There’s a lot of overlap in the Venn diagram of people who like wrestling and people who like videogames. It comes as some surprise then, that videogames of wrestling have been pretty lacklustre of late; a one horse race in which said sole horse has been running on the same engine for fifteen years but everyone accepts it because there’s no other horses to bet on. Enter Fire Pro Wrestling World, a retro-looking arcade battler bringing strategy, madness and serious customisation to the severely-lacking wrestling game library.
Spike Chunsoft’s FPWW seems fairly straightforward and almost dull on first inspection, but there’s more under those trunks than meets the eye. Indeed, the game’s presentation is one of its weaker points; the sprites have a dated arcade look to them, like rounded-out Street Fighter characters, and they’re not always identifiable as their real life counterparts. Furthermore, the aural part of the package is, to be frank, a bit of a state. Music is nasty, generic instrumental guitar rock, and it’s hard to tell whether there’s only two tracks worth of this or if there’s more but it all just sounds the same. Characters are voiced to a bare minimum; the story mode features just text boxes and the odd OTT laughter soundbite (which admittedly is hilarious), and wrestlers make the odd grunt but nothing more (in addition, Zack Sabre Jr has a Japanese accent. He is from Kent).
The menus are also pretty harsh, looking like the most basic Steam game front-end with clashing fonts and no discernible theme besides “look, fire!”. There’s also the odd typo here and there, which while not detrimental to the overall enjoyment, does show a lack of attention to detail when checking through your product.
But it’s nice to get all the bad stuff out of the way to begin with, isn’t it? Now, onto the good. It’s actually nice to be able to play at the graps without all the extra clutter and indecephrable mini-games that became such a part of the 2K series. You enter the classic collar-and-elbow tie-up by just moving in the general vicinity of your opponent, at which point it’s a matter of timing as to who gets their move in. You’ll note upon doing so that both combatants give a little stomp, which ushers a bang from the speakers as boot meets ring mat. It’s at that point you’ll want to hit your chosen button combination, and whoever’s the closest wins that particular grapple. A simple mechanic, but a hypnotic one nonetheless that provides satisfaction when you hit the right rhythm.
The idea is that you start using the light attacks, mapped to the square button on the PS4, along with a direction, then when you’ve landed a few of those your grappler has the confidence to land some medium attacks on the X button, and finally bring out the big guns on the circle button. If you jump into a match and try to throw a piledriver down without hitting a few hip-tosses first your opponent will easily reverse your rushed attempts. Having to keep the showstoppers until the end gives matches a natural flow, momentum and build that is appreciated and just makes sense.
In the event you both hit this at the same time, a test of strength ensues in which it’s a button-mash fest to establish who delivers the hardest punch. Indeed, there’s other mechanics in the game that rely on the old button-hammering technique, one of the lazier gaming tropes to have survived this long. It’s at odds with the rest of the game, which generally uses timing and skill to lay the smackdown.
You can use the L1 button to grab a breather between moves and rebuild some stamina, which presents a choice to make between regaining some energy or stomping on your opponent once they’re downed, that I enjoyed as a tactical decision to make in the moment. In addition, there’s a bizarre technique introduced in the story mode called Ukemi; if your opponent hits a big move on you, you can choose to hold L1 and not even try to reverse it in exchange for being granted a big rally for a counter later on. It’s a nice nod to the art of constructing a decent wrestling match that will entertain a crowd by adding some shift in momentum, rather than just aiming to relentlessly pound an opponent as you would in a straight-up fighting game.
The introduction of the NJPW roster is going to be a good selling point for some, although if like me you’ve never spent much time watching New Japan this might be a little lost on you. Nevertheless, it’s a wide ranging cast to pick from that would have Dave Meltzer frothing at the mouth and giving out seven stars like no one’s business. It’s not the only thing to be borrowed from the Japanese wrestling scene, either. You want gimmick matches? How do landmines and barbed wire sound? Yep, you can eschew a traditional beatdown and instead throw fellow combatants into barbed-wire ropes or out of the ring onto landmines. If you fancy something slightly more traditional, there’s an MMA mode in which you go for five rounds rather than win by pin. These are all pleasant diversions and frivolous curiosities more than providing anything particularly substantial, though, but provide a few laughs at the very least.
The customisation in FPWW is a little roundabout, but pays off. You can log-in to the game’s website using your PSN information, download any of the community’s creations, which inevitably will include your favourite wrestler of all time. In addition, the options for creating and uploading your superstars and rings are extensive. Don’t believe us? Check out the NGB ring screenshot in this review, and the custom mat our editor Ben drew up for our local wrestling promotion also on this page, all including detailed aprons as well as mat graphics. If he can do it, anyone can.
Matches do tend to go long in FPWW; a common issue with wrestling games, as it’s presumably difficult to account for squash matches or provide huge variety in match length. Indeed, I often found that even after hitting finisher after finisher on an opponent I could still only pin them for a 2.9. This can lead to a touch of repetitiveness if you play for an extended period, but this is broken up nicely by the charmingly bonkers story mode. Tracking the story of your customised budding pugilist from starting out at the dojo to IGPW champion superstar, things move along by way of incredibly hackneyed, OTT dialogue and the odd soundbite of anime-laughter over still images of people I’m informed are famous Japanese wrestlers. It’s all quite low-budget but hugely entertaining and without a doubt the best way to experience the gameplay.
Without the big licences and huge money behind it, it’s easy to see FPWW as the PES to 2K’s Fifa. That analogy doesn’t really hold up as the games here are after very different things, but in this situation, as in PES vs FIFA, the underdog without all the fancy bells and whistles is the better game. To compare the two simply because they’re the only wrestling games around seems reductionist, but if you’re a fan hoping to recreate the sweaty magic via videogames then those are pretty much your options.