Modern wrestling video game releases have, in many ways, mirrored the wrestling industry itself, but not necessarily in terms of content. WWE’s offerings, the WWE2K series (and the Smackdown vs Raw series that predates them), have dwarfed the competition and all but edged them out, but the effort put into those games seems to have waned, and their popularity relies mainly on bringing hot stars (via pre-order DLC, pushing the price of the game to well over $100) like Rey Mysterio and Ronda Rousey to slot into an increasingly-dated engine. At the same time, the Japanese equivalent, Fire Pro Wrestling, has quietly amassed a following of hardcore fans on the back of a tried-and-true wrestling engine that’s relatively easy to learn but difficult to master, while allowing for a deep level of customization. Sure, there’s been other competitors (TNA’s Impact game and AAA’s lucha libre game both saw daylight on consoles) but none have truly caught on. The newest edition of the long-running Japanese series, Fire Pro Wrestling World, retains the series signature 16-bit-era graphics which might make the game a tough sell at full price, but if you’re a real wrestling fanatic, this is one of those cases where you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.
One of Fire Pro’s hallmarks is it’s very deep wrestling system which puts hundreds of moves at your disposal. Literally any move you can think of from past or present stars is on offer here, and the combinations are endless. Once equipped, you can assign any of these as your finisher. But though you have your big moves available from the opening bell (unlike in the WWE games where you have to earn them) spamming finishers is neither possible not a good strategy in Fire Pro. The game rewards the kind of slow build in a match that’s typical of Japanese matches – start slow with a few lighter moves, move up to medium strength strikes, slams, and submissions for a while, then start banging out the strong stuff. In between, you’ll have to use the dedicated ‘breathe’ button to rest, or your wrestler will collapse to the mat in a heap. The controls are not always the most intuitive, but again, once you get a hang of the rhythm of a match and become intimately familiar with your wrestlers moveset and strengths, there’s a rewarding sense of accomplishment when you take down the really tough opponents.
Fire Pro’s customization options are deep, allowing the player to create any belt, arena, ring, or wrestler on the planet, and put them into any type of match they desire. The menu system and interface take a little getting used to, but once you figure them out, they’re deceptively powerful and you can find custom wrestlers for all your favourites from WWE, Impact, CMLL, AAA, or anywhere you like. You can even find customs for celebrities and superheroes, in case you ever wanted to know how Hiroshi Tanahashi would fare against Venom. All of this is done through the Fire Pro website, which is a little clunky to use through the game itself, but you can also fire the website up on a second device and download stuff when you’re away from your system, and it’ll be waiting for you when you start up the game the next time.
Fire Pro Wrestling World’s big hook this year is that, for the first time, it comes bundled with the New Japan Pro Wrestling license. This means that in addition to the generic wrestlers you can select, real stars from NJPW like Kazuchika Okada, Kenny Omega, and Tetsuya Naito are playable as well. This edition also includes a story mode that centres around the NJPW promotion, where you start out as a ‘Young Lion’ (rookie) and move your way up through the ranks, facing off with NJPW’s best. In between matches, you’ll get pep talks from NJPW legends and have the opportunity to train up your wrestler’s stats so they can hang with the top stars. I will say, though, that the training is pretty opaque and isn’t always clear about how any given stat is affecting your in-ring performance. I can happily excuse that though, because I giggled like a small child when Okada and Gedo told me I was doing a great job.
In addition to playing out the matches in a traditional fashion, a small segment of the Fire Pro fanbase uses it to simulate both real and fantasy matches. Because the rhythm and logic behind Fire Pro’s matches are both so realistic, it’s become somewhat popular to set up these matches and simply watch them instead of controlling the outcomes on their own. To this end, Spike Chunsoft has announced that an upcoming DLC feature called Promoter Mode will allow players to do this in a more organized and presumably realistic way. Details are sketchy, but the fact that this feature exists at all is proof that Spike Chunsoft has listened to fans of the series to deliver the content they want.
The presentation of Fire Pro Wrestling World is dated, to say the least, and is evocative of 16-bit wrestling games from the 90’s. There are some improvements over the older games, and the graphics are a bit smoother, but I wish that the visuals had been given more of an overhaul. It’s not always very apparent where your wrestler is in relation to your opponent, which makes pulling off things like running attacks harder than it needs to be.
At one point, I noticed that my created wrestler, Jim “Big Jim” Jimothy, had his entire ass hanging out. Thinking it was a glitch, I played on for a while before I realized that I’d accidentally equipped some kind of jockstrap instead of tights. These are the kinds of weird quirks you can expect from Fire Pro.
Besides the visuals in the matches, the presentation is only okay. Static images of the NJPW characters in the story mode are accompanied by scrolling text and the occasional grunt. The menu systems mostly work fine in a utilitarian sense, but some bad or unintuitive translations and design decisions left me puzzled. For example, the game’s tutorial is buried under the game’s single-player menu, and it’s called “Mission Mode” for some reason.
Ultimately, though Fire Pro Wrestling World is a fun experience for hardcore fans, I find it hard to recommend to casual wrestling fans or non-fans as a full-priced $80 game. The graphics and presentation will be your first impression, and it honestly seems like a mobile game rather than a full-fledged console release based on that alone. Additionally, having to restart the game in order for your downloaded wrestlers to show up, or the “hidden” tutorial, are all unintuitive and this is a game that never holds your hand to explain any of this, like most modern games would. All that being said, if you’re tired of the WWE2K series, are already a big fan of NJPW, and are willing to put some time into learning the ropes, so to speak, there’s a lot to love with Fire Pro Wrestling World, bare asses and all.
Fire Pro Wrestling Returns is available for the PS4 and the PC (Steam). We reviewed the PS4 version, so some features may differ if you use another edition.