If you were to ask me what my all-time favorite wrestling games are, I’d give you two answers: Aki’s efforts on the Nintendo 64, and the Fire Pro Wrestling franchise. Those answers haven’t changed for 20 years, and that’s because—to me, and many others—they remain the best examples we’ve seen of developers truly understanding the sport of wrestling and how to translate it to the world of video games.
My love for the Fire Pro series begin with Fire ProWrestling S: 6Men Scramble, an import-only title on the Sega Saturn that was incredibly intimidating to me at the time due to its crazy amount of options (not to mention kanji). As I slowly dug my way through the game using a printed-out FAQ and a lot of persistence, Fire ProWrestling S opened my eyes: I never knew wrestling games could be so in-depth, so satisfyingly complex, and so fun. There were no real wrestlers in the game (at least officially), no flashy entrance videos or theme songs, nor any real element that connected it to and brands or promotions I knew of. The thing was, it didn’t need any of that. Fire ProWrestling S, for me, was about using the versatile character creator to create my own federation and roster, and then coming up with the stories and situations that played out in that world.
With some knowledge of and experience with the series under my belt, five years later I moved on to Fire Pro Wrestling D on the Dreamcast, followed by Fire Pro Wrestling Returns on the PlayStation 2 in 2007. The latter of those titles is important for two reasons: first, because it was the only console Fire Pro game ever released in North America (the abomination that was the Xbox 360 “Fire Pro” game notwithstanding); and second, because it would be the last Fire Pro game anyone around the world would get for 12 years (see previous comment).
The good—and bad—of Fire Pro Wrestling World is that you’ll be very familiar with it if you were around for Fire Pro Wrestling Returns, as not a lot has changed on a base level. Exhibition match choices remain the same—standard matches, cage matches, barbed wire or landmine deathmatches, SWA rules matches, “gruesome” fights (MMA), or S-1 Rules fights (K-1)—along with options for tournaments, league play, or battle royals. The thing is, if I were to complain about World needing more depth to its modes, I’m not actually sure what I’d suggest. For example, when setting up a tournament, you decide between its number of participants (4, 8, 16, or 32), the type of matches that it’ll run, and then if the tournament rules call for singles, tag team, 6-man, 8-man, or mixed competitions. When you stop to think about it, that’s a lot of options presented for just one mode, and there’s then so much more to be configured when jumping into the settings menu for any particular match. So, we’re not exactly left wanting for variety here.
There are a few new additions in Fire Pro Wrestling World, however, the biggest of which is the ability to play online. Having an online mode in Fire Pro is strange and frightening to me, and unlike my crusade to get internet support into as many fighting games as possible, I’m not really sure I need it here. It’s nice to have though, and from my limited time with the mode (due to waiting for the day-one patch), it’s decent but limited. The main concern I had was lag, given how heavily gameplay is based around timing, but that hasn’t actually been a problem in my testing (though I know it has been for others). Instead, the issue I ran into was basic movement, as the game trying to keep things synced can cause it to feel at times like you’re almost walking on ice.
Jumping over to the offline portion of Fire Pro Wrestling World, your first stop should be the all-new Mission Mode. This option gives a much-needed introduction to how to play through a series of step-by-step tutorials, and then offers up challenges that reward you with some additional moves for your custom wrestlers. I really like the idea, but it admittedly could be more helpful than it is. The training missions don’t really tell you everything you need to know about the game’s required controls and techniques, and some of the challenges may be hard to decipher from the paltry explanations you’re given. The other big new feature Spike Chunsoft presents here is Fighting Road, which brings two things to the franchise that are nearly unthinkable to a Fire Pro fan like myself: the inclusion of licenced brands/wrestlers, and the offering of a more in-depth (not to mention wonderfully silly) story mode.
While Fire Pro hasn’t been completely devoid of real-world connections in the past—a few of the games have featured faces from the Japanese joshi(women’s) wrestling scene—this is the first time, to my knowledge, that any of the included male wrestlers have been official recreations. Sure, we’ve unofficially had the likes of Hulk Hogan, Terry Funk, Stan Hansen, Big Van Vader (rest in peace), and others in previous games, but they were always changed just enough in name and appearance to avoid legal repercussions. Anyone who knows Japanese wrestling knows New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW), and Fire Pro Wrestling World includes many of its biggest faces and factions, from the infamous Kenny Omega and the Bullet Club, to Kazuchika Okada and CHAOS, to Tetsuya Naito and Los Ingobernables de Japon, to Minoru Suzuki and Suzuki-gun.
The collaboration with NJPW for Fire Pro Wrestling World is honestly pretty awesome. Fire Pro has always excelled at giving players the options to recreate their favorite superstars as faithfully as possible, but obviously those custom creations can never be perfect. So, it’s nice to have the Sanada, the Taka Michinoku, and so on. Plus, if you’re a newbie to NJPW, then this game serves as a not-too-shabby introduction to the federation and its stars.
The problem—and, as of this moment, the only real disappointment I have with Fire Pro Wrestling World—is that that collection of official wrestlers comes at the expense of the unofficial ones. Whereas Fire Pro Wrestling Returns’ roster came packed with 327 members, here we’re given a paltry 69 (split between 39 NJPW members and 30 completely fictional “Spike Wrestling Association” creations). At the end of the day, given you can create any wrestler that you want, it’s not a devastating loss. Still, there is something nice about not having to put in the time and effort to add those random wrestlers yourself, and seeing how cut down the included roster is does make you feel like something is missing from the experience.
Thankfully, there is a fantastic solution presented to help with this problem: firepro-w.com. After logging into the official Fire Pro Wrestling World website using your PSN account (accessible either on a computer, smart device, or right in the game itself), you’re presented with an already-extensive collection of user-generated content, from real and fantasy wrestlers to logos and banners for use when making your own custom rings. With only a few clicks, the created content is linked to your account and automatically downloaded to your copy of the game the next time it’s launched. That would be a great feature in itself, but Spike Chunsoft takes the idea one step further by having you subscribe to those items. Under this system, if the creator of an item you’ve snagged later updates it in some way, that update will automatically download to your game.
And what a game it is. If the basic gameplay in Fire Pro Wrestling World hasn’t majorly changed in all of that time since its PS2 predecessor, it’s because it didn’t need to. Twenty-two years after I first experienced this particular style of wrestling game, matches are still incredibly fun, endlessly thrilling, and deeply satisfying. A huge part of that is the franchise’s dedication to timing over button mashing, where it’s not how rapidly you can move your thumb, but when you do so. A huge chunk of Fire Pro’s moveset happens after grappling with your opponent, and the player who properly times their button press with the finalization of the lock-up is the one to have their move executed. Well, it’s timing, and knowing when to use what strength of technique. The system rewards playing smart, as well-executed offense is the key to opening your opponent up to more damaging moves that’ll get you closer to a win. Fire Pro Wrestling World also requires some thought on another level at the same time, due to the fact that there’s no on-screen information presented beyond the time clock. What condition is your wrestler in? What about your opponent? Is now a good time to go for your finisher? You can only answer those kinds of questions by reading the flow of the match, which in turn helps you become a more competent player.
If Fire Pro Wrestling World’s seemingly simple gameplay system hides the true depth waiting below its surface, so too does its graphics. Absolutely, Fire Pro games will never sell themselves through screenshots, but they aren’t supposed to. Every graphical element that has been created exists to serve the game engine and its wealth of options, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. (I’ve played far too many wrestling games where amazing visuals were used to mask terrible gameplay.) And, you know, I’m not sure the series’ visual style will ever lose its charm in my eyes, as quality sprite work can still bring games to life in a way polygons never will. The game has also never looked as good, thanks to the team completely reworking the graphics for the jump to HD. I’m not sure the exact technique Spike Chunsoft used—as in, if these are old sprites run through some sort of process, or if they’re brand new assets—but the results are better than I expected. Bigger, too, at least in terms of the presentation of each wrestler on screen. All those little visual flourishes fans have come to expect are still there as well, from the cockiness of a particular taunt, to the animation details when performing actions like climbing the turnbuckle, to out-of-the-ring aspects like the crowds and commentators.
Another much-appreciated upgrade to the visuals in Fire Pro Wrestling Worldare its user interface. Going back and forth between this and Fire Pro Wrestling Returns really hit home just how much better things are now. The menu system of Returns already wasn’t what I’d call great, and then trying to rework everything for its English release resulted in a real mess. World, in contrast, is incredibly slick and usable, which is thankful given how often you’ll be digging into menus or jumping from one active window to another.
Which, of course, takes us to Fire Pro Wrestling World’s character creator. Across all of gaming’s genres, it’s hard to think of too many other titles that offer character creators as deep or satisfying as Fire Pro, because the sheer potential of what’s possible here really is unbelievable. After giving your wrestler some standard profile details—name, nationality, height, weight, things like that—you basically build them from the ground up, fully customizing their look, entire roster of moves, offensive and defensive parameters, their skill level at the various requirements of wrestling, and their behavioral settings for when they’re controlled by the CPU instead of a human. Like before, there are also other elements you can customize to your liking, from forming federations and factions, to designing your own rings and title belts, to—should it tickle your fancy—even making your own referees.
Fire Pro Wrestling World offers up a few revisions to character creation that make a world of different. For one, you can now have a wealth of options all on screen at once, giving quick access to the main presets, a preview of how your wrestler is looking, the edit pieces for their body, and which outfit choice you’re editing. (Yes, you can now have multiple outfits per wrestler!) You can swap between your character’s stance or rotate a particular edit piece from every possible angle, both of which greatly help in making sure things are looking right. Another update that is an absolute godsend is that—when looking through the sprawling lists of parts such as faces, torsos, accessories, and so on—there’s now a built-in filtering system you can use to drill down to only the specific kinds of choices you’re looking for.
The other major change in character creation is an incredibly expanded focus on layers. In previous Fire Pro games, many items (such as clothing pieces) came as singular edit pieces. Now, Spike Chunsoft has broken a lot of those pieces up into their individual components. In order to facilitate this change, the number of layers any singular body section can have at one time has been greatly increased to nine. I was a little shocked at this change at first, and wasn’t sure that I was liking all the extra work involved. It quickly became apparent, however, just how much more power I as a creator now have under this new system. For example, as you can see below, I picked a random mask in Fire Pro Wrestling Returns and then set out to create something similar in World. Instead of having hard-coded style choices with only two editable layers on the pre-built mask, the one I put one together has five (with the ability for more), and I can swap any of them out for another option to create an even more customized component.
The switch to this new layer system is incredibly powerful for those who love to dig into the character creator, but it also reminds me of how holy crap intimidating all of this can be. No matter how many other wrestler creators you’ve used, none of them will have prepared you for what it’s like in Fire Pro—and that difference can be completely overwhelming even for longtime players like myself. Making just one wrestler can be a commitment not of minutes but hours or even days, and it can sometimes feel like the effort just isn’t worth it. It is, though, I promise you. Every moment you spend with Fire Pro Wrestling World’s editor will pay dividends, either in experience, gained understanding, or a new addition to your slowly-growing roster. The more time, effort, and energy you put into the game, the more you’ll be able to get back out of it, and that payoff quickly becomes obvious.
Fire Pro Wrestling World is not a perfect game, and there are definitely areas that could use improvement over time. Some I’ve already mentioned, others I haven’t, such as some occasional frustration due to buttons being assigned to far too many actions (leading to times when you want to do one thing but instead do another). What it is, however, is the best wrestling video game experience we’ve received so far this generation—and it’ll still be the best next year, and the year after that, and probably the year after that. (I’ll be overjoyed if something comes along to make me eat those words, but I’m not holding my breath.)
If the game existed only as what we get on a disc or a download at this point in its life, those words would still be true. However, unlike all previous Fire Pro titles, Spike Chunsoft now has the ability to give players more in the days, months, and years ahead, which we already know will be happening at the very least a few upcoming DLC expansions. So, after 12 years of darkness, the soul of the Fire Pro series, and the wrestling genre in general, is now burning brighter than ever—and I couldn’t be happier.
Update: Literally as I was getting this review set up for posting, a new 1.03 patch was released for the game, promising fixes for the frame rate issues when playing on PlayStation 4. After trying a handful of more complex match types using this new patch, the issues I had previously experienced do seem to be cleared up. While I’m no longer including concerns over the game’s frame rate in my review, I do still want to note that I’ve not had extensive enough playtime post-patch to be 100-percent certain there aren’t any such issues still lingering.
In an era when so many other wrestling games continue to focus on style over substance, a legendary Japanese franchise returns to remind its rivals of how things should be done. While Fire Pro Wrestling World isn’t without room for fixes or improvements, it’s still by far the best video game wrestling experience to arrive in recent memory. It’s been 12 years since the last proper Fire Pro game, but it was absolutely worth the wait.
T – Teen
|Fire Pro Wrestling World is available on PlayStation 4 and PC. Primary version played was for PlayStation 4. Product was provided by Spike Chunsoft for the benefit of this coverage. EGM reviews on a scale of one to five stars.|
Mollie got her start in games media via the crazy world of gaming fanzines, and now works at EGM with the goal of covering all of the weird Japanese and niche releases that nobody else on staff cares about. She’s active in the gaming community on a personal level, and an outspoken voice on topics such as equality in gaming, consumer rights, and good UI. Check her out on Twitter and Mastodon.