It’s not often I begin a review with a confession. But I have to just come out and say it - I still watch professional wrestling now and then. The mere mention of those two words can still conjure up a whole bunch of differing trigger reactions in people. "It’s fake!", some will cry, as if just discovering some great revelation the general public has been blind to all this time. "It’s for kids!", others will howl, forgetting that the WWE’s Attitude Era was very much a thing. "It’s gay!", yet more will scream, highlighting that their own shitty world-views might pose a larger problem than the continued survival of an imitation sport. So why the continued cult appeal for the stuff? Why does a travelling roadshow, involving projected tough guys and gals simulating the beating of crap out of each other in a ring, still garner a significant following and a primetime TV presence? The answer is surprisingly simple - it’s because of the stories. And I don’t necessarily mean those stories. Not the ones involving angry men without shirts on yelling into a camera about how their hated rival is gonna get theirs (which, to this day, are still often pretty cringey to watch). I mean the stories inside the ring - the matches themselves.
To suggest that wrestling is fake is a moot point. That cat’s been out of the bag since at least the mid-90s, and it hasn’t exactly killed the business either. Even if the punches are pulled (for the most part) and the outcomes of every bout are predetermined, the actual details of the ‘fight’ - not to mention, who actually wins - are still left as unknowns for the spectator. Fill in those blanks with a spectacle that combines athleticism, drama and a surprising amount of improvisation, and that’s pro-wrestling in a nutshell. The key to a great match, therefore, is to get the most out of these three pillars; often those who can are the ones who earn a place at the top of the industry. The formula might not apply all of the time - after all, Vince McMahon and the WWE seem to have always loved a guy who looked the part, whether they have skills or not - but it’s still a great yardstick. Condensing all your ‘roid-fuelled rage into a three-minute monologue on camera can only get you so far. Ultimately, it’s the in-ring performances that count. The match, above all else, is king.
For years, this is exactly what the Fire Pro Wrestling series of video games has been trying - and largely succeeding - to put a focus on. If you’ve never heard of Fire Pro before, don’t be alarmed. It’s a series that has spent much of its lifespan in Japan only, with only a small handful of titles getting a Western release. But since its first outing in 1989 (Fire Pro Wrestling Combination Tag for the PC Engine), it’s developed a reputation for being a top grappler. Early efforts to set itself apart from the pack may have centered around some impressively large rosters to choose from (which may have also involved some pretty flagrant copyright violations). But its unique style of gameplay, and most importantly, its insistence that the quality of the match you put on was just as important as getting victories, really put it into a league of its own. Both its depth and twist on the genre meant that Fire Pro ended up earning quite the cult following for itself outside of Japan. After a couple of successful Game Boy Advance titles, Fire Pro Wrestling Returns - widely considered the best in the series - landed Stateside on the PS2 in late 2007.
So why the history lesson about a game series you’ve never heard of til now? Well this latest outing isn’t just another rare Western release - it’s also based around the same gameplay and features as Returns. This might be thought of as a cheap cop-out to make some money out of gamers who are a bit over-zealous about an obscure Japanese wrestling sim, but it isn’t. Fire Pro Wrestling World’s release on the PC - which comes, critically, under Steam - can be classed as a Very Good Thing Indeed for any grapple fan. Because not only does World bring a refined version of Returns’ challenging mechanics and clever simulation, it also brings along Returns’ greatest attraction: an edit mode that runs deeper than anything even the current WWE 2k games have to offer.
In other words, wrestling modders, your dream tool is here.
Despite its initially bland 2-D appearance, Fire Pro Wrestling World also plays similarly to some of the N64 grapplers of old. Think WCW vs NWO: Revenge or WWF No Mercy and you won’t be too far with how this game feels to play on initial impression. There are a couple of major differences though. Unlike those Nintendo classics, you don’t need to press a button to lock up with your foe - just move within the vicinity of your opponent and you’ll automatically start a grapple. The second major difference is also Fire Pro’s main gameplay quirk - when setting up a move, you have to make sure you time the button presses exactly right to pull it off. There’s an arbitrary split-second of time you have to sense for to nail this timing, and it can be incredibly frustrating at first to master. Fortunately, the game does provide a tutorial for you to figure it out. Once you do, it becomes clear just where the battle in Fire Pro Wrestling World’s matches are won - in rhythm and momentum.
Getting the grapple timing right means you’re now in the flow of a match, and it’s surprising just how close a contest here can reflect those in real life. Instead of pulling out the flashy moves right off the bat, the key is to work your way up, move by move, to gain control of the bout. Certain areas of the body can be targeted as well, allowing wrestlers to take advantage of weak spots to get that elusive win. But stamina also plays a key part. Controls also include a ‘breathe’ button, a vital component in sustaining your fighter’s energy as the match goes by. Bust a few too many powerful moves out at once and your wrestler will be breathing harder than an asthmatic pensioner, making them vulnerable to attack and leaving them on the deck longer when they are. Thus, careful management needs to be maintained between your offensive output and your reserve. Then on top of all of that, you then have that final match rating to worry about. Keep your match varied and interesting with big moments at just the right times, and you’ll nail that all-crucial 100% rating. Anything less, at least in the Fire Pro world, is a missed opportunity at greatness.
It might all sound daunting, initially - and it is. And it might also seem a little bit similar in gameplay style to the recent WWE 2K games too. But Fire Pro’s edge over those titles is one of quality rather than innovation. While the learning curve can be unforgiving, each early defeat feels like an education rather than simple punishment. Better yet, the struggle in each match feels much more natural than in 2K’s counterparts. Whereas the finish of a standard 2K match always seems to follow the same pattern - bust out a special move, then go for the finisher - Fire Pro’s climaxes can become thrilling, do-or-die affairs. The AI offers a stiff challenge on higher difficulty levels, amd it also retains an amount of unpredictability, too - meaning the fight to that critical 3-count is always a solid, engaging battle.
It definitely doesn’t have the AAA factor of the WWE 2K franchise - or a single polygon in sight, for that matter - but Fire Pro Wrestling World’s graphics are at least functional and distinct. The style is firmly in the territory of a ‘16-bit HD’ mishmash, but the animations of your on-screen grapplers as they perform death-defying top rope splashes and assault each other with weapons ringside still possess plenty of character.
Critically, it’s a good enough visual foundation for the game’s edit mode - easily the best thing about the whole thing - to truly shine. Fire Pro’s edit modes have been the stuff of legends for years now, but World’s sheer depth of character customization really does make for one of the finest creation tools ever. Male or female, there are literally hundreds of items to choose from in any category you could think of, from faces to apparel and patterns to go on both. You’re not stuck with giving your creation endless repetitions of John Cena logos here. Then there’s the matter of choosing how they’ll fight - and at this point, Fire Pro truly goes all out. Creating a moveset for your new star can become a deeply involving task, given the sheer amount of variety in offense available. Essentially, any style of wrestler - luchador, submission specialist, powerhouse, villainous coward and even MMA fighter, can be conjured up from the options available. And if that wasn’t enough, Fire Pro even allows you edit the very AI of these creations, allowing them to behave in certain ways during certain moments in the match. If you wanted to allow your creation to always go for a 720 splash after hitting a Stunner, you can. If you’d rather have them go for weapons and dirty tactics to win a bout, you can. Those are just a couple of quirks you can give your edits for that extra bit of individuality. And it’s only just the tip on the iceberg of what else lies in the depths of a remarkable creation suite.
The flexibility of these options, and an online community leveraged via Steam, have provided the potent mix to launch Fire Pro Wrestling World’s user-created content into overdrive. As things stand, Fire Pro’s Steam Workshop currently boasts over 18,000 creations available for download. From global wrestling stars of the past and present, to video game characters and historical figures, you can tailor-make your dream roster to be as elite - or as goofy - as you like. If you ever wanted to see the titanic showdown of Abraham Lincoln, America’s finest president, against perennial community favourite, A BEAR (who is, unsurprisingly, a literal bear), then needless to say, this is the game you’ve been waiting for.
As a Steam Early Access title, there is admittedly a few rough edges that keep this from being an undisputed champ. In-ring play can suffer from some seriously dodgy collision detection, causing running attacks to completely miss on occasion, while simple punching and kicking descend into daft air-boxing as opponents continuously circle and miss each other. Being a Japanese game developed by a Japanese developer too, some of the English menu translations are a little obscure - especially when it comes to the darker depths of the edit tool. Lack of game modes seem to be currently compensated by the variety of matches you can put on, which do provide a lot of entertainment - steel cage, barbed-wire deathmatches and even bouts with MMA-style rules (octagon optional) are all available. But with a limit of 8 men in the ring at any time, anyone with a desire to kick off a 30-man battle royale, Royal Rumble style, is going to have to wait. That alone might be a good enough reason for wrestling addicts to stick with the 2K line for now. Another might just be how devoted the game is in its attention to detail. With its initially tricky controls, and the sheer unbridled depth of the creation suite, Fire Pro’s dedication to its craft might frustrate and intimidate more casual players from diving in.
That would be a real shame too, because there is so much fun to be had here - if you can navigate the sheer obsessiveness of it all. Whether brawling in the ring or building weird and wonderful new challengers, Fire Pro Wrestling World is the mecca wrestling nerds have been waiting for. Anyone with a preference for presentation and easier gameplay might want to pass it up. The hardcore, however, will find their grappler's paradise right here.
Fire Pro Wrestling World is currently available in Early Access on Steam.
Media utilized in article is property of: Spike Chunsoft