Pixel wrestling! *clap, clap, clap-clap-clap*
Our search for the best wrestling games has long stretched around the globe, plucking series like Toukon Retsuden, Giant Gram and Virtual Pro Wrestling from Japan. While they all had their place, none displayed the staying power of Fire Pro Wrestling.
For nearly 30 years, the series has offered unaffiliated, sprite-based wrestling action for those that yearned for the freedom to create interpromotional dream matches. Now, after a lengthy absence it has returned with Fire Pro Wrestling World, which features the real-life stars of New Japan.
For better or worse, Fire Pro plays almost nothing like the WWE 2k series. Here, everything is based on timing for the initial advantage, and from there it’s more under the hood when it comes to which moves are countered. It takes a while to get the timing down — you’ll want to input your move at the exact moment you touch your opponent — and you’ll also need to quell any impulses you have to mash buttons as that only works when kicking out of a pin or breaking a submission.
Once you’re locked up, there’s a hierarchy of moves, simply labeled small, medium and big. The small moves are usual straightforward stuff like body slams, arm drags and elbow strikes, while the medium moves dole out more punishment to wear down an opponent. Big moves are the heavy hitters, and it’s where most of the finishing moves reside (there’s no meter to build here).
As mentioned, counters take place automatically based on things like available stamina and how much damage has been taken. Although the game never fully explains it, bigger moves are easier to counter, so you’re encouraged to build up to them by executing lower-impact moves. Stalemates — when you and your opponent time your input identically — play out as the trading of punches, chops and other blows.
While the grappling system feels tight and responsive, striking feels archaic. Because of the way the 2D characters move about the 3D ring it’s tough to properly line up your punches and kicks, especially when your opponent is moving around. As a result we more or less abandoned even trying to land basic strikes, deploying only the big strike (such as a dropkick) on a dazed opponent. Weapon wielding and running are similarly imprecise.
There’s no doubt some will be turned off by the game’s retro aesthetic, but there’s a simple brilliance in its design, allowing you to create hundreds of instantly recognizable wrestlers via the edit mode. Moves animate well outside of an odd floatiness to some of the top-rope actions, and there’s a massive selection to choose from.
Where Fire Pro Wrestling World does fall short is in some of the secondary elements, like the weird blood effect (even though the way it stains the ring is pretty cool) and the way wrestlers don’t wear or carry their championship belts to the ring. Capturing the modern presentation of pro wrestling is one area in which WWE 2k feels vastly superior.
Audio is another weak point for Fire Pro. There’s no commentary, though that could be considered a good thing, and you’re left to listen to generic music or simply the sound of the in-ring action. A handful of voice samples from the New Japan roster can be heard now and then, but they seem out of place. The crowd feels underrepresented as well.
Probably the single biggest gameplay difference between this and the WWE 2k games is that Fire Pro encourages you to create exciting matches by emphasizing grading, whereas the WWE games are more akin to a fighting game in which dominating your opponent and just running through your move set is an effective way to play. Here you might kick out late in a count or allow the A.I. to mount a comeback in the interest of crowd favour.
There’s a solid variety of match types, including unique ones like barbed wire and exploding land mine, but American staples like tables and ladders don’t make an appearance. What Fire Pro lacks is a persistent mode to rival 2k‘s Universe, leaving you to book single matches, tournaments and leagues all independent of each other. Planned DLC will be adding a “Fire Promoter” mode that could fill that gap, but at an additional cost of US$20.
Until then, the two primary offline modes are an extended mission mode that challenges you to fulfill certain criteria, and the NJPW-based Fighting Road. The former is a good place to dive in, especially for newcomers, as it walks you through some of the basics and introduces how to execute certain moves all while giving match experience. Early missions are pretty simple (hit your finisher, then get the pin), but they get tougher and more complex as you go.
Fighting Road is Fire Pro‘s version of a story mode, casting your CAW as a fledgling grappler auditioning for NJPW and working toward “Young Lion” status. The story, such as it is, is told in visual novel style and essentially doubles as a history of NJPW, providing background info each time a new wrestler enters the tale. While it’s a bit more nuanced than “win to advance,” it ultimately ends up featuring a lot of similar goal types as the mission mode.
Although not yet available, Fire Pro will also include online matches and, perhaps more importantly, access to the uploaded created wrestlers of other users. A glance at some of the YouTube videos relating to the PC version ought to offer a taste of what’s available, but for long-time wrestling fans the prospects of matching authentic-handling wrestlers across promotions and eras should serve as a tremendous motivator to pick this up.
Fire Pro Wrestling World won’t click with everyone, but if you’re a wrestling fan looking for a different take on the sport than the one offered by WWE 2k, we strongly recommend giving it a shot.