand with up to six cards of different types of good; some are simple stuff like bread & cheese, while others are contraband items like crossbows or silk. Each trader puts their cards into these little bags and hands them over to the Sheriff. The Sheriff then asks the trader what’s in the bag, and the trader must declare how many goods they have and what they are.

Here’s where the fun lying stuff starts. You can only declare one type of good at a time, and you can’t declare contraband, so you’ve got to seem as innocent as possible while you declare. The Sheriff can decide if they believe you or not, and if they don’t, they open the bag. If the Sheriff was right to not believe you, you have to pay a penalty; however, if the Sheriff was wrong, they pay YOU a penalty. Already, this creates a great push & pull between the risk and reward factors of opening the bags, but it goes one level deeper.

The thing is, before the Sheriff opens your bag, you can offer bribes or trade deals to let your goods through, including items that you claim are in your bag. In this section here there’s so much manipulation & bluffing that can go on. You could offer the Sheriff an item that isn’t actually in your bag, tricking him into letting your stuff through for free. You could promise the Sheriff to do you a favour when it’s your turn to be Sheriff. You could even go full quadruple bluff and offer the Sheriff a bribe even if you’re entirely telling the truth, just to try and lure the Sheriff into opening the bag and paying you a bunch of cash.

It’s layer upon layer of bluffing and deception as you try to build up a trading empire, trying to make everyone on the board work to your favour, whether they realise it or not.

10 – Anomia

A much simpler game now, but one that feels so much more chaotic when you play it.

Named after the sensation of forgetting straightforward information under pressure, Anomia makes you draw cards, each of these cards has a symbol on them and a basic category like ‘vegetable’ or ‘football player’. Everyone takes it in turns to draw a card from the deck and place it face-up on their pile. If your face-up card matches the symbol of some else’s face-up card, you both have to name an item/place/person from the category on the other person’s card. The fastest to do so gets all the opponent’s card. It goes until the deck runs out of cards, and whoever has the most wins.

It may sound like it can’t be all that fun, but it really is a frantic sensation when you suddenly realise a symbol matches and, under pressure, you suddenly find you can’t think of a single type of currency to name, so you instinctively just yell the word ‘money’ to raucous laughter from the table. It gets even more chaotic, though, because when you lose a card, the next card on your pile becomes visible, and if that happens to match someone else’s face-up card, then you have to immediately go again. This can snowball in some hilarious ways with long chains of cards flying all over the pace as people frantically try to think of the most simple information but hilariously fail under the pressure.

It’s a game that sometimes makes you feel stupid, but A) it’s hilarious, and B) it happens to everyone on the table at some point, so it never feels like anyone’s being mean to anyone else. It also has the benefit of being a game simple enough for people to understand while drunk, where the slower reaction times and warped mindsets can enhance the chaos in the best ways.

9 – Spyfall

Back to the lying!

Spyfall takes the interesting formula of the long-form social deduction games like Sherrif of Nottingham & Werewolf and condenses it into a 7-10 minute game that gets surprisingly tense as the clock ticks down.

The premise is simple, you have 4-10 players, and one of those players is a Spy. All non-spy players are given the same location card, but the spy doesn’t get that information. Players then take turns to ask each other questions about the location to try and work out who’s the spy. So, for example, if you’re at the beach, you might ask, “How hot is it here?” to see if they know that you’re at a typically hot location. However, you can’t go all out because, at any point, the spy can take a guess at where the location is, and if they’re right, they win the game. This creates this brilliant dilemma, where players have to ask questions and give answers that are vague enough to not give away the location but also not so vague that people are suspicious.

The ticking timer format puts pressure on the non-spy players to ask questions that risk tipping their hand to a spy who’s on the ball to get as much information as quickly as possible, and it can lead to some last-minute clutch accusations. It takes the wide and loud debating of other social deduction games but limits it by turning the game into a more quickfire affair. It also forces you to come up with creative questions to root people out. For example, if the location is a Space Station, you could ask someone, “How was your trip to work this morning?” in a question that would be an obvious trap to anyone who knew the location but totally baffles a spy.

On top of that, it can be really funny to hear people describe locations while still trying to be vague. The awkward wording that people come out with as you can see their faces contorting as they rack their brains for the right word is beautiful in a way. What’s more, is each card will give people a job for that location which they can roleplay, such as the janitor or the pilot, which is great if you’ve got people in your gaming group who thrive at those kinds of things while giving unsure players a bit of a more solid footing to answer and ask their questions.

It’s a fast, funny game that you can happily play round after round of because of it’s simple nature, which also helps it be a good introduction for people to social deduction games.

8 – Wavelength

Wavelength is like if a game of ‘guess what I’m thinking’ told you way more about how your friends think than you were expecting.

Best played in teams, Wavelength involves a dial and a series of cards with different topics. One player from one team will spin the dial and see where the wedge of points are on the dial. This then gets hidden, and they draw a card with a scale on it. Some of these are fairly simple concepts like ‘hot to cold’, but some are more subjective, like ‘good film to bad film’. The player who saw where the points were on the dial then has to give a simple clue to help the other members of their team guess where the points are.

For example, if the points were all the way at the ‘hot’ end of the dial, the clue might be ‘the sun’, or all the way at the cold side would be ‘the arctic’. However, what if it’s only 75% of the way over to the ‘hot’ side? What clue do you give then? What could you say that will make your teammates put the dial only half-way to the ‘hot’ side? You could say something like ‘tea’ which is traditionally a hot drink, but it’s nowhere near as hot as the sun, so would they put the dial far enough? And what about iced tea? That’s pretty cold.

It creates this fascinating scenario of two sets of people trying to guess how the other one thinks, and people inevitably end up over-analysing and thinking too hard about it, which is always pretty funny to watch. This gets even better with the more subjective cards, as you argue over whether or not your friend enjoyed The Dark Knight Rises or hated it, or maybe thought it was somewhere in the middle? It can lead to some amusing arguments and interesting discussions over where to place things, and you end up learning things about the people you play with as well, making it a fantastic ice-breaker game.

7 – Obscurio

Obscurio is a game for those who like theatrics and atmosphere from their board games.

The premise of Obscurio is that a bunch of wizards are trying to escape a tower, and on each floor, each door is marked with a piece of art, with only one being correct. In order to work out the correct door, they seek the help of a friendly ghost, who is only allowed to communicate with the wizards via other pieces of art. The ghost will look at the correct art piece and use two other art pieces to give the wizards clues. The challenge comes from how these clues can be left open to interpretation.

For example, let’s say the correct door is a painting of a beach. The ghost could use one of the little pointers to point to the sand in an hourglass on a different art piece. However, will the wizards interpret it that way? Or will they instead think it has something to do with time, so maybe it’s the art of the grandfather clock? To add an extra layer of complexity to the mix, one of the wizards is actually a traitor, who got to pick the art for one of the incorrect doors to try and fit the clues the ghost has given.

Mechanically, it’s an enjoyable game, but what puts it over the top of similar games is the atmosphere and aesthetic is creates. The art discs that represent the doors are beautiful pieces, and all of the components fit this feeling of mysterious magic & supernatural phenomena. It creates a brilliant opportunity for the people who love the theatrical side of board gaming, as you lower lights and close your eyes while the player who is the ghost silently glides around and sets up their mysterious clues.

6 – Taskmaster: The Board Game

I’ve talked about it before on this blog, but I love Taskmaster. I think it’s a genius format and one of the funniest shows on TV right now. The board game takes what that show is about and adapts it for a homely, low-budget environment, and it really seems to understand the format it’s in. I think that’s worth giving special praise for, too, so many board games based on popular shows don’t really get the format they’re in and just rely on the name-brand to do all of the work, but The Taskmaster Board Game feels like it understands the best way to play Taskmaster in your home.

Firstly, it doesn’t add any frills. It doesn’t create some board that you have to hop around and only do tasks when you land on the right space or something like that; it knows that the tasks are what you’re here for, so it just lets you go with it. Several of the tasks can be transferred over from the show with no problem, while others are adapted to be on a smaller scale, but they’re all still fun to play. On top of that, there’s genuinely loads. While it may get a bit repetitive if you played it too much, there are so many tasks in there (and hundreds more all over the internet) that it’ll be a long time before you run out.

Letting everyone take turns fulfilling the role of Taskmaster was a good idea as it means everyone gets a variety of participating & running the tasks in a single game. I love how the rules specify that the Taskmaster is completely allowed to make dumb or arbitrary decision if they want to. That lack of restrictions not only apes the show, but it gives so many opportunities for laughs between players.

That’s really all this game has to it, having a laugh with friends as you all take turns humiliating yourselves. Which, let’s be honest, is what Taskmaster is all about.

5 – Superfight

So I don’t like Cards Against Humanity. I’m all for the dark humour (even if some of it hasn’t aged so well), I just don’t think there’s all that much fun to be had in assigning pre-written punchlines to pre-written jokes, and once the shock factor of the dark humour wears off, there’s really nothing under there.

Why does this matter? Because Superfight takes what Card Against Humanity does and fixes those problems I mentioned.

Two decks of cards are laid on the table, one with characters from all aspects of pop-culture and another of superpowers that range from your standard stuff like flight/telekinesis to some silly stuff like ‘is killed by water’ or ‘is on a pogo stick’. From here, there are a handful of different ways of playing the game, but the one I’ve most commonly seen (and think is the most fun) is as follows:

One player at the table will be the supervillain. They play a character card & a superpower card from their hand and then draw & play a random superpower from the deck. Each player then takes turns playing one character & one superpower card that they think would beat the supervillain. At this point, the game becomes a debate of ‘who would win in a fight between…?’ but with many ridiculous scenarios like 50 Batmen VS Pikachu inside a giant robotic elephant or whatever.

What makes this so much funnier that something like Cards Against Humanity is that the cards simply act as a launching pad for the players to make their own humour. The debate surrounding exactly how 50 Batmen could disable a giant robotic elephant and then beat up Pikachu always leads to hilarious scenarios, especially when other players argue back. You can make it even funnier by allowing players to play extra superpower cards on other people, potentially crippling an otherwise worthy opponent by making it so that they’re uncontrollably weeping.

Rather than the cards serving as the jokes, it allows the players to be creative and play to their audience. You could never play Cards Against Humanity with your grandparents, but with Superfight, you can just keep it clean. There are other DLC decks that let you tailor the game to your audience, with kid-friendly stuff or R-Rated stuff. It makes it a far more versatile game and is way more hilarious when you’re making original jokes with people you know.

4 – Skull

I love traditional playing-card games. Games like Poker and Cribbage have an outstanding balance of playing the odds and reading your opponents to create an endless amount of exciting scenarios that really get the brain whirring. Skull takes the essence of those games, simplifies, beautifies, and repurposes the formula for something that feels so fresh yet so familiar.

In Skull, 3 to 6 players each get 4 cards. 3 of these cards have flowers, and 1 of them has a skull. Each player picks one of these cards to place face-down in front of them, then each player takes their turn. On their turn, a player can either put another card face-down or start the ‘bidding’ process. Here, a player says how many cards they think they can turn over WITHOUT turning over a skull. All of the other players can either raise this bet or pass until only one person has a bet left in play. That player then turns over people’s cards in an attempt to reach their target.

This already gives the game a nice layer of bluffing about who’s cards might be safe, but there’s a small twist that adds so much strategy to the game. This twist is that when you start turning cards, you have to turn over all of your own cards first. This means that if you’ve put a skull down to try and bluff someone or screw someone else over, you’re done for. This means that you have to avoid putting a skull down to win rounds, but doing so also leaves the door open for others to score by turning over your cards.

It’s a simple enough formula that just about anyone can understand, but your thought processes can get so deep as you decide whether or not to put a skull down, or who’s cards you think are safe, or whether it’s time to start betting. It’s the board game that I think best captures the essence of what those play-card games I love are all about.

3 – Muffin Time

Who doesn’t love a bit of chaos? Well, most board-game enthusiasts, it seems, but sod it, I love a game full of random bullshit.

I’ve always had a love for the asdfmovie series on YouTube, and all of Tomska’s work, in fact, so I was on board with the premise of a card game based on the franchise from the very beginning especially one by Big Potato Games. While I haven’t featured many of their games on this list, when it comes to party games, you’d be hard-pressed to find any company with an output of such consistently high quality.

In Muffin Time, you start off with 3 cards, and your goal is to get 10 cards. On your turn, you either draw a card from the deck, lay a trap card, or play an action card. That’s it. It’s an insanely simple game, but what’s on those cards is where the fun comes in. Firstly, there are action cards, which have all sorts of conditions on them. Some start a minigame, like a thumb war or finger guns. Others say things like “steal 3 cards from the tallest player”. Basically, it’ll either benefit/hinder people, based on aspects of them, or it’ll have a fun little minigame.

The real fun stuff comes in the trap cards, though. These are cards that you lay face down on the table and ‘activate’ when someone in the game does a specific action. For example, you could get a trap card that lets you steal 3 cards from someone when they ask what the time is, or when they say a specific phrase, or talk about something from the past. What this means is that everyone on the table is constantly trying to bait each other into doing or saying certain things, and because of that, everyone has their guard up, and everyone is suspicious of everyone at all times. It’s unbelievably fun and incredibly funny when you perform a seemingly ordinary action only for someone to go “AH-HA!” and turn over a card that fucks you over because you said the word “what”.

The nature of it means it works in many different contexts too. You can play it with a group of friends your own age, or you can play it with the family, and it’ll still be a fun experience because it’s so easy to understand and the humour is very simple. It’s one of the rare examples of a game that’s “fun for all the family” that isn’t boring for anyone who’s age has more than one digit.

2 – Cosmic Encounter

There’s so much going on with Cosmic Encounter, and it’s ALL brilliant.

It’s the most rules-heavy game on this list, so I won’t go through all of it, but in short: Each player has some planets they call home and a fleet of spaceships defending them. Players take it in turns attacking each other’s planets to take over as many foreign planets as possible. The system all of this works under is like Risk, but better in just about every way because there’s no random elements, a bunch of potential of poker-style bluffing and a hefty dose of strategy.

This on its own is already a fantastic strategy game, but, as always, there’s a twist. While the game has these very robust rules laid out that have been honed over the game’s VERY long lifespan, each player has their own alien race to play as. These alien races all have their own unique abilities, but it’s not like in other games with player bonuses. The bonuses in this game aren’t just little helping hands that push you down one type of strategy, they’re ridiculously overpowered abilities that totally break one or more of the game’s rules. Now, this does seem a bit unfair (and sometimes it is) until you consider the fact that every player in the game has their own game-breaking power.

These powers can combo up in insane ways to create some mind-bending but hilarious scenarios. For example, one player might have the power to reverse the decision of a battle before the battle takes place, so if they think they’re going to get destroyed, they can turn into a win. However, the player they’re fighting against will WIN THE ENTIRE GAME if all of their ships are destroyed, which means they’re going to be trying to lose the fight. Except, the second player knows what the first player’s power is, so maybe they’re trying to win the battle in the hopes that the first player will reverse the decision? WHAT DOES ANYONE DO?!

That’s just one of a near-infinite amount of ways these powers could combine in games, and all of them have been carefully crafted and honed over many years. It has tonnes of replayability, too, with 51 different aliens in the base game and 196 aliens if you get all of the expansions. No game will have you scratching your head so hard while laughing even harder in a truly masterful blend of chaos and strategy.

1 – Secret Hitler

I said it at the start, and I’ll say it again now, I enjoy lying in games. Social Deduction is inarguably my favourite genre of board game, and while upcoming games like Blood on the Clocktower look very interesting, to date, nothing has beaten Secret Hitler as far as I’m concerned.

At the start of the game, everyone gets given their secret roles. Players are split into two teams, ‘Liberals’ who are the good guys and the ‘Fascists’ who are the bad guys. One player will also be ‘Hitler’, who is on the team of the Fascists (duh). The Fascists know who their allies are, the Liberals do not. Each player takes a turn being the ‘President’, and they must pick one other player to their ‘Chancellor’. They then draw 3 policies, which will either be Liberal or Fascist in nature. The President discards 1 policy and hands the remaining 2 to the Chancellor, who then discards 1 more and plays the remaining policy.

Here, the debate begins depending on which team the policy that was played came down for. Liberals need to enact 5 Liberal policies to win the game, the Fascists need 6, but the deck is weighted in favour of the Fascists, with 11 of the 17 policies in the deck being Fascist. On top of that, the more Fascist policies that get enacted, the more powers get unlocked for players to use. This means that even the Liberal players have an incentive to play Fascists policies, as they can be instrumental in uncovering the Fascists or even getting the ability to kill players, which, if done to Hitler, will win the game for the Liberals.

There are so many interlocking strategies here, but since none of the Liberals know who their allies are, they can communicate a plan to anyone until they trust them; and even when you do trust them, they could just be playing you. As you can imagine, this is a game filled to the brim with lies, betrayals, risks, rewards and failures, and all of it is an absolute blast. This is the game that I have the most fond memories of, as I’ve played it at several different stages in my life, and there’s never been a bad game.

Nothing brings friends together like loudly arguing with each other over who’s Hitler.

And that’s it! Thank you very much for taking the time to read this list, please, let me know what your favourite board games are in the comments below, or let me know on Twitter @SStyleSmark. Finally, make sure to come back here this time next Saturday, where I’ll be covering AEW Revolution!

Every NXT Men’s & Women’s Champions Ranked – Part 2

I’ll be going live on https://www.twitch.tv/strongstylesmark at 6pm GMT (half an hour after this article goes up), playing two games from my Game of the Year 2020 list, ScourgeBringer & Spelunky 2! I’d really appreciate it if you came along and hung out!

A couple of weeks ago, I started ranking every NXT men’s & women’s champion. There, we discussed the bottom half of the list with reigns that were somewhat underwhelming, but today, we’re covering the top half and get to relive the best of what NXT has given us over the years.

13 – Bo Dallas

Days as Champion: 260
Successful Title Defences: 5
Best Match As Champion: vs Adrian Neville (Ladder Match) at NXT Arrival

While he might not have the most significant legacy in NXT these days, Bo Dallas was the first NXT Champion to really feel like an NXT Champion in the way we know it today. He wasn’t the most amazing wrestler (though he could definitely put on good matches) but he was the first champion with a clearly defined character and style. That’s not to insult Rollins or Big E, both of those guys are world-class, but their NXT characters felt really vague and purposeless outside of ‘win’.

Meanwhile, Bo Dallas was a brilliant character. After floundering for a while as a cowboy(ish) character, he found his ‘Bolieve’ gimmick and the sky was the limit. His heel work is the kind of thing that we praise people like MJF for in the modern-day. A considerable part of its charm is that it would only work in front of an NXT crowd. I don’t think there’s any other crowd in wrestling right now that would literally get out of their seats and turn their backs on the ring to insult a wrestler they dislike.

Bo worked with moments like these to become a genuinely insufferable character. The contrast of the way he would joyously praise self-betterment (helped by his relatively soft voice) and the genuinely despicable things he would do to some of his opponents was pure brilliance. His title defences weren’t all that memorable, but he did have some good ones against Cesaro, Sami Zayn & Neville.

Truthfully, if his reign was in one of NXT’s golden eras, it would probably be remembered a lot more fondly, but it happened just before the wider IWC truly realised how brilliant NXT could be (myself included), so it has a bit of a forgotten legacy. However, that doesn’t stop it from being one of the greats.

12 – Rhea Ripley

Days as Champion: 109
Successful Title Defences: 2
Best Match As Champion: vs Charlotte Flair at Wrestlemania 36

Rhea Ripley’s rise was the kind of rocketing upwards that you don’t see very often but is precisely what NXT handles very well. When she first made the jump from NXT UK, it felt like a big deal, but she didn’t feel like the woman who would topple Baszler’s years of dominance. However, NXT set about changing that very quickly. Not only did she lead are WarGames team to victory from a 4-2 deposit, but she took it to the Raw & Smackdown women’s division at Survivor Series, and suddenly she felt like a megastar who could not be stopped.

Her match against Baszler was brilliant and everything it needed to be. Not only did it feel like a massive moment for Rhea to take her place on the throne, but it put a definitive end to Shayna Baszler’s stranglehold that had defined the NXT women’s division for the past couple of years. She launched straight into gear with a great match against her former NXT UK rival, Toni Storm and pushed ahead past the Royal Rumble, where a lot of hype started building around her title reign.

After Charlotte Flair won the women’s royal rumble, the idea that Charlotte was going to challenge for Rhea’s NXT title became the prevalent theory after both the other women’s titles seemed to have plans already in place. Immediately, this drew more eyes to Rhea as she put on a vastly underrated feud against Bianca Belair. I think for many, this was the feud where Bianca became a future star, rather than future mid-carder and the resulting match proved it, something Rhea’s contribution to cannot be forgotten.

However, the best of Rhea’s reign was still to come as she began her feud with Charlotte Flair in earnest. Not only did Rhea then become the first NXT Champion to defend their title at Wrestlemania, but she did it in what was easily the best pure-wrestling match of the entire weekend. I spoke about this match in my match of the year list, but it really was something special that proved how well Rhea could hang with the best, even though she took the loss in the end.

While her reign as champion didn’t last as long as I’d hoped it would’ve, what she did with her 100 days as champion elevated her and everyone around her. She proved that the NXT Women’s division had plenty of life after Baszler left and all of her title feuds were fantastic, so she definitely gets the nod on this list.

11 – Adrian Neville

Days as Champion: 286
Successful Title Defences: 9
Best Match As Champion: vs Sami Zayn at NXT Takeover: R-Evolution

It’s genuinely hard to believe that this is the same person as the utterly ripped monster we see on AEW currently.

Neville had the benefit of being the first NXT Champion to experience the joys of the fabled NXT Takeovers. These Pay-Per-View events for NXT that would produce some of the best wrestling of the past decade. While the early Takeovers aren’t the most memorable, I’d still put their main events on par with many of the more memorable ones, and Neville is a huge part of that.

While I’d argue Rollins may be a better all-round wrestler, Neville was the first NXT Champion that was allowed to having long main-event matches for the title that benefitted both him and his opponents. Looking back at the opponents he faced during his title reign is a laundry list of wrestlers who are so much better than they ever were on WWE’s main roster. It’s almost sad in a way, but the incredible matches he had with the likes of Tyson Kidd, Tyler Breeze & Bo Dallas are definitely worth a rewatch if you’re in the mood for it.

He was also the first NXT Champion to experience a proper character arc during his NXT title reign. That was the benefit of NXT back then, the writers knew their characters would have an endpoint of their stories. While that’s still somewhat the case these days, it’s a little more nebulous, and you have people like Gargano & Undisputed Era who have been in NXT for ages. Neville’s transition from a pure high-flying babyface champion into a character who, despite still being good, doesn’t mind taking a shortcut here and there was an interesting one. I know it was mostly only done to serve Sami Zayn’s story, but it still made Neville’s journey a great one to look back on.

With this placement of Neville, we see how unfair a list like this can be because while 11th place sounds low, he really was a brilliant champion. It’s just that NXT raised the bar year-on-year for the better part of a decade, so the people who came after him managed to surpass his incredible achievements.

10 – Bayley

Days as Champion: 223
Successful Title Defences:5
Best Match As Champion: vs Sasha Banks at NXT Takeover: Brooklyn 1

Bayley was the last of the four horsewomen to hold the NXT Women’s Championship, and I think it’s safe to say that her reign solidified the legacy the four of them would leave on NXT and the legacy they will leave on women’s wrestling when they one day hang up their boots.

Bayley’s title reign started off in the best possible way any title reign can begin, with the culmination of NXT’s best stories to date, not to mention my personal favourite NXT match of all time. Bayley & Sasha Banks’ rivalry in NXT is the stuff of legend, so much so that people spent 5 years begging for it on the main roster before it finally happened. Bayley’s first title defence continued that feud with the iron-woman match at NXT Takeover: Respect and it lived up to the second match’s hype so much so that many people say they prefer this match.

While Bayley’s reign would never reach those heights again, it still definitely stayed strong. Bayley put down a wide variety of opponents during her title reign, including Alexa Bliss, Carmella, Nia Jax. She even got a half-way decent match out of Eva Marie, which is a miracle in and of itself. Bayley’s title reign is like a who’s who of current Raw & Smackdown women’s division stars and I don’t think that’s a coincidence. When she eventually lost the title to Asuka, it was a big deal and a brilliant match, along with feeling like the perfect time and the perfect situation for Bayley to bow out of NXT.

Bayley was this eternally endearing character who you always wanted to route for. While the main roster would eventually squander this so much that they had to turn her heel (which led to another top-tier title reign), NXT Bayley was a bundle of purity that brought joy to all of our spiteful hearts.

9 – Charlotte Flair

Days as Champion: 1st Reign – 258; 2nd Reign – 73
Successful Title Defences: 1st Reign – 6; 2nd Reign – 1
Best Match As Champion: vs Io Shirai vs Rhea Ripley at NXT Takeover: In Your House

Being the daughter of one of the greatest to ever do it is no small shadow to step out of. It’s the kind of shadow that many 2nd or 3rd generation wrestlers have utterly failed to step out of (including Ric Flair’s other children), but NXT did something very interesting, but in hindsight, quite clever. Quite simply, for the entirety of her NXT run, she had no surname. It was no secret whose daughter she was, but they didn’t always draw attention to it and kept her just as ‘Charlotte’. Even on the main roster, they waited until she was an established superstar in her own right before starting to call her ‘Flair’.

As NXT Women’s Champion, she took Paige’s work in women’s wrestling and took it further than ever before. While she was still slightly constrained by the lingering perspective of women’s wrestling as a sideshow, she blazed a trail that was truly her own and made sure no-one could deny her star power. She was (and still is) one of the best female wrestlers on the planet and she made sure that her talents were never denied.

On top of that, her title reign put the spotlight on her contemporaries and turned the four horsewomen into the establishment they are today. Her work didn’t just elevate her, it elevated Sasha Banks, Bayley, Becky Lynch, hell, even Natalya and Summer Rae looked a hell of a lot better after having a great match with Charlotte. The Fatal 4 Way between all of the horsewomen remains their only encounter to date, and it was everything you’d hoped it would be.

Charlotte’s second title reign was very different. When she won the title, I thought it would be a lot more than it was. While I thought Rhea should’ve won at Wrestlemania, I saw the upside of having someone with Charlotte’s star power carry the NXT Women’s Championship, as it could elevate everyone in the division. Which sort of happened. Rhea initially looked really good with how she stepped it to Charlotte, but quickly became the unimportant player as Io Shirai stepped into the spotlight once again. Ultimately, Io winning the title from Charlotte was a huge moment, and Io has had a fantastic reign since then, but I was really hoping for more; and if some backstage reports are to be believed, the NXT writers were hoping for more too…

While her second reign was disappointing as a whole, it did bring us a couple of really great matches (including 2020’s best WWE match). Meanwhile, the roads Charlotte paved with her first title reign ensured that she will forever have a legacy in NXT as one of their best champions.

8 – Sasha Banks

Days as Champion: 191
Successful Title Defences: 4
Best Match As Champion: vs Bayley at NXT Takeover: Brooklyn 1

If Paige’s reign is where the rise of women’s wrestling started, and Charlotte’s is where it built a solid foundation, then Sasha’s title reign is where it became mainstream.

Looking at the title defences through each of these first three NXT Women’s Champions, the progression is clear as day. Sasha’s title defences were not only more frequent, but the matches average a longer runtime, especially on Takeover events. This was also when stories in the women’s division finally started to properly pull away from the stereotypical stories of friends suddenly hating each other, or the classic “you’re just jealous”. We started to see writing that was on-par with the storylines the men were getting, and it was proving a success.

Outside of that, Sasha continued to raise the bar that her predecessors had set. She took on all comers and looked like a strong badass as she did so. She put down Charlotte (twice), Becky Lynch (in what was inarguably Lynch’s best singles match in NXT) and Alexa Bliss in matches that were all a lot of fun to watch and of a high enough quality for a mainstream wrestling audience to finally start to take notice.

What undoubtedly put this over the top though, is Banks’ legendary feud with Bayley. I’ve talked about it a bit already, but it cannot be understated just how monumental this story and the match at Takeover: Brooklyn was in establishing women’s wrestling as the kind of franchise that the mainstream wrestling fans would not let WWE ignore. When WWE sit around patting themselves on the back for what a great job they’ve done with this whole ‘women’s revolution’ stuff, it’s moments like the end of that Brooklyn match that we can look to as the truly great moments.

While most of the focus is on Bayley’s story when it comes to this moment (and rightly so), there’s no such thing as a good underdog story without a proper villain, and Sasha Banks in NXT may be one of the best. Before “The Boss” just became a meaningless nickname, Banks carried herself with an indomitable aura that you hoped and prayed would be destroyed, but never was. Her entrance at Takeover: Brooklyn is the perfect example of this. Showing up in a black SUV with blacked-out windows and a swarm of bodyguard may not be the flashiest entrance ever, but it’s precisely what a character like her is made for. Don’t get me wrong, Sasha’s current persona is excellent, and I’m loving it, but this version of Sasha Banks will be the one I always remember the most fondly.

7 – Bobby Roode

Days as Champion: 202
Successful Title Defences: 4
Best Match As Champion: vs Hideo Itami at NXT Takeover: Chicago

Roode is one of the more forgotten NXT Champions, which I think is a real shame because he’s one of my more favoured ones. Ultimately, I think this is down to how WWE did absolutely nothing with him during his time on the main roster. When people these days say that Bobby Roode is a crap wrestler, as much as I disagree, I can understand where that perspective comes from, when that’s how WWE’s treated him for years. It’s perhaps one of the worst cases of mishandling between NXT and the main roster in history because Roode’s time as NXT Champion was brilliant.

While his entrance theme and overly dramatic Takeover entrances were undoubtedly the most memorable parts of his title reign, the truth is he had some really good matches too. They were never the flashiest affairs, but they always such a firm grasp of the fundamentals that they honestly didn’t need that much extra to be great watches. Roode cultivated this character who thrived on the understated and simple and his style reflected that. It’s styles like this that I point to when I want to prove that ‘wrestling heel’ doesn’t have to mean ‘slow and boring.’

On top of that, he had a great character. He was never the best promo in NXT, but he had a clear mission statement and the way he carried himself was all you need to know. The robes, the suits, the watches, it was a brilliant set of ideas that made him the ideal opponent for just about anyone. Whether it’s someone chaotic like Shinsuke Nakamura or Hideo Itami (KENTA) or a true of heart family man like Roderick Strong (before he joined UE, at least).

I will always be upset that WWE management never saw anything in him, because he genuinely deserved so much better, but at least we got this.

6 – Kevin Owens

Days as Champion: 142
Successful Title Defences: 5
Best Match As Champion: vs John Cena at Elimination Chamber 2015

The dude beat John Cena clean as a whistle while he was champion, what more do you need to me to say?

Following Zayn’s title win, Kevin Owens turned up. I don’t mean he debuted, he already did that earlier that night, I mean the Kevin Owens we all know today turned up. I know he’s a face at the moment, but the utterly despicable man who would turn on anyone and everyone he’s ever loved and use his words to utterly eviscerate them, that Kevin Owens turned up.

It was shocking to see him immediately contend with Zayn for the title because surely Zayn wasn’t going to lose the belt so soon after his remarkable win? Oh…oh no.

The match between Owens & Zayn was something we hadn’t seen from NXT until this point, and it was brilliant in how horrible it was. The way Owens kept beating him down with no remorse for his former best friend as Zayn just flopped around, surviving, but only just was heartbreaking. Owens became a monster that night, and a monster with a championship no less, winning the match via referee stoppage, which was incredible.

Owens kicked his title reign off with a bang, having a brilliant, but completely forgotten match with Finn Balor on NXT TV, before running through Sami Zayn again at Takeover: Unstoppable. Zayn had a bit more fight in him this time, but Owens still came out of it looking dominant, even if he was laid out at the end by a debuting Samoa Joe. From there, Owens’ title reign took a fascinating but very unusual turn.

In a surprise debut on Raw, Owens showed up to answer John Cena’s open challenge. He wasn’t the first NXT star to do this, but instead of merely having a great match and then losing to Cena, Owens put Cena down in a promo and then laid waste to him and his title. When a champion vs champion match was set for Elimination Chamber, I think we were all a bit sceptical. In 2015, Cena hadn’t transitioned yet into the great wrestler who puts over young guys that he is today, and people were still expecting the worst. However, we didn’t get it, in what was a genuine surprise, Owens hit Cena with the Pop-Up Powerbomb and pinned Cena as clean as clean can be.

From there, Owens continued to defend the NXT title on the main roster. He beat both Zack Ryder & Heath Slater in rapid squash matches and had a rather good match with Neville on Raw for the title. However, his title reign would come to an end quickly afterwards, as Finn Balor beat him for the title in Japan, where Balor made his name as Prince Devitt.

Owens did things as NXT Champion that no-one else has ever done with the title, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that he ended up spending less than 6 months in NXT before moving up to the main roster. However, the downside of that is that he didn’t have a very long reign, and while numbers aren’t everything, in the context of this list, it certainly causes him to drop a few places.

5 – Finn Balor

Days as Champion: 1st Reign – 292; 2nd Reign – 137+
Successful Title Defences: 1st Reign – 4; 2nd Reign 2+
Best Match As Champion: vs Kyle O’Reilly at NXT Takeover: 31

Finn Balor’s time in NXT has been a bit of a weird one, and I think my opinion of it varies quite noticeably from the general opinion of the IWC. While I could never deny that Finn’s run as champion defined NXT’s first golden era, I actually think his second (and current) run in NXT is far superior.

His first run with the title began in grand fashion, winning it in front of a Japanese crowd in the land where he made his name. He defended it in NXT’s first-ever ladder match, which was a great match, but will enterally be overshadowed by the Sasha/Bayley match that preceded it. From there he defended the title against Apollo Crews…via DQ and then battled Samoa Joe for well over six months. Truthfully, Balor and Joe never had a bad match, I was just sick of seeing by the end, and it brought down my opinion of Balor’s title reign.

Granted, NXT didn’t have the enormous depth of talent that they do now, but I can’t help but feel a little disappointed that Balor didn’t get to wrestle a greater variety of his opponents for what was, at the time, the longest title reign in NXT history. That said, Balor’s still in 5th place on this list because all of his matches were good-to-great and it was the longest reign in NXT history for several years.

What puts him over the top for me though, is his current run as NXT Champion. When he returned to the black & yellow brand, it was unclear exactly what his role would be. He fought for the title twice but lost both times. Then he turned heel and embraced his old ‘prince’ persona again, but with new wrinkles for everything he’s done since then. It seemed like he was mostly going to be around to have feuds with NXT’s up-and-comers, but the unfortunate circumstances surrounding Karrion Kross’ injury worked in Balor’s favour.

He beat Cole for the title and, despite only defending it twice so far, has already had a better title reign than his first if you ask me. Both of his matches against Kyle O’Reilly were two of the best I’ve ever seen either man put on. On top of this, the boosted credibility and profile of NXT these days combined with Balor’s heel persona makes him so much more fun to watch week in and week out, even when he’s out healing a broken jaw.

I have no idea where Balor’s current title reign is going to go, and maybe this time next year, he’ll be worthy of one of the top spots on a list like this, all I know is, I like what I’m seeing now, and he could even usher in a third golden era for NXT in 2021.

4 – Tommaso Ciampa

Days as Champion: 237
Successful Title Defences: 3
Best Match As Champion: vs Johnny Gargano at NXT Takeover: Brooklyn 4

The top 5 of this list were tough to organise, because they’re all so brilliant.

While the process for years in NXT was that people will eventually leave the brand and go onto the sometimes greener, sometimes barren pastures of WWE’s main roster, Ciampa was the first person who really felt like he’s an NXT guy for life. His feud with Gargano is inarguably the best in the brand’s history so far, and as much as Gargano was the face, I think Ciampa is the one who came out of it looking like one of NXT’s greatest stars.

In his seven months as champion, he only defended the title three times, which is something I’ve railed on other people for, and it did contribute somewhat to Ciampa not making the top three. However, all three of those title defences were truly incredible matches and some of the best title defences NXT has ever seen.

His first defence was in a Last Man Standing match against Gargano, in what was the last true match of their feud (I don’t count the cinematic one from 2020 because it was shit) and it enclosed everything that had gone into that iconic story. Gargano fought with all of his heart and soul, but at the end of the day, Ciampa was just tougher and smarter…and he didn’t throw himself off of a stage for no reason like Gargano did.

Next up was against Velveteen Dream in what remains to this day Dream’s best match in terms of wrestling action. Dream had been on the rise in NXT for a while, but this match was when many, myself included, sat up and realised that he could easily be the top guy on the brand if the opportunity arose. Finally, he wrestled Aleister Black in a match that was everything I wanted it to be and more. Two of the best pure wrestlers to have been NXT Champion facing off against each other and made for a brilliant watch.

Unfortunately, things would end on a bit of a bum note. As the finale match was set for Takeover: New York between Ciampa and Gargano, Ciampa would suffer a neck injury that required surgery and saw him out of action for over half the year.

The injury was heartbreaking and came at the worst possible time in terms of the story being told, but that shouldn’t be allowed to take away from the incredible run Ciampa had at the top. Not only was he one of the best-defined characters NXT had seen in years, with heel heat so genuine that for a while, they didn’t give him entrance music because the boos were so loud, but he was one of the best wrestlers to ever sit atop the brand of black and gold.

3 – Asuka

Days as Champion: 522
Successful Title Defences: 11
Best Match As Champion: vs Nikki Cross at NXT 23rd June 2017

After the four horsewomen left NXT for Raw & Smackdown, there was a lot of concern surrounding the division’s future. NXT had spent so much time hailing Charlotte, Becky, Sasha & Bayley as prodigies that there was a worry no-one would be able to fill their spot and make waves in quite the same way. In hindsight, it’s laughable we were ever worried.

It was clear from the moment she signed that Japanese star Kana (re-christened Asuka for NXT) that she was going to be a big deal on the brand, getting the ‘sitting in the crowd’ treatment at an NXT Takeover, which seems to be their favourite way of showing off new superstars. Her dominance was immediate, and it didn’t take long for her to build up quite the winning streak. By the time she won the title, she was so popular that people didn’t even mind that she had to take down the beloved Bayley to become a champion.

Asuka held the title for an incredible year and a half, defending it against just about everyone who was anyone in the NXT women’s division at the time. Bayley, Nia Jax, The IIconics, Ruby Riott, Nikki Cross & Ember Moon all stepped up to take on the empress of tomorrow and all were put down in some of the best matches the division had seen at that time. Asuka was untouchable, and the hype surrounding her managed to only keep building as her undefeated streak surpassed even that of Goldberg’s.

She got to tell some interesting stories in her time as champion too. She got to wage a brutal war against the unhinged Nikki Cross and told a compelling story with Ember Moon of Asuka starting to retain her title by any means necessary. Unfortunately, Asuka’s title reign would come to an end somewhat prematurely as an injury would force her to vacate the title after a record 522 days holding it. Whether or not this was a good thing is down to your perspective. On the one hand, this allowed her to drop the title without losing her undefeated streak that immediately gave her an aura of indestructibility when she debuted on Raw later in the year. However, it also meant that no-one in NXT got to benefit from being the one to finally topple Asuka, which could’ve instantly made a new star-like Kairi Sane or Shayna Baszler.

Regardless of how it ended, there’s no denying that Asuka’s title reign was one of the best while it was happening. She looked incredibly strong at every turn and was able to build up her opponents’ standing in the eyes of the fans, even when she was beating them. She really did it all.

2 – Adam Cole

Days as Champion: 403
Successful Title Defences: 11
Best Match As Champion: vs Johnny Gargano at NXT Takeover: XXV

For Cole, you essentially take everything I said about Asuka, add a large handful of the greatest matches in NXT history, and you’ve got your answer as to Cole’s position on this list.

From the moment The Undisputed Era appeared in NXT, they have been absolutely beloved by the fans, and with good reason. Although they are some of the more despicable heels of NXT’s current generation, they have this undeniable cool factor to them that you just can’t help but love. Their entrance music is basic but carries this swagger to it that dramatically enhances their walk down to the ring, and ‘Adam Cole Bay-Bay’ is one of the most fun things to yell as part of a live crowd.

When Gargano had his crowning moment at Takeover: New York, there was the feeling that maybe it should’ve been Cole’s time to shine. In hindsight, giving Gargano a run with the title, even a fleeting one, was the right move, because Cole didn’t suffer even a tiny bit from having to wait an extra couple of months. As soon as Cole won the title, he began his incredible work at the top. The title looked so perfect around his waist, and he put in some incredible work as champion.

Straight away he defended the title against NXT UK star Zack Gibson, and Akira Tozowa at Evolve’s 10th-anniversary show, which was a great showcase. He then put an end to his epic feud with Gargano in a three stages of hell match that was as over-the-top as it was brilliant fun to watch. From there, Cole ran through everyone who stepped in his way, often with the help of The Undisputed Era, but quite a few on his own merit. During this time, The Undisputed Era fulfilled their ‘golden prophecy’ where every title in the NXT men’s division was held by a member of the faction.

After a good feud with Matt Riddle, November 2019 rolled around and NXT was to be included in the brand warfare for Survivor Series, alongside Raw & Smackdown, which was a big deal. Cole showed up on Smackdown, and not only had a fantastic 20-minute match with Daniel Bryan but won the damn thing as clean as you’d like. Cole was one of the NXT stars who put on an incredible double-performance that weekend, participating in a brutal WarGames match, before defending his title against Pete Dunne in what was easily the best match of the night.

Cole continued to lead NXT into the new year, and even in the pandemic era, Cole put on some of the best matches out of everyone on the brand. He took out a returning Finn Balor and a returning Tommaso Ciampa in matches that were much-hyped, long-awaited and didn’t disappoint. His feud against Velveteen Dream defined a good chunk of the spring and was one of the highlights of that period until his reign would finally come to an end at Keith Lee’s hands in July.

Cole’s run at the top of NXT was the kind that hadn’t been seen in the men’s division of NXT for a long time, and it was sorely needed as many of the top stars moved on to the main roster. Cole and The Undisputed Era dominated NXT for so long, and yet it never got tiring, and they never felt boring, it’s no wonder that almost as soon as Cole dropped the title, the group turned face, people are desperate to cheer these guys. It defined NXT for a long time and put to bed any doubts about whether a guy like Cole could really be a top star.

1 – Shayna Baszler

Days as Champion: 1st Reign – 132; 2nd Reign – 416
Successful Title Defences: 1st Reign – 3; 2nd Reign – 8
Best Match As Champion: vs Kairi Sane at NXT Takeover: Brooklyn 4

There’s no way it could’ve been anyone else. Asuka may have had an undefeated streak, Cole may have had the cool factor, but no-one felt as indestructible and dominant during their time as champion as Shayna Baszler.

After being the runner up in the first Mae Young Classic, Shayna ended up jumping the gun on winner Kairi Sane and took the title from Ember Moon in reasonably dominant fashion almost as soon as she arrived on NXT. Many people at the time were expecting Ember Moon to pick up where Asuka left off and have a lengthy run as champion, but Baszler shocked everyone by putting an end to that early. In all honesty, Baszler’s first run with the title was nowhere near as great as her second, however, even though many of her matches weren’t the best, her character work was second to none. She came into her dominant, cocky (but could back it up) and nasty persona so easily, and it would only grow.

Baszler lost the title to Kairi Sane at Takeover: Brooklyn 4 in what is one of my favourite Takeover matches ever, but quickly took it back in another brilliant match at Evolution. This is where Baszler started to use fellow former MMA stars, Jessamine Duke & Marina Shafir, as her entourage who would interfere in matches for her, adding to her aura of indestructibility. NXT show so much restraint with heel groups interfering matches so that, when they do, it almost always serves the story in a way that enhances it, not diminished it as we see on Raw & Smackdown all the time.

From here, Shayna’s dominance and heelish persona would grow and grow, to the point where the NXT audience could cheer for just about anyone, even heels if they went up against Baszler. She understood how to get under a crowd’s skin both in promos and during matches, without sacrificing the in-ring action’s quality. She also had the fantastic ability to look vulnerable without ever looking weak. In all of her battles with women like Io Shirai, Kairi Sane or Bianca Belair, you felt like maybe they were just an inch away from toppling Baszler, and maybe if they had just one more shot they could do it, but Baszler still came out on top every single time.

Finally, Baszler’s reign actually got to feel complete by the time it ended. Not only had she torn through the NXT women’s division and beaten everyone there is to beat, but she actually got to lose the title to a fast-rising star, so someone gets to benefit from everything she built up. Rhea Ripley became a star pretty much overnight, and the timing was perfect for her to be the one to finally put an end to almost two years of Baszler’s dominance. The moment when Rhea won the title was a fantastic climax and one of the highlights of 2019, and that was only possible thanks to the unmatched title reign Baszler had leading up to it.

While Baszler was champion she had the best matches, did the best character work, elevated everyone she stepped in the ring with, and capped it all off by making a brand new white-hot star in Rhea Ripley. That, my friends, is what a perfect title reign looks like.

So there you have it! Thank you very much for taking the time to read this post. As another reminder, I will be going live very shortly after this article is posted, so please check out https://www.twitch.tv/strongstylesmark if you haven’t already. Finally, make sure to come back here this time next week, where my coverage of the Royal Rumble will begin with predictions!