I should probably get this out of the way. I’m not really a wrestling fan and you’ll never catch me sitting down to watch it.
You’re probably wondering what someone who isn’t a wrestling fan is doing writing a review of a wrestling game. You’re probably also wondering why I would even want to play it in the first place. You’d be right to ask these questions, and you’d probably be right if you decided to stop reading right now. But, please, try to bear with me a moment!
The last time I watched a big wrestling match is when wrestler Rikishi ran Stone Cold over with a car. If you know your wrestling history, you’ll know that this was quite a long time ago. The only reason I even watched it is because my friend had recorded it on VCR (yep, that old) from a pay per view event. I found it quite entertaining to watch but given that I didn’t have Sky or the Internet at the time, it wasn’t something I was ever going to get into.
But even though I never really got into watching wrestling, I’ve always enjoyed playing the video games. The first game I really remember putting a lot of time into was WWF: Warzone. This was partly because it was hilarious playing Royal Rumble with a few of my friends, back when you all used to sit in the same room. Customising a wrestler to your heart’s content was fun, but for some reason, we found it funny to put for wrestlers in a ring wearing nothing but trunks. What can I say? We were young.
I was also into the Smackdown series, and I dabbled in W2K a couple of times. So, while I may not have an exhaustive knowledge of every wrestler since the controversial Hulk Hogan, or know what the name of every move is, I can still say I’ve played my fair share of wrestling games and, usually, thoroughly enjoyed them. The same can be said about Fire Pro Wrestling World, although it did take me longer than usual to realise that.
Originating in Japan in 1989, the Fire Pro Wrestling series has also built a cult following in the Western world. It’s mostly known for its time-based grappling system, as well as its highly detailed custom wrestler builder. Both are present in Fire Pro Wrestling World, with the strategy based grappling system making a welcome comeback since making the change to a button-mashing mini-game in the last game of the series, which was released on Xbox 360. Don’t expect the flashy 3D graphics that are present in the games heavily licensed big brothers, it’s a charming 2D sprite system instead.
The grappling system is where I hit my first roadblock. I jumped into a normal exhibition match in the games offline play mode, eager to kick the crap out of a random wrestler. Unfortunately, I got my ass handed to me, which made me quickly realise that simply bashing buttons was not the right way to play this game.
Instead, it’s a game based on strategy and timing. You need to go into the ring with a plan in mind, and you need to get the timing of your moves right or you’re always going to misfire. To my credit, the game tells you none of this. You’re left to figure it out on your own, and it if wasn’t for the fact that the game was released on Steam last year, I would have been a bit stuck at discovering how to play this game. The rock-hard challenge I was facing immediately put me off the game, and I was dreading playing even more hours to complete my review. Thankfully, after reading a few tips, I was ready to get going again.
The trick is to time your move in a grapple just right, so that you come out the victor instead of writing around on the floor. With help from the Internet, I discovered that if you input your move combo as soon as your wrestler stomps his foot on the ground, you can pretty much always come out on top. However, you can’t just hammer in any old combination. It’s best to start with the small moves (mapped to the square button), before moving on through to the medium moves and, finally, big moves. The move smaller moves you pummel your opponent with, the more tired they will become, which allows you to move into the next set of moves and start the process again. There are no stamina bars to keep an eye on to give you an indication of when it’s best to try a harder move, it all comes down to timing and visual cues (such as your opponent suddenly becoming wobbly on the spot). Try a big move too early in the match then you’ll probably find yourself on the floor.
The grapple system is the star of the show here, but you can punch and kick normally too. The issue with this is that finding the hitbox often feels impossible, with your punch or kick simply hitting thin air. Due to this, you’ll rely on using the grapple system all the time, making the game feel a little too repetitive at times and when you’ve nailed the timing, far too easy. Ultimately, moving always feels a little clunky in the game too, often making you feel like you’re fighting with the controls. The isometric perspective doesn’t help with this, as it makes it difficult to judge just how close you are to being able to hit your opponent.
While you work your way through your move set, you should also keep your own wrestler’s stamina in check. Holding the left shoulder button allows you to take a few breaths, giving you much-needed stamina to continue fighting. Fitting this in in-between bouts of pummelling each other in the face is key to coming out of the match a winner.
Like any wrestling game, there seems to be about a thousand and one moves you can pull off. Of course, you can’t do every move in the playbook in one match, and each wrestler has their own unique move set. You can also customise these in your custom-built wrestlers, swapping moves in and out and mapping them to various button combinations. For the first few hours, you’ll find yourself constantly hitting the pause button to access the move list from the menu for a reminder of what combination you need to press to do a suplex. There’s an awful lot to remember here.
As well as customising what your wrestler can do in the ring, there are deep customisation options for your wrestler’s appearance too. You can apply multiple layers to each part of the body, even down to the thigh, letting you create whatever appearance your imagination can think of. These customisation options also apply to rings, belts and even the referee.
In the ring, there are various game modes you can partake in. There are your normal exhibition matches, as well as cage, barbed wire, SWA and gruesome fighting. A landmine deathmatch places landmines outside the ring which, as far as I can tell, heavily depletes the stamina of whatever wrestler ends up landing on one. Aside from exhibition mode, you can also enter tournaments and leagues. But my favourite mode has always been Battle Royal in wrestling games, so it’s good to see it’s included here too. Unfortunately, it suffers from slowdown due to the amount of action going on in the ring at the same time. Plus, and this applies to any match with more than one opponent, the 2D nature of the game makes it really difficult to spot what’s going on and time your grapples right in a crowded ring. All these modes can also be played in online mode, letting up to four players slug it out.
If you tire of customising matches to suit your tastes, there is also a story mode in the form of Fighting Road. It kicks off with designing your own wrestler, which you then take through trials and training to join a division. Developer Spike Chunsoft have licenced New Japan Pro-Wrestling, including a number of real wrestlers from Japan, many of whom you’ll end up fighting as you work your way up through the rankings. In-between matches, the story basically boils down to reading lots of text alongside static photos of real-life wrestlers. Occasionally you’ll get to make a choice from a selection of answers, such as replying to reporters at a press conference, but there isn’t any interactivity beyond that. Overall, I did enjoy the story mode as you do get the feeling that you’re progressing as a wrestler and it helps bring added longevity to the game.
Fire Pro Wrestling World is as niche as wrestling games can get, and I’m betting that a fair number of wrestling fans will be put off by only an official Japanese wrestling division being included. However, the deep customisation options available will let you add your favourite wrestler, and I don’t think this is a game that’s very interested in appealing to the masses anyway. I do get the feeling that the developers expect you to know exactly what you’re doing as there isn’t much in the way of tutorials, so you’ll spend a good chunk of time just figuring out how you’re supposed to play it.
Ultimately, you can never call it an accessible game, but once you do get the hang of it and begin messing with the extensive customisation options, you’ll have a hell of a lot of fun with Fire Pro Wrestling World.