Fire Pro Wrestling World: The Retronauts review

Is the oldest wrestling series around still a CRITICAL hit?

There aren’t many series around these days that got their start on the PC Engine. There’s probably even less that both got their start from a long-defunct company, and have still, through all these years, retained both the same gameplay and the same 2D graphics. In fact, there might be only one -- Fire Pro Wrestling. And after 12 long years (the avatar based Xbox 360 game doesn’t count) out of the game, Fire Pro is back courtesy of Spike Chunsoft, with Fire Pro Wrestling World now out on Steam’s Early Access, with a PS4 version also planned.

The first Fire Pro, Fire Pro Wrestling Combination Tag, was released in 1989 by Human Entertainment, and featured just 16 wrestlers. It rose in popularity on the SNES as wrestling hit a boom period in Japan, before Human went bankrupt in 2000 and the series transferred to Spike, whose first major release in the series was the much loved Fire Pro Wrestling D on the Dreamcast in 2001. The last proper game, 2005’s Fire Pro Returns for the PS2, featured 327 wrestlers and 500 slots for edits. Throughout all this time, the series has certainly had its moments -- there’s been special women’s only editions of the game, a couple of editions that left Japan (FPR and a couple of very good GBA games), and one game -- Super Fire Pro Wrestling Special -- with a storyline written by a certain Goichi Suda (this is about as weird as you’d expect). Throughout all of this, the games have retained the same style of play -- a wrestling game based around timing as opposed to hammering buttons, where the grapplers come together and you try to hit your move right at that specific moment just after they lock up. It’s hard to explain but once you play the game for a bit, you’ll learn when that is.

Outside of Japan, the appeal of Fire Pro for people in the West has often been based around two things. Firstly, it’s a game that very much caters towards fans of Puroresu, with a wide range of wrestlers from the Japanese scene and beyond - whether you were into the top heavyweights, speedy juniors or violent deathmatch wrestlers, Fire Pro pretty much had you covered from the SNES onwards. Secondly, it’s an alternative to the poor quality wrestling games that have been released in the West over the years, where short of a few Smackdowns and AKI’s N64 titles consoles have largely experienced poor and stagnant wrestling games. When Acclaim had the licenses in the ‘90s, some people turned to Super Fire Pro Wrestling X Premium and found something a great deal better than Super Wrestlemania. And nowadays, with 2K’s WWE games series -- developed by Yuke’s for nearly 20 years now -- more stale than ever, people may well turn to Fire Pro Wrestling World as an alternative -- it may be 2D, but it's fresher than a series that frankly has never toppled the 14 year old Here Comes the Pain.

Fire Pro Wrestling World doesn’t make any wild changes to the formula -- the game doesn’t need to. The game that you can currently download in early access still has the same isometric camera, 2D sprites and controls that people are used to (there is a “Mission” Mode that makes it easy for new players to learn the ropes) -- in many ways it’s Fire Pro Returns only in HD, albeit with a new gameplay engine that has been created from scratch. However, this is just the beginning -- Spike have plenty of plans for new match types and modes as they continue to work on the game over the coming months. Along with being the first Fire Pro game on PC, it’s also the first to go online too...and it has Steam Workshop support, which is pretty important.

A big part of Fire Pro’s appeal is its extensive Wrestler Edit system, featuring hundreds of faces and costumes, thousands of moves, and even the ability to change the wrestler’s A.I. so that they fight exactly like their real-life counterpart. People spend a long time creating their own wrestlers, and with Fire Pro Wrestling World there are now no limits on what you can do -- no maximum number of slots for wrestlers. You’re only limited by the space on your hard drive! And if you don’t want to spend the time creating all of these wrestlers, then you can download everything you want on Steam Workshop -- there’s already a lot of pretty excellent edits available for real-life stars such as Shinsuke Nakamura, AJ Styles and Kenny Omega that can be added to the game’s small selection of fictional characters. It won't be too long before you'll have the choice of everything from Kin Corn Karn to Bruno Sammartino, Bob "Spark Plugg" Holly to the Gobbledy Gooker -- with Fire Pro, anything is possible. For many people, this edit system is the pull of the game -- and the fact that it’s unlimited now means that they will be spending a very long time indeed with this game.

It should be said that Fire Pro is very much a game for the dedicated wrestling fan -- one of the big appeals of its gameplay is how well it works as a simulation of a wrestling match, where you and the opponent actually “work” a dramatic tussle with periods of offense and downtime on both sides, invisible stamina ("breathing") meters, near-falls and a build up to big moves -- you've got to hit the Scoop Slams and Flying Mares first before you can hit the Tiger Drivers and Burning Hammers. Making a welcome return to this game is a rating of your match at the end, based on the quality of the action inside the ring as opposed to how quickly and decisively you beat (or lost to) your opponent -- it's not about wins and losses, it's about how good the match was. It’s far easier to do this sort of “working” in Fire Pro then it is to do it in, say, the recent 2K WWE games, which are a lot more geared towards Arcade action and tend to be very fixed in their ways. Some folks, including myself, often sim matches in Fire Pro because the CPU vs CPU action is very much in line with the real thing. If you’re interested in a game where you can play out a wrestling match that actually feels like a real one, then Fire Pro may well be up your street -- but if you want something more competitive, fast-paced and arcade like, it might not be for you.

Still, speaking as a big fan of the series and of wrestling in general, there’s a few things I’d love to see in the future -- in general I would simply love to see Fire Pro keep up with the wrestling world in general with new moves, attires and such, and perhaps even the odd new match type that we’ve not seen before -- with no plans for a sequel on the horizon, this is pretty likely. There are already improvements planned, such as the ability to insert MP3’s into entrances and the return of Fire Pro’s Match Maker mode where you create a whole card and aim for the best ratings possible from your audience. I would love for this to evolve into a season-by-season mode, for cards to play off of each other, incidents to happen, and the chance to create long storylines and manage your fed to greatness, something that the WWE games haven’t had since the days of General Manager Mode.

For fans of wrestling and even combat sports in general, Fire Pro Wrestling World has so much to offer. Aside from the traditional singles and tag modes, there’s cage bouts, battle royals, and everyone’s favourite -- the Exploding Barbed Wire Deathmatch. If you’re into MMA, then Fire Pro covers that too with its “Gruesome” modes that simulate a proper UFC fight in the cage -- and even if this is predominantly a Pro Wrestling game, Fire Pro excels here too. Needless to say, I personally cannot recommend this game enough -- I have spent more time with Fire Pro Returns than possibly any other game, and I expect to do the same here. And for a first release on Early Access, having what’s basically a redone, cleaned up and HD edition of Fire Pro Returns with unlimited edit slots and Workshop support already included is pretty well-featured, with the promise of plenty more to come -- there's still a fair few bugs to iron out, but this is an excellent first release. This is a very welcome addition to a series that has always been comfortable in having a certain appeal for a certain person, without ever trying to go too mainstream -- chances are it won’t feature on that many year end 2017 lists (with the exception of mine) but it’s a game that’s going to be played for a long time to come as Spike continue their quest to make this the definitive Fire Pro game. In closing, Fire Pro is alive and well, and if you're tired of seeing nothing but the same old crap from WWE every year? Then you need this game in your life.