Wrestling video games are a pretty weird niche genre in the video game industry. If you’ve never logged on to Twitter, you might not know it, but the Venn diagram representing people who love video games and people who are passionate about pro wrestling is closer to a full circle than one would expect. The genre itself has seen a massive decline from its dizzying peaks in the mid-2000s, as well, with newer iterations from major players falling well short of the kind of glorious grappling simulator I’ve come to think we deserve in this console generation.
Enter Fire Pro Wrestling World, the latest in a series of wrestling games from Spike Chunsoft and the developer’s earnest attempt at making inroads in the West. Fire Pro has been the go-to for hardcore wrestling gamers for years, with graphics being sacrificed for lovely timing-based gameplay and ridiculous knock-off wrestler names to avoid copyright issues. Now, however, the game has embraced its Japanese heritage and recruited New Japan Pro Wrestling to lend its most popular wrestlers to an all-new story mode, complimenting the series in all the right ways. There might be a few issues with the dated way that the game approaches its craft, but Fire Pro Wrestling World is simply the best wrestling game released this generation.
The first thing I noticed while playing Fire Pro Wrestling World was the sheer freedom it gifts players to approach the game the way they want to. After creating my character, the soon-to-be legendary Lemuel Dugnutt, I played a few warm-up matches to get a feel for the game. I’d decided early on that I wanted to be a rule-breaker, the kind of heel who takes shortcuts whenever possible and laps up the fans’ disdain as though it were fervent adoration.
Testing the boundaries of the game, I immediately rolled out of the ring to acquire a light tube. My opponent was smart enough not to follow me to the outside, so I rolled back in and waited for them to move toward me, the referee admonishing me for holding a weapon in what was a regular match. Instead of disqualifying me, though, the referee counted as they do in Japan, giving me time to drop the weapon before they make a decision. With enough time, I managed to swing my light tube into my opponent’s head, bloodying him and allowing me to exploit that advantage for the rest of the match.
It’s nothing new, but it’s a reminder that Fire Pro Wrestling World is the kind of game that doesn’t treat its players as though they only have a basic understanding of what pro wrestling is. Other games feel like they hold the player’s hand relentlessly to the point that, as I get better at them, I’m actively trying to pull away from their iron grip and failing to do so. With Fire Pro Wrestling World, you can be the wrestler you want to, in the matches you want—there’s even cage of death matches, and landmines—and the game never feels like it’s shaming you for picking a particular style. In short, this iteration of the series has fully embraced its depth of options, not shying away from being a bit more complex and overwhelming to newer players in order to preserve its quality.
The biggest and best addition to Fire Pro Wrestling World is undoubtedly the Fighting Road mode, where players take their own custom character and work their way up from tryouts at the NJPW Dojo to becoming the IWGP Heavyweight Champion. It’s a smart addition for two reasons: one, because NJPW is converting western audiences at a rate that was previously thought impossible; and two, because it adds personality and purpose to the game’s otherwise pretty narrative-free approach to the genre.
The way it’s presented is classic Spike Chunsoft as well. Fighting Road’s story is told like a visual novel, complete with stills of popular NJPW wrestlers as they interact with the player character. Seeing the Rainmaker smile his goofy smile at my wrestler during his training, or meeting with SANADA and him not saying a word the entire time is the kind of touch that makes this game by far the most charming iteration the franchise has ever seen.
Seriously, some of the interactions are worth playing the Fighting Road mode, which is ridiculously long, just to see them. These aren’t just two dimensional characters in the guise of famous Japanese wrestlers; they’re lovingly recreated by a team that clearly knows the material they’re working with, and it’s a partnership that will certainly pay dividends for both parties should Fire Pro Wrestling World be received on PS4 as well as I expect it will be.
It’s hard to find much fault with Fire Pro Wrestling World that hasn’t been expressed with it before. The customization options have been shored up, with more layers available to give players even more opportunity to make the exact kind of character model they want. The moveset is impressively deep, and the timing-based gameplay is challenging at higher difficulties but never unfair. Finishers can be kicked out of if they’re hit early, much the way that they are in Japanese-style pro wrestling, and the game even features some of NJPW’s entrance music, just in case fans wanted to hear Kenny Omega’s theme blare through arena speakers while their character makes their way to the ring.
If there’s a fault to be had, it’s simply this: Fire Pro Wrestling World‘s graphics are still extremely dated. That’s not news, and it’s not something that’s concerned Spike Chunsoft in the past, so I imagine it’s the kind of thing that fans will simply have to stomach if they want to continue with the series. Better graphics would likely shift gameplay, and it’s possible that the depth of the rest of the game would have to be sacrificed in order to do so. If that’s the case, I’ll take the four-or-five-generations-ago graphics to preserve my beautiful wrestling simulator. There’s also a few localization errors, but it’s nothing that makes the game harder to play—just some of the dialogue a little more obtuse than is perhaps necessary.
Ultimately, Fire Pro Wrestling World is just the best wrestling game I’ve played in years. It’s also a perfect fit for the PS4, with its arcade-style input commands right at home on the DualShock 4. If you want to play a wrestling game on the PS4, there’s only one option, and Fire Pro Wrestling World might be set to have art imitate life and experience the same kind of global renaissance that NJPW is experiencing.
Fire Pro Wrestling World review code provided by publisher. Version 1.00 reviewed on a PlayStation 4 Pro. For more information on scoring please see our review policy.