The Fire Pro Wrestling games have been going for almost three decades now, but you’d be forgiven for never hearing of it until last month’s Fire Pro Wrestling World.
Human Entertainment released the first game way back on the PC Engine in 1989, with multiple titles coming out since then, before moving under the Spike Chunsoft banner.
Bar a few off-shoots though, the gameplay and presentation has remained similar over the years. And the same rings true for the latest entry in the series, which hit Early Access on Steam after an almost decade-long absence for the franchise.
The meat and potatoes
You’ve got a 2D isometric view of the ring, simple yet charming sprite-based grapplers and a timing-based approach to gameplay instead of button-bashing for the most part. It’s all here in the latest entry.
Simply walk into your opponent to initiate a grapple, enter your command (weak/medium/strong attacks) at the instant you touch and hope you timed it perfectly.
The approach to gameplay is so simple yet works well. Flub up the timing, and you’ll be on the receiving end of your opponent’s attack, or they’ll counter you. Try going for a finisher straight away (you can indeed do this) and you’re 99% likely to have it reversed. It feels liberating compared to other grappling games out there though, that have you “building” up a special meter to unleash a finisher.
It definitely takes series newbies an hour or more of getting used to the timing. But start with the weak moves, then head to the medium moves, eventually building up to the strong attacks (fight the temptation to enter a command even twice) and you’re in business. And we’d highly advise you try the “mission mode”, which has several handy tutorials.
Fire Pro Wrestling World is deceptively deep at first glance, managing to capture the spirit of the entertainment form
It’s a formula that’s worked for decades, but the gameplay here is by no means perfect. After years playing the series from the GBA days, I’m used to the timing and the striking, but the latter could definitely do with more tweaking. After all, how is a newbie supposed to figure out that standing at certain angles and at the right distance to your opponent is the way to go? But again, give it an hour or two and you’ll start to land the more basic strikes.
You’ve even got the series staple breathing button on hand, being a crucial difference maker in the later stages of a match. Take a chance to catch your breath between attacks, lest you find your player being gassed and unable to defend themselves.
Series veterans will be glad to see the basic gameplay foundation is as strong as ever then, while newbies have pretty simple yet deep mechanics to work with. Striking be damned.
It’s not hard to see why this formula has stuck, because it manages to capture what the entertainment medium is all about for the most part. There are the see-saw battles, the dramatic 2.9 counts for a close call (seriously) and, of course, the series trademark Critical (a rare moment that sees a grappler knocked out or grievously injured).
And at the end of it all, you get a match rating, regardless of whether you win or lose. In fact, the franchise’s devotees often take to simulating matches between created characters, owing to the dramatic nature of the battles, even if fought by AI.
Hell, I’d estimate that a quarter of my playtime, at the very least, is devoted to watching “what if” matches. What if Daniel Bryan took on Shinsuke Nakamura? What if Luigi took on a Ninja Turtle? What if a bear took on Street Fighter’s Akuma?
The MUGEN of wrestling games?
Earlier games in the franchise were well-known for using bootleg wrestlers, with appearances slightly changed and names tweaked to prevent copyright issues. So Hulk Hogan became Axe Duggan, AJ Styles became Andy Spirals, and Andre the Giant is Giant Rozhmov.
Being an early access title, Fire Pro Wrestling World doesn’t have the previous title’s 250+ roster of bootleg characters, with the developers opting for just under 40 or so original grapplers. But that’s where the editing suite comes in.
The franchise really flexes its muscles in the creative department. It wasn’t uncommon for avid fans of earlier games to painstakingly create a 100-200 person roster of real-world characters, uploading the save file for all to use.
The Steam Workshop functionality makes things much easier though. You simply visit the Fire Pro Wrestling World Steam page, enter the workshop and you’ve got a rapidly ballooning roster of real-world wrestlers, MMA fighters, comic/movie/gaming/cartoon/TV show characters and original edits to download for no charge. Seriously, a week after the title’s release, we were already past the 4000 character mark, with the current (as of writing) mark at 9400 created characters.
And the best part about the franchise — that’s carried over here as well — is that the game lets you edit the AI/logic of your wrestlers. So if you’re creating a Rey Mysterio, you can edit his logic so that he goes for top-rope dives and springboard moves more often than normal. Making a Stone Cold Steve Austin? You’ll want him to taunt plenty. Creating a Drew Gulak? You can have him never ascend the ropes at all if you want.
The big annoyance with Workshop at this point is the weird way the game handles edited characters. Instead of putting them in the character select menu by default, the game opts to keep them “retired”. So you’ll have to go into “team edit” and select the “retired” field, adding them to a specific roster from here. Very weird. An “edits” sub-menu within the character select menu would’ve made more sense as the default option.
Tweaking the gimmick
Fire Pro Wrestling D on Dreamcast and Returns on PS2 saw a number of additions to the basic foundation, such as corner to centre attacks (think HBK’s Sweet Chin Music, Goldberg’s spear), custom titles, a logo maker and a basic MMA system.
Most of these aspects remain untouched here, although a detailed logo maker isn’t in the early access version just yet. But the new game also brings a few more additions, such as more detailed sprites, dramatic striking battles (you’ll want to button bash here), blood stains that temporarily stay on the mat, the aforementioned Workshop functionality for edited characters and online play for the first time.
I found the latter to be pretty empty most the time. The one match I was able to play was laggy, my opponent opting for a count-out loss instead.
The game is flexible with online settings (you can search by connection quality) and we have seen fixes roll out here. Also, if you want to pit CPU against CPU, go for it. Prefer to play it out against someone else? That’s fine.
Hell, the game even divides online play by “pro wrestling” (putting on a good match, regardless of who wins and loses) and “cement” (competitive). Throw in the ability to have private “rooms” for your own group of friends and it’s a pretty decent start.
We’ve also been seeing several regular updates in the two to three weeks since its release. Aside from a swathe of bug fixes, the devs have also introduced UI tweaks and new moves. That RKO as a strike is pretty sweet…
Not quite five stars yet
Something is definitely wrong when you need to consult the manual or forums on how to change the computer players to human players (tap on the “CP” option and choose “1P”, “2P” etc). So it goes without saying that the UI in general could do with more sensible tweaks.
Areas such as the aforementioned “team edit” field and clarity surrounding multi-person match menus could certainly benefit from more intuitive menu design, while UI speed could also use a boost.
Otherwise, the lack of a proper main mode is another criticism, with the mission mode barely scratching that itch. A booking mode, as seen in the GBA titles, would be a neat addition, allowing you to essentially put matches together within a certain budget, perhaps keeping in mind the in-game audience’s style preference (entertainment, hard-hitting, lucha libre etc).
Still, for an early access game, it’s a solid start, with normal matches, deathmatches, cage matches, MMA/K1 bouts and battle royals on offer. And the mission mode is definitely worth visiting, allowing you to unlock new moves and familiarising yourself with the mechanics. The robust edit mode is definitely a huge plus as well, while the abilities to create rings, referees and titles are bonuses too (even if rings and titles need more customisation tools/parts).
It might not be finished, but Fire Pro Wrestling World can definitely take on the WWE franchise
Best of all, the developers have constantly been engaging with the community on future plans and implementing updates. Last week saw the devs outline some of their intentions, such as custom music for created stars (and custom background music), the aforementioned booking-type mode and screen resolution options.
It’s fair to say then that, at R219, Fire Pro Wrestling World is a bargain if you’re a wrestling fan. It’s obviously early days yet, as menus could receive some polish, we could do with more arenas and more modes would be great, but the foundation is definitely rock-solid. And with the developers actually listening to feedback online and actively fixing/adding stuff, it’s clear that the title is only going to get better.
What about the non-fans though? Well, there’s not much you can say to convince non-wrestling/MMA fans to get into the franchise, but if you ever wanted to pit Donald Trump against Hillary Clinton in a barbed wire deathmatch…