At the end of July, to mark Fire Pro Wrestling‘s unlikely and extremely happy appearance in the modern gaming sphere, Spike Chunsoft rented out the small Hakata Gallery in Nakano. In among the arranged physical releases and strategy guides, simulations of the current G1 Climax tournament and branded steel folding chairs for sale, two items on display eloquently expressed what Fire Pro Wrestling is in 2017, and, good and bad, the state of Fire Pro Wrestling World on Early Access.

The first was a bit of merchandise. Wrestling T shirts are a big thing, and it would only make sense that Spike Chunsoft should pick up a little extra cash by ripping off famous wrestling T designs. So there was a Spike Wrestling Association design that borrowed from the traditional New Japan Pro Wrestling red and white (cute, though the classic copyright evading Spike games always called NJPW VIEW JAPAN, while SWA was its WWF/E analogue AS ANY FULE KNO), and a Brock Lesnar ‘inspired’ Fire Pro mantra: Eat, Sleep, Edit, Repeat.

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Fire Pro Wrestling was a pioneer in user generated content that came long before games were services, and when ‘sharing content’ amounted to trading drawings made on graph paper. When its edit mode was implemented in 1993’s Super Fire Pro Wrestling 3, there was no way creations could surface anywhere other than the Super Famicom they were made on. Yet as its tools grew more powerful, so too did fans’ desires to not just create, but share.

The hardcore fandom of Fire Pro Wrestling speaks a lot to the hardcore fandom of wrestling itself. Lists of instructions shared on a BBS to make up for a lack of a copyright dodging knockoff of Kona Crush in the main game roster grew to downloading memory card dumps to play on a cracked PlayStation. It felt like furtive dial up modem discussions that confirmed suspicions that maybe this pro wrestling lark wasn’t the straight forward competition that it made itself out to be, leading to finding out the world beyond WWF and WCW through trades of sketchily copied All Japan VHS tapes.

For Fire Pro Wrestling World to be on Steam after a 12 year gap from its direct predecessor is a surreal experience. What was once confined to a forum link and a Dex Drive save (remember Dex Drives? No, thought not) is now an instantaneous Steam Workshop download. There is no such thing as the sneer quoted ‘Internet Wrestling Community’. Everyone and everything is online, open, no longer closeted.

Fire Pros of yore included hundreds of performers with names not-so-subtly changed to avoid copyright disputes. Now, there’s no need for that. Whatever your desire from a roster standpoint, you’re covered. From a complete WWE roster to New Japan’s Young Lions, to WCW Saturday Night jobbers to all time in ring greats wearing bear suits, it’s all here thanks to a core of dedicated fans with mastery of their tools.

Yet much like narrow minded faded promoters angry at fans and wrestlers attempting to broaden the medium from its good ‘ol boys origins, the tools here are obtuse and archaic. Forgiving the limitations of the Early Access build (logo creation isn’t in yet, making ring building and title creation effectively pointless) there’s a broader issue with 2D design that will be hard for Spike to truly refine.

By its nature, Fire Pro creation is hamstrung by wrestlers being assembled of pre-fabricated parts. These are massive in number and artisanal in their minutiae, making for a powerful tool that is desperately difficult to use well. Of thousands of head templates, it’s immensely difficult to find one that looks like a specific wrestler, and while filters do exist, they do little to narrow the field. As slow and clunky as the interface is for creation in WWE games, the ability use sliders to set head dimensions and place facial elements is a luxury Fire Pro does not have. The editing ability may be a key marketing point, and something the game’s community treasures, but one can’t shake the feeling it’s less a case of ‘eat, sleep, edit, repeat’ as ‘eat, sleep, search and download, repeat’.

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Yet to focus on user creation is to ignore the biggest part of Fire Pro, and the other big part of that exhibit. Hanging up on the wall of Hakata Gallery was a long timeline, stretching back to 1984 and covering, year by year, every wrestling and combat sports based game release, along with bullet points of what happened in the wrestling world. It was slavishly detailed, and was a reminder of  what lays at the core of Fire Pro development; this game is made by people who love wrestling games, and who love wrestling.

The 2K WWE output in recent years is rightly derided on a gameplay level. Even if players try to recreate the feel of a live televised match, they’re frustrated by stodgy controls and poor AI. WWE games feel like mashing action figures together rather than May based drama. That is, to be fair, the whole idea; the licensed product is designed to appeal to a user base that is either young, or casually following the product. The 2K games have accurately portrayed the mantra  company creative repeatedly tells its audience; it isn’t about matches, but moments. This philosophy is partly what doomed WWE 2K17 to its place as worst of the series. It abandoned a nostalgia driven story mode, stripping even cold QTE driven ‘moments’ from the narrative. All that was left were the matches, and they weren’t good at all.
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In Fire Pro, there is a charm of having your favourite wrestlers from different promotions and eras smash into one another and to try and have your one win, sure. In fact, while single matches, knockout tournaments and G1 style leagues are the only play modes for now, that’s the only metric of success the game rewards. Yet the real pleasure, the real joy is in the drama of pro wrestling. It’s in last second kick outs from a perfectly hit finisher. It’s in a genuine surprise at  a sudden gushing head wound from a hard Tomohiro Ishii head butt. It’s in suddenly grabbing victory from a roll up as a heel is in the middle of a dominant beat down.

Fire Pro World cultivates moments that have you leap off the couch in excitement in the same way the real thing does. There’s an aspect of player skill to that- like every game in the series, you’re rewarded for paying attention to animation frames in order to time move inputs- but only a minor one. Certainly anyone who’s played a Fire Pro game will be instantly at home with the CPU at a level 8 or 9 setting, and the less hardened just have to get their minds wrapped around the core timing mechanic.

No, it’s more a matter of structure. For a game with no HUD elements, there’s a lot of systems under the hood in Fire Pro, from its dice roll based reversals dictating pace (hard hitting moves are likely, but not guaranteed, to be reversed in the early goings of the match) to unseen momentum systems that favour heroic comebacks and limb specific damage that can earn submissions if you isolate a body part. Fire Pro World sprinkles in added accoutrements like firearm exchanges that can end in a powerful hard strike, and the Okite Yaburi, which gives the chance to steal your opponent’s finisher at the risk of being hit with said move yourself. They’re not huge additions, nor do they feel adequately tweaked (strike exchanges happen far too frequently, and it’d be awesome to have King’s Road style suplex exchanges in a similar vein), but they add drama when trying to win.

Or even when you aren’t. Fire Pro World matches end with an audience appraisal percentage first introduced in the series’ Game Boy Advance excursions. At current, the reward for a high score is nothing but pride (though it’ll play into the forthcoming management mode, where better matches mean more rears in seats for your promotion), but it speaks to Fire Pro’s understanding of wrestling, and if its fandom. Yes, it’s nice wen your favorites win, but it’s better, win or lose, when they do so in style. Matches with drama and give and take, and that play to the styles of the wrestlers involved are not only more satisfying to play, but get higher ratings from the game.

As a result you’re less likely to play Fire Pro by rote going through your live set until hitting a finisher and winning. Instead, you give the AI a little here and there, run an interesting meta game of risk and reward, where letting your opponent have their way in order to comeback can backfire and end in a loss. The game accomodates for your playing nice with an opponent too; World retains the more recent Fire Pro inclusion of a ‘stay down’ button to prevent automatically evading top rope assaults.

If playing that delicate dance is enjoyable in single player, the potential for multiplayer going forward is huge. Already players can filter opponents by whether they want to just fight to win or to have a good match (deliciously, the former is signified with the Japanese insider term ‘cement’, referring to wrestling matches that go wrong and descend into real fights). It’s somewhat of a shame that online matches at current are singular affairs and don’t have any persistency between them, but the potential to see if you and some buddies can work together to consistently sell out your created Korakuen (sorry, ‘Yourakuen’) hall cards is alluring.

And more than likely possible. It’s impossible to assess where Fire Pro World will eventually end up, but Spike Chunsoft are going about things the right way. Fixes to problems are nearly all done at this stage, and new content will be built on top in as the game moves through its Early Access period. A good rule of thumb, whether for a game, a console or anything else, is to buy for what something is rather than what it could be. Yet Fire Pro World already is a triumph. A celebration of franchise and wrestling fandom, its star is in the ascendancy.

About The Author

Gamer, Educator, Writer of Stuff, wrestler of professionals (sometimes)