In 1996, pro wrestling video games changed forever. Syn Sophia, known at the time as The Man Breeze, and eventually canonized in video game legend as AKI Corporation, would introduce North America to a 3D wrestling sim designed to recreate the spectacle of the wrestling we were watching on TV. WCW vs the World was an awkward adaptation of Ted Turner’s circus, really only resembling the promotion superficially, with match types and features more akin to Japanese wrestling. It also wasn’t as popular as it’s sequel, WCW vs nWo: World Tour, which is the most direct descendant to No Mercy, Smackdown! vs RAW, and the 2K games. But Americans would never look at wrestling games the same again from then on.
To say that the Fire Pro series, debuting way back in 1989, existed in the shadow of AKI-style games overstates their impact outside of Japan. It wasn’t until 2001 that Americans could even buy an entry in the series on their Gameboy Advances. It didn’t hit a major console until Fire Pro Wrestling Returns on the PS2 in 2007. Even when a stripped down version launched on the Xbox 360, the only people talking about Fire Pro were the curatorial types who bemoaned what the series was becoming, and longed for the grappling game of yesteryear.
So Fire Pro Wrestling World making this much noise probably comes as a justifiable shock to most people. To let that shock stop them from at least going a few rounds would be an inexcusable mistake. It isn’t for everyone, but Fire Pro Wrestling World is such a unique take on pro wrestling that it should be required reading for anyone in a WWE malaise.
That malaise refers to both the video games and the live product. The WWE is a big tent spectacle that can create memorable characters, but may often sacrifice the ring performances and nuance for big headlines. Fire Pro, a series with no real affiliation with wrestling promotions in the past, has always put the ringwork first, with its modest production value and limited singleplayer offerings. World flips a bit of that script, teaming up with New Japan Pro Wrestling, Japan’s big show, in order to bring real names to the faces they’ve been making generic store brand versions of for years.
The alignment is somewhat poetic, as NJPW has seen its North American interest grow exponentially in such a short amount of time. Some of this is due to how well foreigners have been featured there. Their current heavyweight champion, Kenny Omega, is Canadian. In 2015, American independent circuit darling and current WWE champion AJ Styles was their champ. Before that, you gotta go all the way back to 2005 to find a North American champion in Brock Lesnar.
But there’s been a growing resistance to the WWE’s style of wrestling and talent management that has found fans looking elsewhere for their athletic dramas. NJPW is easier to consume now than it’s ever been, and they focus far more on in ring athletics then out-of-ring dramatics. The WWE games find themselves in a holding pattern with a similar, repellent effect. Lack of competition has trapped virtual wrestling fans in a sort of rest hold, with no alternative to get their fix, save for just not buying the next 2K game all together.
At the very least, FPWW will break that cycle.
At its core, FPWW is a simple game. It’s isometric art doesn’t look too many steps removed from its PC Engine/Famicom origins. Stages are awkwardly shaped, crowds are static, the hud is clunky, the soundtrack is limited, etc. Even it’s big NJPW endorsement can’t shake Spike Chunsoft’s commitment to no-frills wrestling action.
It’s a simplicity you come to appreciate during an actual match. The face buttons are your light, medium, and heavy attacks. Just standing and hitting these whips out strikes, usually of gradually increasing power. When two characters touch, they initiate a lock up, where pressing one of those buttons at the right time initiates a move. The timing is very precise, and it can be hard to know what you’re doing wrong when playing against tough AI or other players. Through practice, you’ll reduce it down to some nebulous “feel” and will just know how to clobber faces.
The straight forward nature of the system is refreshing, if not a bit confusing. Like most wrestling games, where you are in a ring can change the context of the moves you do. Walking into the corner and pressing a button should do something different than standing far away from it, but sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes, diving moves and especially strikes look like they’re in range but will often whiff. It can feel like there is no great way to determine hitboxes, and it can be frustrating knowing that you’re mostly just going to ignore those whole sections of your moveset.
Without active reversals, the AI will determine if you’ve hurt your opponent enough to finish the move you’ve started. The easiest way to wear them down is light grapples and strikes, gradually moving towards heavy ones. This emphasizes playing strategically, and really feels like your matches are going through stages, just like the live product. When you and the opponent are throwing desperate haymakers and jockeying for that lucky finishing move, the Tokyo Dome drama is real.
As a competitive game, it can be hit or miss. With so many of the factors left up to chance or hidden (like limb damage) it’s not hard to make someone feel completely powerless in a game if they aren’t an advanced player. These features clearly have a single player slant, where things can feel a little less unfair.
Ironically, for a game so well designed to play alone, it’s new-to-the-series single player mode, Fighter’s Road, is a botch. It features many top NJPW stars playing as mentors, trainers, and rivals while you bring a young rookie up the ranks to superstardom. It adopts a visual novel approach, and while the writing isn’t the worst, it’s a largely non-interactive affair. Characters just talk at you, and the middling dialogue choices you’re given from time to time don’t seem to have much of an effect on the progression of the story. It’s becomes a chore to read after awhile, especially during the sections where you aren’t actually interacting with the FPWW versions of Tetsuya Naito or Kazuchika Okada.
It serves as a great way to get that previously mentioned experience, though. You’ll play hundreds of matches, while periodically training stats and adjusting your movesets as you gain new moves. It teaches you how your raw talents and your wrestling style relates to the moves you’re doing, and gives you some guidance on choosing moves that will be most effective based on your training. By the time you leave Fighter’s Road, you’ll be like Neo in The Matrix.
And about those moves you’ll be learning—there’s a lot of them. Hundreds of them, even. And every single one of them is well animated. Big suplexes and crazy aerial spins capture the essence of wrestling so well that it almost makes you more impressed that real, living humans do this shit for a living. On multiple occasions, I’ve found myself just paging through the master list of moves and watching them in motion. It’s something Fire Pro is known for, and it’s still some of the best work in any game, from any genre.
Outside of Fighter’s Road, the character creation suite is also among the best in the genre. It always has been, and even though World doesn’t add anything new in the way of how you create characters, the expanded faces and layering tools means that the only limit to what sort of colorful wrestlers you can make or mimic is your imagination. The CPU logic is also tweakable, meaning that two wrestlers with similar movesets won’t fight alike if you don’t want them to. For CAW collectors, this is a godsend.
To just nakedly recommend Fire Pro Wrestling World as the 2K alternative you’ve been waiting for would be reckless. I’d say the same for claiming New Japan is the panacea to your WWE woes. They both have crunchy bits that may be hard to digest to wrestling fans accustomed to our style of wrestling. But if you are willing to look past and work through some of its flaws and up it’s steep learning curve, there is an a whole new world of wrestling that will give back what you’re willing to put into it.
This game was reviewed on a Standard PlayStation 4 system with a review code provided by Spike Chunsoft.