A couple of years ago I wrote an article on my combined love of wrestling and video games, and how I’d look to other wrestling companies when I felt WWE had become too stale. Since January this year I’ve actively sought out other organisations and found New Japan Pro Wrestling to be more to my liking; so when I found out that Japanese Developer Spike Chunsoft had struck a licencing deal with NJPW for use in their long-running Fire Pro Wrestling series I was eager to get hands-on, more so as there aren’t many video game alternatives to Vince McMahon’s global “sports entertainment” juggernaut.
Due to the licencing agreement, there’s a decent line-up of New Japan’s roster along with brawlers from the series’ fictional SWA organisation. Although there are many of NJPW’s top stars such as Kazuchika Okada, Kenny Omega and Hiroshi Tanahashi there are also a few stars notably absent such as The Young Bucks, Will Ospreay and The Villain Marty Scurll (though this is likely due to commitments these guys have with other wrestling companies outside of Japan). If you’re desperate to play as one of the missing wrestlers, there’s always the option to build their likeness in Fire Pro’s deep Create-A-Wrestler suite.
In terms of visuals, Fire Pro Wrestling World reminds me of the 90’s arcade game WWF WrestleFest along with the 16-bit era SNES and Mega Drive WWF games (albeit with an isometric view of the ring), with the New Japan wrestlers instantly distinguishable from one; though unlike the earlier Fed games each wrestler has a unique move set and their own trademark moves such as Okada’s Rainmaker and Omega’s One-Winged Angel.
Once I booted up the game I got straight into an exhibition bout and found that I had to unlearn everything I’d become accustomed to over my years of playing WWE games; apart from simple strikes, I struggled to get a decent move in and the match ended with my defeated wrestler hanging his head in shame. The learning curve is steep, yet after a few hours I was comfortable with the control system and putting on pretty decent matches.
The keys to success in Fire Pro Wrestling World are timing and positioning. Certain moves have a precise window of opportunity to pull off or counter, whilst wrestlers need to be a certain distance away to connect with most strikes. As in real life, it’s easier to hit simpler moves, saving your more spectacular moves or finishers for the closing stretch of the bout; throughout the course of the match you’ll also need to ensure the audience is buying into your performance, which can be raised by taunting your opponent or hitting them with a death-defying suicide dive from the ring to the floor. The game gives you a percentage mark based on how entertaining the match was following its conclusion.
There are a whole host of match types to choose from: normal, cage match, hardcore-style landmine barbed wire matches and even MMA style bouts inside an octagonal-shaped ring, where victory can only be achieved via knockout or submission. You can also try your hand at tournaments, running the gauntlet of a 32-man bracket or an over the top rope battle royale. This iteration of Fire Pro is the first to offer online match-ups with other players around the world; match types are randomised but can be tailored before the bell rings.
Fire Pro also offers a story mode dubbed Fighting Road, which follows your own created rookie wrestler’s path to success. Fighting Road begins with your try-outs at the NJPW Dojo as you try to impress the trainers and established members of the roster in order to earn a contract. Each is introduced via a PowerPoint-style vignette, highlighting their accomplishments within the company. Dependant on the wrestler’s character, they’ll either goad you or offer sage advice, all of which is conveyed via text at the bottom of the screen much like a visual novel; to be honest I found some of the lines to be cheesy and simplistic, though this may be a localisation issue when converting Japanese to English, as in real life comments during pre or post match interviews get a bit lost in translation!
Each match in Fighting Road has specific objectives to hit, such as achieving a certain match rating or pulling off a certain number of moves. Having successfully completed the objectives you’re awarded training points which can then be used to level up your wrestler’s stats such as strength, stamina or charisma amongst others. These, in turn, unlock a wider range of moves as your wrestler meets increasingly tougher opponents and objectives on route to New Japan’s marquee event – Wrestle Kingdom.
The Create-A-Wrestler suite is incredibly robust, giving one the opportunity to add pretty much anyone you want to the roster. Want to add an obscure 90’s wrestler like Mantaur to the game? No problem. How about superstar luchador Pentagon Jr, or maybe John Cena? It’s entirely possible to build a wrestler from the ground up, giving them their real-life ring style, move set and ring IQ. The same goes for rings and arenas, even referees; each element has a multitude of options and sliders. If you’re willing to put in the time and effort there’s no end to the possibilities that the tool can offer.
The character animation is solid, fluidly transitioning between moves with no slow down or collision detection issues; this is in stark contrast to the WWE games which regularly show up on glitch highlight reels on YouTube. Despite its appeal, I do have a couple of concerns; the main and sub menus are downright archaic and although they suit the retro aesthetic can be quite confusing to newcomers. This leads me onto my second gripe, as Fire Pro’s tutorial mode is squirrelled away under Mission Mode which I stumbled across after I’d a good few hours quite literally learning the ropes.
As a wrestling fan, I found the game to be an absolute blast. I dig the graphical style as it harkens back to the halcyon days of my youth, yet with the modern moves sets and match styles that feel completely modern. Once you’ve mastered to controls, matches are an absolute joy to play, easily stretching into 30 minute plus epic encounters. One could lose hours, days and even weeks to the Create-A-Wrestler suite in order to expand on the game’s pre-set roster. Combine all of this with incoming junior heavyweight Fighting Road story and Promoter mode DLC and you’ve got one hell of an alternative to the WWE 2K series.