If you've ever been a fan of Extreme Championship Wrestling, chances are you've got some great memories of the influential promotion. ECW was one of the true standouts of the wrestling industry, burning brightly for a few short years before eventually collapsing under its own weight. It began in 1994, as the former Eastern Championship Wrestling---based in my home state of Pennsylvania---took a sharp turn "to the extreme", changing its name and attitude under the direction of Paul Heyman. It enjoyed a cult-like following during the early years, building a reputation through local word-of-mouth and the fledgling Internet crowd (back when 28.8K modems were all the rage). I'd heard of it by 1995 and was lucky enough to catch it at some God-awful hour on a local access network every week.
Despite living within two hours of ECW headquarters in Philadelphia, I only went to one live event in 1998. It was a great evening highlighted by memorable matches, a near-riot started by The Dudley Boyz, and even buying dinner for Al Snow and Jerry Lynn after the show. During the next few years, ECW took a turn for the worse. Money was down, checks bounced, and some of ECW's brightest stars had no choice but to abandon ship. It wasn't long before the company went bankrupt, with all the rights and original footage being bought by WWE president Vince McMahon. Fans still wore the T-shirts, made signs and chanted the promotion's name, but ECW was nothing more than a memory once it went under.
Under the WWE umbrella, ECW enjoyed partial resurrection in the form of a pay-per-view (One Night Stand, 2005) and several DVDs highlighting well-known matches. Other releases like The Rise and Fall of ECW attempted to document what exactly went wrong, giving fans a rare glimpse behind the curtain of the little company that almost could. ECW Unreleased, Volume 1 splits the difference, serving up 20 classic matches and a few history lessons with commentator extraordinaire Joey Styles (who, in many ways, was just as much of a mouthpiece for the company as Paul Heyman). Bottom line: if you're relatively new to the world of ECW, this is a great starting point...and if you're a seasoned fan, there's still plenty here to enjoy. Before we get to the technical stuff, let's take a look at the matches:
From start to finish, there are tons of great matches here...and basically no bad ones, seeing as how ECW never bothered with a Divas division. Perhaps the best of the bunch are Dean Malenko & 2 Cold Scorpio (AKA "Flash Funk") vs. Taz(z) & Eddie Guerrero [from Heat Wave '95), Shane Douglas vs. Cactus Jack [Cyberslam '96], Rob Van Dam & Sabu vs. The Eliminators [Cyberslam '97], RVD vs. Jerry Lynn [Hardcore TV August '98], Mike "Mullet" Awesome vs. Masato Tanaka [November to Remember '99], Rhino vs. Spike Dudley [Massacre on 34th Street '00] and Yoshihiro Tajiri & Mikey Whipwreck vs. Kid Kash & Super Crazy vs. The FBI [Guilty as Charged '01]. Even the less impressive matches deserve to be here, as most of them have some sort of historical significance: the best example is Tommy Dreamer vs. the WWE-bound Taz (Cyberslam '00, seen up top), which WWE banned from TV due to the outcome.
As a side note, it should be mentioned that a few of these matches have undergone minor audio edits. Several of the wrestlers' entrance themes (such as The Sandman's, for example) have been replaced due to rights issues; it's unfortunate, but understandable given the circumstances. Other changes are more disappointing, including the removal of a few infamous crowd chants (not surprising, since this release sports a "TV-14" rating). It's a pretty bone-headed move on WWE's part...but seeing as how their own product has been watered down to "PG" for the last few years, it's better than nothing. One last nitpick: a number of these matches have already been available on previous ECW DVDs (mostly the long out-of-print Pioneer releases), which makes this release's "unreleased" claims fairly questionable. But hey, this wouldn't be the first time WWE has casually rewritten history in their favor, would it?
Video & Audio Quality
Despite the obvious technical limitations of the source material, Unreleased, Volume 1 looks pretty good overall. These vintage matches are presented in their original 1.33:1 aspect ratio and have been pillarboxed for 16x9 displays; new bookends with Joey Styles are presented in 1.78:1 format. Most of the older matches fare slightly better than fans might remember; they're not pretty and polished, but they weren't meant to be. The only problems not related to the source material are mild amounts of pixellation and compression artifacts, but these digital imperfections don't seem to be overly distracting. A separate Blu-Ray release is available, but I can't imagine that it adds much in the way of detail or clarity.
The audio presentation is obviously less immersive than implied; it's presented in Dolby Digital 5.1, but ECW fans know it's always been a mono affair. This center-driven audio is thankfully preserved, while scene transitions and new segments with Joey Styles only expand the soundstage slightly. This isn't a problem at all, especially if you're at all familiar with the source material. It's unfortunate about the slight music and "atmosphere" changes (mentioned above), but what's presented here sounds roughly on par with past ECW releases. Unfortunately, no Closed Captioning or subtitle options have been included.
Packaging, Presentation & Menu Design
Seen above, the lightly animated menu designs are smooth and easy to navigate. The main feature has been divided into more than two dozen chapters (see the match listing above), while no obvious layer changes were detected during playback. As usual, a number of trailers and warnings must be endured before the main menu can be accessed. This three-disc release is housed in a fold-out digipak case; no inserts or slipcover are included, but a helpful chapter and match list has been printed inside.
Nothing, although the Blu-Ray release includes a few extra matches. It's pretty disappointing that WWE continues to use this tactic, especially on a title that wouldn't benefit much from a high-def bump.
The questionably named ECW Unreleased may have its fair share of faults (including a TV-14 rating, for starters), but it's still loaded with hours upon hours of great wrestling for under $30...and slightly more, if you opt for the Blu-Ray. This is a thoughtful three-disc package that hardcore wrestling enthusiasts will enjoy, but newcomers are invited to the party as well. With any luck, we'll see more Unreleased installments in the future; for now, WWE serves up a strong amount of content with a solid technical presentation that largely preserves the scruffy, standard-def source material. Recommended.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey based in Harrisburg, PA. He also does freelance design projects, teaches art classes and runs a few websites in his spare time. Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs and writing stuff in third person.