The history and future of Fire Pro Wrestling, as told by Tomoyuki Matsumoto

An interview with the man in charge of Fire Pro Wrestling World, the cult franchise's long-awaited return.

I don't personally follow wrestling or wrestling games, but even I know that Fire Pro Wrestling is legitimate. Created by Human Entertainment for PC Engine back in the early ’90s, Fire Pro built on the ideas designer Masato Masuda had established with games like Pro Wrestling for NES: Flamboyant original characters, deep yet accessible mechanics, and an emphasis on authentic grapples and holds rather than punches and kicks.

Plenty has changed since the series made its debut. Professional wrestling is bigger and more popular than ever; Human Entertainment no longer exists; and series creator Masuda passed away in 2014. Fire Pro itself has been more or less a dim memory for the past decade, as the last proper entry in the franchise (Fire Pro Wrestling Returns) showed up in 2005 back on PlayStation 2. Japanese publisher Spike picked up Fire Pro when Human dissolved, meaning the rights to the franchise now rest with conglomerate Spike Chunsoft.

It's been a tempestuous life for the Fire Pro series, but fans can now enjoy a proper new entry in the series: The long-awaited Fire Pro Wrestling World debuted yesterday on Steam Early Access, headed up by Tomoyuki Matsumoto. A former Human Entertainment staffer, Matsumoto has been one of the few constants for the Fire Pro franchise throughout its bumpy ride over the past two decades. I met with Matsumoto during a recent trip to Spike Chunsoft's offices to learn more about Spike Chunsoft's plans for Fire Pro and get a better sense of where World fits into the history of the series.

Retronauts: I was surprised to see the reveal of Fire Pro World back in March. The series has been missing in action for awhile. What precipitated the series' return — what made you decide now was the time to bring back Fire Pro?

Matsumoto: So actually, we've been wanting to create a Fire Pro sequel for a long time, but I just hadn't been able to do it because, you know... business reasons. The big turning point was Steam. Steam is a lot more widespread and well-known, even in Japan now, so that gave me the leverage I needed to get them to let me do a new Fire Pro game.

Retronauts: But you're not specifically releasing this just on Steam, though. It's multi-platform, correct?

Matsumoto: Yeah, we're also doing a PlayStation 4 release later on down the road but, you know, we're starting with Steam early access. We'll open things up from there and then depending on how things go, at some point we'll release the PlayStation 4 version. Sony doesn't let you do early access releases the way Steam does....

Retronauts: Right.

Matsumoto: ...unlike Xbox.

Retronauts: Can you talk about how the Early Access model works with this specific game?

Matsumoto: The main reason that we're doing Early Access is so that we can create the new Fire Pro with the community. We're pretty much open to whatever fans have to say so, you know — all of you long-term Fire Pro fans, just let us know what you want and we'll definitely consider it.

Retronauts: Can you elaborate on that a little bit? The basics of Fire Pro are pretty well established at this point. So what is it exactly that community feedback will help drive? How will that build what you're creating?

Matsumoto: So like you said, Fire Pro, the fundamentals are pretty much set. After that, it comes down to little tweaks and quality of life improvements. For example, we're adding little small things, you know, like... now you can run into the ring and do, say, a sliding entrance to keep with the momentum of the match. Or, for example, we're also adding more layers to the edit mode so you can do more detailed edits. These are things that fans have wanted for a long time, so even before we go into early access, we've been following up on the forums and seeing what people are saying and kind of implementing that into what's possible before the actual release. 

Then, post-release, depending on where the feedback goes, we'll decide what kind of new elements to add. We definitely want to add new modes. For example, a lot of people want a management mode where you run your own federation, stuff like that. So the more votes we get for something, you know, the harder, heavier the weight on our decision to create it in the future. 

We want as much feedback as we can possibly get from people. And the Fire Pro community is very specific with their wants and needs, but so am I. So anything goes. If you want to see a particular kind of part for a custom wrestler or, you know, you want to see this particular move be recreated in Fire Pro, just let us know and we'll take into consideration.

Retronauts: So when you say that you want to add new layers to the customization, that doesn't just mean new design elements? Like, new edit options but also new components and new abilities and things like that?

Matsumoto: So I think I should go back and clarify what I meant by layers. It's kind of like layers in Photoshop, right? Where you have different elements and you can stack them. The reason this is important for Fire Pro is because in the past, for example, if you wanted to... let's say you have a piece of clothing and you wanted to have a particular design, like stripes, on it. It used to be maybe you'd only be able to have striped pants. But now you have the pants and the stripe separate so you can layer them and change the colors. 

The same goes for  heads. Used to be that you just had to choose which head you want. But now you choose the head and the facial hair and the hair style, so that really opens up the doors for customization. We're including all the parts from Fire Pro Wrestling Returns with the addition of some new ones.

Retronauts: Can you talk about the relationship between Fire Pro World and Fire Pro Returns? It seems like this builds a lot on that like in terms of assets and also design. What does World bring to the table in addition to what was already there?

Matsumoto: So, the relationship with Fire Pro Returns actually goes back to the roots of Fire Pro, because the engine we were using in Fire Pro Returns... it's basically like we had the first Fire Pro engine and then we slowly built upon that over, you know, 28 years or so. So it was really kind of piecemeal in a lot of ways. You know, some things worked. Some things didn't. 

For Fire Pro Wrestling World, we tried to fix bits of the original source code but it's like, when we fixed one area, it caused two more to crop up somewhere else. So we figured it would be easier to just do everything from scratch. in other words, this is a new engine based on the original. The big feature that World will have that hasn't been in previous Fire Pros is online mode. 

Retronauts: What can you say about the online mode? Do you have things like YouTube integration? Broadcasting has become really big in video games, and wrestling is a spectator sport by nature. So what kind of plans do you have along those lines?

Matsumoto: We understand the importance of having some sort of YouTube integration, or something along those lines, but we don't have it implemented yet. Again, Early Access. These are things we'd like to add moving forward.

Retronauts: So that's something that might become available later if the community supports it?

Matsumoto: Definitely. If there is a need for it, we'll consider putting it in.

Retronauts: You said you've built the engine for World from the ground up. Besides online, are you adding improvement or refinement? Are there things that you are able to do with this new engine that weren't possible with the previous engines?

Matsumoto: Obviously, we were able to fix lot of the bugs that have been plaguing the series for a long time. Hardcore fans will know that some of the parameters that you could set in your custom wrestler didn't necessarily reflect in the game. Like, there's a bug where breathing didn't work properly, and things like that. So that has all been fixed up. 

The biggest advantage of the new engine is that previously, it was just like, a one-man show, you know? One guy that wrote the code. If we wanted something added, we had to go to him. So it was on him whether he wanted to do it or not. Was he available or not? But now we've opened up the system so any of the programmers on the team can make tweaks and change things. 

Retronauts: How big is the team, if you can say?

Matsumoto: About 10 people.

Retronauts: How does that compare, size wise, to previous iterations of the series? Is it pretty much on par? Bigger? Smaller?

Matsumoto: I think Fire Pro has always been kind of smaller teams, like around 10 guys or so.

Retronauts: That seems much smaller than you kind of expect a contemporary video game team to be. Can you talk about why you're kind of keeping the size to that number of people? Do you think there are advantages to working lean? What extra challenges does it pose?

Matsumoto: In a way, it would be very difficult to have a larger team than we currently do. Right now, the tests are very compartmentalized. Like, one guy just makes new edit parts. One guy makes new moves. One guy handles both the programming and, you know, it's not just anybody can work on the project. They have to have a long term knowledge and passion for Fire Pro. So it would probably be difficult to find more than 10 people that fit the bill.

Retronauts: When you say they need to have previous experience with the series, does that mean as developers or just as fans, or either one?

Matsumoto: The developer we're working with to do a majority of the programming of Fire Pro is called Zex. This is a little complicated, because I'm the game developer, but then the director at Zex is a guy named Tamada-san. This will be his 10th Fire Pro game, so obviously he has a lot of experience here, and the people working underneath him have also worked on past Fire Pro games. Zex was previously a company called Wise K. They've worked on Fire Pro Z, Fire Pro Returns...

As for myself, I'm originally from the Human generation. I worked on Fire Pro G and the WonderSwan game, back in the day. .

Retronauts: Your history with the series goes back a long ways.

Matsumoto: Back during the Human Entertainment days, the Fire Pro team was kind of like an independent entity. We weren't involved so much with the daily goings on of the company... so when the company suddenly went bankrupt, it was quite a surprise to everybody. 

We were told, out of the blue, "Oh, by the way, Human is going out of business, so sorry." I had only been there for one year before that happened. You know, working on Fire Pro G before the company went under. At the time, we were also working on the WonderSwan version, but obviously that didn't come to fruition. It was eventually published by a company called Kaga Tech. It's kind of like an intermediate thing. It's the only Fire Pro game that hasn't been published by Spike or Human.

Retronauts: The WonderSwan game did make it to market?

Matsumoto: Yeah, we got it done, but it didn't sell so well. We used Fire Pro X as the base, but we had to rework everything to work within the black-and-white palette of the WonderSwan, so... yeah. It was a lot of work.

Retronauts: You also worked on Fire Pro G. That was for PlayStation, correct? So I imagine that was a different experience than working on the WonderSwan game.

Matsumoto: At the time of G, I had just joined the company so they didn't let me get so much into the development side. I was more working on like, scenario and creating wrestler profiles and data and things like that. So I was kind of an outsider, I was still young at the time. 

I had actually joined the industry to work on Fire Pro specifically, so.

Retronauts: Oh? It sounds like the Fire Pro team is a pretty small, tight-knit group. So how did you become a part of that?

Matsumoto: Once upon a time, I was an average person working an average job and I decided, "Boy, I'd like to work on Fire Pro games." The only problem is, I'd need to join the game industry, and I had no games experience. So I scoured the want ads for a company that was hiring with no experience necessary and I ended up with this company called Kaneko. 

The first projects I worked on were things like Print Club frames [ed. note: decorative borders for photo booth printouts]. But one of the people at Kaneko was actually a former Human employee, so they introduced me to the people I needed to talk to. So... I was able to kind of weasel my way in through the back door, even though I only had two years' experience. They let me be part of the team.

Retronauts: When you joined Kaneko, did you know that someone formerly from Human Entertainment worked there, or was that just a happy coincidence? 

Matsumoto: Total happenstance. 

Retronauts: So your history with Fire Pro as a developer only goes back to Fire Pro G, but I assume that as a fan, you have a long history with the series before that. 

Matsumoto: Yeah, at the time, most wrestling games were just button mashers. So the fact that Fire Pro had this system where the guys lock up and that's when you press the button to perform your move — that was revolutionary at the time. It totally sucked me in. I started playing on the original PC Engine version, and every time they released a sequel, I'd get that and hardware to go along with it. 

Retronauts: Even though you weren't with Fire Pro as a developer from the beginning, from your perspective, what is the guiding principle of the series?

Matsumoto: One of the main principles we want to uphold is to not make things look too real. An important part of Fire Pro is the suspension of belief on behalf of the player. So we want to leave a little bit of leeway for the player to figure things out on their own and kind of imagine — fill in the gaps — themselves. If we made the graphics look too crisp or too realistic, it would really take away from that. So that's a balance that we always try to strike.

Retronauts: That's interesting. Do you find that's a barrier to making the series better known in the West? I feel like Americans tend to shy away from cartoonish visuals and want more realistic graphics, but it sounds like having that sort of cartoon fantasy element in the game is really important to you.

Matsumoto: I totally agree with you on the separation of Western games favoring realism. Japanese games kind of give you more leeway in that regard. But, you know, aside from aesthetics, there's also a very practical reason why we kind of keep things lo-fi, and that's because you're able to create any kind of wrestler that you want. If the wrestlers look too much like the real life counterparts, then that creates all sorts of legal problems with licensing and that sort of thing. So it's kind of better for us, and also better for the users, if we kind of keep things a little murky.

Retronauts: That is one of the defining traits of Fire Pro, is that it's not based on real wrestling leagues. But has that ever been a consideration? Has the team ever thought, "Oh, it would be great to try to get the license and really make this a huge hit because it would have more visibility"?  

Matsumoto: I can't name names, but in the past, we've actually talked to promotions about creating a Fire Pro-style game — using their superstars to create a game using the Fire Pro engine. Unfortunately, the production costs were more than they were willing to pay for so, you know, things kind of fell apart at the last minute. 

In terms of Fire Pro World, again we considered it. But if we have licensed wrestlers, I think that kind of takes away from the rest of the cast, and the custom wrestlers that people may make. We're worried the game would be too colored by whatever licensed wrestlers that we have, and I think that would take away from the impact of everything else.

Retronauts: It seems like Fire Pro has sort of a special place for Human, and for Spike Chunsoft. As you mentioned, only only game wasn't published internally. Back in the ’80s and ’90s, Human did a lot of contract work and then did a lot of work for other publishers and developers, but it feels to me like there was something unique about Fire Pro that made Human say, "This is our creation." I don't know if that's just my perception or if there's some basis in reality for that...

Matsumoto: At the time, Japan was in the middle of this unprecedented fever for wrestling. And, you know, Fire Pro showed up right in the middle of that, so it was perfect timing. The game became was a huge moneymaker for Human, so we definitely wanted to support the series and create as many sequels as we possibly could.

Retronauts: Compared to, where the series began to where it is now with Fire Pro World, how do you feel it's evolved over time to match the culture and the industry itself?

Matsumoto: I guess the professional wrestling landscape has changed over time. It was probably in the mid ’90s or so that mixed martial arts became really popular in Japan. So we started to include an MMA mode in Fire Pro

And every time a new piece of hardware came out, we would increase the graphics to match what we were able to do on that. We reached a certain point around the PlayStation era where we figured the graphics, you know, we really don't need to make them look any better than this. They've been kind of constant since that point, which leads to the questions like, "So what's new with Fire Pro Wrestling World?" And the main additions are the online mode and also the ease of editing and the ease of sharing. For the Steam version, we plan on using Steam Workshop, so it'll be very easy for people to upload and share their creations.

Retronauts: Have you ever considered taking the series' visuals into 3D and polygons or is that just not the direction you want to go?

Matsumoto: Actually, we played around with the idea a bit and we even created some prototypes for Fire Pro Wresting World. We had the guys at Zex make some polygonal versions of the characters to see how things worked. And it just didn't feel like Fire Pro. So, we went back to the old way.

It's really hard to put your finger on what it was exactly that made that test not feel like Fire Pro, but it's like... maybe the movement was a bit too clean. You know, like there's a certain inherent jerkiness to 2D animation, and when you go over to the polygons, it looks nicer and more realistic, but it also takes away from the Fire Pro-esque quality. 

Also, Fire Pro has its very unique camera perspective with how we have the ring set up. When you think about it logically, it doesn't actually make sense with the way the posts are straight and everything. If we were to transpose that into a 3D environment, it kind of starts bending the geometry and gets strange and hard to manage. Trying to create a fundamentally 2D fighter with 3D models in a 3D space didn't work out.

Retronauts: So you feel like it wouldn't be Fire Pro if you broke out of the isometric perspective and put the camera down in the ring with the fighters?

Matsumoto: Yeah, definitely. The isometric view is kind of essential for the Fire Pro experience. You know, imagining your character running vertically or horizontally across the ring is very strange from a Fire Pro perspective. You're always running at an angle. So it would just be a completely different beast.

Retronauts: There are a lot of franchises that tried to go into 3D and sacrificed part of the essential experience. 

Matsumoto: Yeah, absolutely. Something was always just a little off.

Retronauts: What would you like to see for the future of this series? Do you think there's life beyond Fire Pro World, or do you think that thanks to Steam early access and the feedback that you get, World can be just sort of a self-sustaining product that continues to evolve for the long term?

Matsumoto: I see World as a journey to create the ultimate Fire Pro game. We're really not focused on a sequel right now. We plan on continuously updating World based on user feedback. We want to create a Fire Pro that gives the fans everything that they've ever wanted. So we'll see where things go from there.

Retronauts: Would you look at other platforms beyond Steam and PS4 for Fire Pro World? Mobile, Xbox, Switch or something along those lines?

Matsumoto: Speaking for me personally, I would love to put the game on Switch.

Retronauts: It seems like a good fit. The Switch audience seems to be really tuned into sort of the retro style experience that Fire Pro offers.