Thursday, September 18, 2008

Remembering Fire Pro Wrestling Returns

A few days before last Christmas, I was at a local Walmart at 2AM (it is a long story), and I happened to look through a bin of value priced Playstation 2 games, and I ended up with a copy of Fire Pro Wrestling Returns in my hand, and since I hadn't heard of it, and it was less than 20 dollars, I figured "How good could it be?" and quickly returned it to the pile and in the crush of holiday spirit, I forgot that I saw the game for some months...

...and then I looked it up and realized that I had missed out an excellent wrestling game with a fanatical following and great customization that was sort of just dumped on the market in November 2007 with little fanfare, despite the fact that it was one of the first games from the long-running Fire Pro series to be released in North America.

But I have to warn you before I start that Fire Pro Wrestling Returns isn't going to win any beauty contests. Yes, unlike the shiny, 3D graphics the Smackdown series has brought to the table, FPR is a 2D, sprite-based wrestling experience. And there isn't a story mode to really tie matches together (the WWE games have you build-up your created characters through a scripted season mode). And the music, well, leaves a lot to be desired (it is old school MIDIized metal lite). (And an added bonus for Canadian buyers like myself is the game comes with French instructions only, but you can request the company send you the English version, and it is available as a download from Agetec's site).

I know that sounds like a mighty hill for any game to climb, but the upside is so huge on this title, it is unbelievable that all those seeming flaws don't really inhibit the game at all.

Out of the package, the game features 327 wrestlers--all real world stars, mostly from Japanese federations, but with different names that can easily be changed to match their actual counterparts). Most of the wrestlers are Japanese, but there are more than a few wrestlers who gained prominence in America as well (Andre the Giant, Terry Funk, Sting, Bret Hart and Kevin Nash just to name a few).

In addition, the game has room for 500 additional created wrestlers. I will say that again. 500 slots for edited wrestlers. Five-Zero-Zero. And unlike the WWE games, you can make your wrestlers as strong as you want them to be from the minute you stick the game in your PS2. It isn't something you have to unlock or slowly work at through a particular mode for each wrestler you want to make, which to me, was a huge selling point, especially since the most fighting/wrestling games allow at most 30 edited combatants, and some, like the recent TNA Action allow only 5.

Of course, to get the most out of this game, you sort of need a device like the AR Max, Max Drive or a Codebreaker, because the mod community for the game is really awe-inspiring. I mean, there are so many rosters available for so many companies and time frames that if you wanted TNA, the current WWE or a historical configuration of that company or WCW, ECW, one of the various Lucha Libre companies in Mexico, Ring of Honor or any number of Japanese organizations, Mix Martial Arts organizations such as the UFC, Pride etc, someone has likely made and distributed a save file with those combatants on it for you to easily transfer to your own save. And that isn't even mentioning such creative uses of both the engine and those 500 available slots to make reams of Marvel and DC heroes/villains, video game characters (in one case, a user recreated nearly every combatant from the arcade and console wrestling games of the 1980's and early 1990's), movie characters and thousands of original creations.

And that isn't even mentioning the scores of logos that people have made to go with all those above federations. The fan community for this game is very well-organized and helpful, especially at the Fire Pro Club, a site devoted to the series, which started in 1993.

But the thing that makes the game work so well is the AI. Hands down, that is the selling feature of the game. Because while most wrestling games allow you to fight against your own creations, Fire Pro is the first game that I've played that I really felt like I could personalize a combatant to this degree. It goes beyond merely selecting a few attributes and putting together a moveset and then picking an AI style or two (and putting together a moveset from the over 1500 moves available in this game takes some time by itself).

You can set the percentages and really tweak the personality and style of a wrestler down to the use of each individual move on a situational basis for every move in your arsenal, and in additional, there are other parameters like how focused they are on winning the match vs. just hurting their opponents and how flexible their game plan is during a match to name a few. That means that you could have two wrestlers with the same moves that compete in completely different and very noticeable ways. Again, it is a seemingly complex system, but once you get the hang of it, it is very satisfying.

And because the game is based on timing rather than simple button-mashing, the matches are much better paced than most of the other wrestling games out there. You and your opponents can't just whip out the power moves from the beginning of the match... you have to build up to the big moves and finishers with weaker moves and strikes. And because there aren't any life or stamina bars on the screen as you play (a feature that was much lauded when it was introduced in EA's Fight Night Round 3), you have to watch the participants to get a sense of how a match is going. If you see someone wheezing, you know they are getting tired, and if you see blood, well, you know they've been cut. It also means that at any moment, a match can end for anyone through a rapid reversal, a submission or a KO. Momentum can shift on a dime, and that just makes everything more exciting.

Now, I hate to lose, especially in sports-oriented games, but I have to tell you, I've lost many a match in FPWR and been thoroughly entertained even in defeat... which is a rare quality for me in any game. It is truly a work of art, and as one user at the Fire Pro Club forum put it, FPR = real wrestling in sprite form. There have been moments between two computer controlled combatants that have left me stunned because the match was just that good.

But don't just take my word for it about this game. Here are some of the summaries of the game from a few online publications to back my assertions up.

Let me just get this out the way: Fire Pro Wrestling Returns is the best wrestling game ever. That's not an exaggerated statement -- you will not find a better mat simulator on the market. Michael Donahue, from 1UP

Fire Pro Wrestling probably isn't a name that is part of many a wrestling fan's gaming dictionary, but it should be. Although it doesn't feature any major wrestling brands (at least well-known to the general WWE audience) and looks like it came straight from the SNES visually, it also manages to trump any current wrestling game on the market. Ricky Turner, from Game Vortex

It's for the wrestling fan who skips the ring entrances in their wrestling games and just wants a solid grappling and fighting experience. It's for the devotee of games with deep editing tools, who would love the chance to make hundreds of complex, satisfying characters. Fire Pro Wrestling Returns may not be the best-looking wrestling game available today, but it is in fact the best. Gerald Villora, Gamespy

If you want the flashy entrances, the cutscenes, and the backstage brawling, by all means pick up the next WWF (I know it's the WWE now) game. If you want pure wrestling action, a deep gameplay system and a huge level of customization extremely cheap, pick up Fire Pro Wrestling Returns. Brendon Lindsey, GamerNode

So, if you are feeling nostalgic or you've been dissatisfied with the current crop of promotion-based wrestling games, or even if you are a fan of wrestling, domestic or international, you'll likely find something to love in Fire Pro Wrestling Returns. To me, it was a game that helped me to love professional wrestling, as a whole, all over again. And that took some doing.


Thewwekiller said...

What's up it's thewwekiller from FPC. Cool review and thanks for the plug for the site. Hopefully, more people will buy this game. It truely is an excellent title.

Mr. said...

Excellent review, nice to have you at FPR, you have a great site here! Keep up the superpar work!

MC said...

TWK: I've been marking out more watching one of my edits take on WWE stars than I have been watching the actual product the major American outfits are putting out... the matches are just that good. :)

Mr: Thank you :)

Chris said...

Awesome review. Fire Pro is one of those games that emphasizes gameplay over graphics, although it's 3D younger counterpart: The King of Collusseum series (also made by the same Japanese company: Spike) is pretty awesome too.

MC said...

Chris, if Agetec released a KoC game in North America, I'd be all over that.

iMike said...

FPW fanatic here...

Great review, its good to see the Fire Pro series get as much exposure as possible.

Josh Tam said...

Glad you realized your mistake of ditching Fire Pro Wrestling the first time you saw it. I've been playing the series since I was in high school.

MC said...

iMike: I agree. I would love to see more games, not just in the wrestling genre, that prefer to have substance rather than just style.

Josh Tam: I certainly did.