There is an urban legend about former Extreme Championship Wrestling champion Taz, a pro wrestler who was marketed as a sort of proto-MMA tough guy, once threatening fellow grappler Stevie Richards because of a video game.
The story goes that Richards decided to poke fun at the hotheaded Taz by making a “create-a-wrestler” version of him in said video game — with the stats turned all the way down. Richards, who played a largely comedic character in ECW, got to amuse himself by using his own avatar to beat the snot out of the ECW champ, while the real Taz quietly fumed.
In a locker room widely regarded as one of the wildest in pro wrestling history, it’s a wacky story that… well, frankly we hoped had some semblance of reality.
“It’s 100 percent true,” Richards told Digital Trends. “He wanted to fight me over the fact that I made a fictional video game character — based on him — weak.”
“He wanted to fight me over the fact that I made a fictional video game character — based on him — weak.”
Such are the passions provoked by Fire Pro Wrestling, a long-running game series which — until fairly recently — was available only in Japan. The wrestler’s wrestling game, Fire Pro is an insanely deep, impressively strategic, 2D isometric sports sim which does to virtually every other wrestling game (including the current WWE 2K series) what Stevie Richards’ created character did to the fake Taz.
The series first debuted in 1989, and rose to prominence during a decade in which pro wrestling could barely have been hotter. Largely dormant for the past decade, this year saw the triumphant return of the franchise with the brilliant Fire Pro Wrestling World, currently available on Steam’s Early Access platform. And as much as we’re tempted by the upcoming WWE 2K18, if you’re going to buy one wrestling title this year (heck, this decade!) Fire Pro Wrestling World should almost certainly be it.
“What I’ve always felt about Fire Pro is that it has something that other [wrestling] games — for all the graphics and the cut scenes — lack,” Richards continued. “They lack the heart of Fire Pro, although they can blow it away in terms of graphics or even features. Fire Pro, I’ve always said, is the best wrestling game ever made.”
Getting wrestling right
Wrestling is a surprisingly difficult sport for game developers to get right. The WWE 2K series, the glossy latest installment of which debuts this month, has been trying since the year 2000. The results are often fun (and 2003’s WWE Smackdown! Here Comes the Pain is pretty darn brilliant), but they never feel quite like, well, wrestling.
The WWE 2K games have next gen graphics, official licenses, and plenty of marketing budget. They’ve got all the official wrestler names, the plethora of match types, and the sales figures. And yet they still feel strangely cold as games. Fire Pro, on the other hand, has none of the budget, but possesses a brilliant game engine, endless customization possibilities, a rabidly dedicated fan community, and — most importantly — an understanding about the nature of pro wrestling, and just what makes it (and its fans) tick.
Wrestling, you see, is an artform. Far more than just muscular dudes and gals making cartoony faces and posing, it’s performance art for the masses; a kind of brawn-driven theater which sets out to tell a compelling, dialog-free story through the movement of two (or more) bodies in the ring.
To nail the wrestling game formula is to grapple with the weird meta narrative of a game in which it’s not just whether you win but how you win that matters.
Like the three act structure of a movie, matches aren’t simply about performing move after move until one person pins the other. They have distinct phases to them: segments where the good guy (the babyface) gets to shine, sections where the bad guy (heel) gets heat by beating on the babyface, comebacks and thwarted comebacks, and eventually a finish. Similar to a good standup comedy act, there can be callbacks to earlier sections, or clever subversions of what the fans expect to see.
Ultimately, they’re about entertainment, and that’s what Fire Pro understands so well. To nail the wrestling game formula is to grapple with the weird meta narrative of a game in which it’s not just whether you win but how you win that matters. Fire Pro gets this.
Just like the best pro wrestling matches, every bout in Fire Pro tells a story which gradually develops from a feeling-out process to a great big enormous climax. (If all of this sounds a bit surprisingly… well, sexual, then clearly you’ve missed something about the whole “grown men in their underwear grapple with each other” thing.)
Matches begin with weak strikes or light grapples such as snapmares and armdrags, before progressing to mid-level attacks, high spots, and then onto the big finish. There’s a steep learning curve to master the timing-based attacks but, when you do, no game engine has ever replicated pro wrestling quite this well.
Play your cards right, and the end of each match should be a WrestleMania-worthy flurry of breathtaking 2.9 count near-falls, before one player finally gets their arm raised.
The roster to end all rosters
Back in the 1990s, Fire Pro’s roster made it the ultimate fantasy of many wrestling fans. Before interpromotional dream matches were a thing, Fire Pro’s “relaxed” view of intellectual property meant that it included thinly-veiled caricatures of the top wrestlers in virtually every big promotion worldwide.
Want to pit New Japan’s finest against All Japan’s top workers? No problem. Fancied staging an invasion angle between WWE and WCW at the height of the Monday Night Wars? This was the game for you. Even if a wrestler wasn’t featured in the game, you could create them — courtesy of the superb “edit” feature.
Today, this last point has become the game’s killer feature. Perhaps wary of the threat of lawsuits from the big U.S. players, Fire Pro World doesn’t ship with existing characters like Juan Cena and Andy Blorton in place of John Cena and Randy Orton. Instead, you have to create your own wrestlers, or rely on the thousands of downloadable edits already created by the game’s dedicated army of fans.
Fortunately, there’s no limit on how many edits you can save (well, apart from running out of local storage space) so the idea of downloading thousands of wrestlers representing every big federation of the past century isn’t out of the question.
“The community around Fire Pro is the thing that makes it worthwhile,” Andrew “Ewzzy” Rayburn, one of the top Fire Pro World edit makers, told Digital Trends. “Everyone’s out there creating their individual pieces makes the game better than the sum of its parts. I admire the folks fine tuning their AI to make the most accurate matches, running totally fictional virtual federations with original characters, [and] writing tools that let others push the game past its limits. I’m doing my small part and hope others can enjoy it.”
If you’re the kind of person who enjoys sitting down with a management sim and delving into stats in a way that would make the FiveThirtyEight call you a numbers geek, Fire Pro is the absolute best option on the market. Everything about the game is editable. You can choose from thousands of individual body parts and moves to make your wrestlers resemble the real people. You can also make multiple costumes for each wrestler to make sure that you don’t have to suffer the soul-crushing indignity of pitting a WWE-era Cactus Jack against a 1992 Big Van Vader and pretending its era authentic.
As Andrew Rayburn notes, you can even tweak their AI to behave exactly like them — from which moves they’ll use to end matches to their reaction to the sight of their own blood to their overall strategy. You can edit arenas and match types, too. If your dream is for a 16-man tournament with 1980s WWF stars competing in a barb wire deathmatch in the 1998 WCW Nitro arena… well, just hand over your money now.
Ultimately, this article isn’t a review of Fire Pro World, or the Fire Pro series as a whole. It’s a love letter to a series which, an astonishing 28 years after its first title shipped, is somehow better than it’s ever been. No, it’s not for everybody: the graphics wouldn’t have impressed folks in 1998, there’s absolutely no rewarding those who mash buttons, and it’s one of the few fighting games you’ll ever encounter where there’s an entire button for remembering to breathe.
Still, “it’s not for everyone” is an apt description for an entertainment form that’s built around watching real life cartoon characters pretend to fight each other. Hundreds of thousands of people are going to buy WWE 2K18 in its very first week available on sale. The game is sure to deliver a fun experience, but if you buy it and ignore Fire Pro World you’re missing out on something very, very special.
And hey — at $19.99 on Steam, with no charge for any of the fanmade DLC, Fire Pro Wrestling World is a whole lot cheaper than WWE 2K18.
What’s not to love?