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GRAPPLING WITH GREATNESS
How Fire Pro Wrestling Became An Import Gaming Obsession
BILL WOOD | SEPTEMBER 20, 2022
Out of the handful of those who are likely to read this article, I hope at least one works in the gaming industry. Because I’m about to explain how a niche import title with a high entry level and an absurd learning curve became a die-hard obsession for numerous gamers across the globe. Throughout the decades and numerous peaks and valleys, this series still commands a sizable and fervently devoted fan base.
On June 22, 1989, HUMAN Entertainment released Fire Pro Wrestling Combination Tag for the PC Engine in Japan. It wasn't a runaway success, but this landmark wrestling game would set the stage for what would eventually become the longest-running pro wrestling gaming franchise in history. The game featured no official licensing, only fictionalized likenesses of real-life grapplers. So while Antonio Inoki may have been MIA, Victory Musashi was a more-than-suitable stand-in. It also featured a strict grappling system that rewarded precision input and punished button-mashing. No one on this side of the ocean cared much about Fire Pro Wrestling Combination Tag, but as you're about to discover, this was only the beginning.
Over the next decade, HUMAN would go on to release numerous follow-ups in what was now known as the Fire Pro Wrestling series, including several successful titles for the Super Famicom (Super Nintendo in the States). Here's when things start to get interesting. Instead of developing officially-licensed games, HUMAN remained focused on diversified match options, "accurate" likenesses and an extensive Edit Mode to deliver wrestling fans the fantasy match-ups they always dreamed of. By recycling sprite parts, Edit Mode allowed for nearly 80 custom wrestler creations, a feat unheard of in the cartridge era. Fire Pro's extensive customization features—along with its highly-technical gameplay system—put it leagues ahead of its competition and began catching the attention of gamers in America and abroad, where the best thing about the officially-licensed WWF and WCW wrestling games were the full-page color advertisements that ran in comic books. The licensed games themselves were trash, to put it bluntly. As a result, Fire Pro became the PCB of choice for that rarest of species, the informed wrestling gamer with a hefty wallet.
[My first experience with the Fire Pro series wasn't exactly stellar. A buddy of mine asked me to pick him up a wrestling game—any wrestling game—at a mom-and-pop shop in North Hollywood. When I asked the clerk for recommendations, he suggested Super Fire Pro Wrestling X Premium if we were okay with imports. I brought the game back to my friend, who absolutely hated it and returned it. And so we went back to playing Wrestle War on the Sega Genesis.]
Several things happened that put the Fire Pro Wrestling series squarely on the map for gamers outside of Japan. First, thanks to the Monday Night Wars, professional wrestling experienced a massive explosion in popularity in the mid-'90s. As a result of the increasingly sophisticated and mature story lines, a more intellectual crowd of college kids were now watching wrestling, many of whom wanted something more from wrestling video games. Second, a new generation of gaming consoles—spearheaded by Sony's PlayStation—ushered in a new generation of gamers, many of whom were also college-level and treated their hobby seriously. Finally, the surging popularity of anime in the '90s produced a new level of awareness in Japanese pop culture. As a result, game magazines started writing articles on the latest gaming trends from Japan, and the Fire Pro Wrestling series was one of those trends.
HUMAN attempted to shoehorn Fire Pro into the relatively-new world of 3-D gaming with the lackluster Iron Slam '96 for the PlayStation. Clunky, sparse and lacking any resemblance to previous games, Iron Slam '96 was a definite low point for the series. Sidestepping their failed foray into the third dimension, HUMAN returned to their pixelated roots later that year with a more conventional grappler for the Sega Saturn. The stellar Fire Pro Wrestling S: 6 Men Scramble righted the previous misstep and established a new standard for the series. It was one of the very best wrestling titles of its era... or any era. It was at this time that Fire Pro was receiving heavy praise on the Internet and in gaming magazines that featured a focus on imports. The word was out; if you were serious about your rasslin' games, you needed 6 Men Scramble.
But how to play it? 6 Men Scramble was import-only, Japanese text-heavy and not exactly novice-friendly. You had to import the game for an unpopular game console, and it required a pricey adapter. This was before the days of Amazon and eBay, where everything imaginable is at our fingertips. Here in LA we had several game stores that sold imports, but those stores were usually far away and their prices were exorbitant. Fortunately this was around the time when the World Wide Web exploded in popularity, and with it came a flood of useful content, including online import sellers and fan-made translation guides for many desirable Japanese titles. If you're old enough to remember Diehard Gamefan, therage.com, rvg.simplenet.com and Usenet, you have my respect. Astonishingly, although I'd already imported my share of video games from a number of sources, I found my copy of 6 Men Scramble at the EB Games in the mall directly across the street from my house. It must have been kismet.
From the moment I popped the CD into my rarely-used Sega Saturn, I was hooked. Unlike Acclaim's flashy-yet-virtually-unplayable WWF Warzone, here was a thoroughly enjoyable wrestling sim that commanded attention. The grappling and striking systems were difficult to master yet supremely rewarding. The sheer number of moves per wrestler was astonishing, and you had to start off with basic attacks and wear your opponent down before moving on to the bigger moves, which mimicked the pace and psychology of pro wrestling. There were no health meters or finisher icons to guide you through the match, you had to go through it by feel. Edit Mode was deep, allowing players to edit intricate statistics and character traits. The roster of wrestlers was enormous, the match types exhaustive. But the best part was that the "entirely fictional" cast of grapplers were far more accurate then their licensed game counterparts, only the names were changed to protect the not-so-innocent. So while Ric Flair may have been slyly dubbed "Dick Slender" (how no wrestler ever copped that nickname I'll never understand), you knew you were playing as The Nature Boy.
I'm telling you, that 6 Men Scramble CD didn't leave the console for the next year, it was literally the only reason I kept my Saturn hooked up. My entire 6 Men Scramble setup still rests in the garage, I'll never get rid of it even though I'm assuming it can easily be emulated these days. For me, it's a relic of what was definitely a high-water mark of gaming passion. Amazingly, Fire Pro wasn't the only quality wrestling title on the gaming scene. It was at this same time that Japanese developer AKI defied the trend of sub-par licensed games, producing a stellar run of WCW and WWF titles based upon their Nintendo 64 Virtual Pro Wrestling series, and for awhile it seemed as though wrestling games were on a permanent upward trajectory.
HUMAN kept the ball rolling with 1999's Fire Pro Wrestling G for the PlayStation before declaring bankruptcy and turning the series over to Spike, a new company made up of former HUMAN employees. Spike released a couple of Gameboy Advance Fire Pro titles that actually made it Stateside, as well as the series' pièce de résistance with 2001's Fire Pro Wrestling D. Produced for the Dreamcast, another beloved-yet-faltering Sega console, Fire Pro D was everything longtime fans were hoping for and then some; bigger, more detailed sprites, a wide variety of match options, custom leagues, belts, rings and mats, and a jaw-dropping 216 slots for custom wrestlers (it should be noted that current WWE 2K games still top out at 100). CPU programming logic was off-the-charts, allowing players to tweak away at wrestler tendencies such as reaction to blood, tag team co-operation, entertainment focus, the list goes on. To this day, no other non-Spike title comes close. Fire Pro D even had DLC add-on moves, and if you ever ran a phone line from your Dreamcast to your kitchen to grab the Shining Wizard, again you have my respect.
But really, programming CPU logic was the all-consuming timesink. Like no game before or since (save for other Fire Pro games), Fire Pro D allowed players to hone in on specific character traits that made a wrestler perform exactly like he or she did in the ring. For example, while you might create a reasonable Hulk Hogan facsimile in just about any wrestling game, in Fire Pro D you could actually develop his classic "Real American" (good guy) and "Hollywood" (bad guy) personas, each one with their own specific AI-controlled tendencies. The good Hogan might only use proper wrestling moves, appeal to the crowd for support and build off their energy, while evil Hogan might use weapons, beg off and escape from the ring to avoid a beating. As a result, many Fire Pro fans began to prefer simming matches (CPU vs. CPU) to actual gameplay, where they could see the rewards of AI programming take place without human interference. If other video games were about capturing the dramatic energy of pro wrestling, then Fire Pro D was all about the science.
By this time the English-speaking Fire Pro online community had really taken off, and I wanted to contribute like those who helped me learn the game. And so I started writing online guides for Fire Pro D en masse, with the intention of helping newcomers overcome the game's steep learning curve and piquing their interest in various international wrestlers. I devoted hundreds of hours to authoring dozens of guides, I scoured message boards for match history, I imported puroresu (Japanese wrestling) VHS tapes and studied movesets, I imported Fire Pro strategy manuals and translated them line-by-line. It really wasn't much—more of an extension of my hobby than anything—but I wanted to help promote this very special game in any way possible. In the process I became a massive fan of Japanese pro wrestling, especially the quirkier independent promotions such as Michinoku Pro and Osaka Pro. Much like anime and manga, I appreciated the fearlessly imaginative spirit of puroresu.
Spike released Fire Pro Wrestling Z for Playstation 2 in 2003, labeled "Z" as it was intended to be the final game in the series. When it came to light that Fire Pro Z didn't exactly end the series on a high note (nearly everyone preferred D), Spike emerged once again with Fire Pro Wrestling Returns in 2005, making good on the shortcomings of Z and delivering the penultimate game fans had been hoping for. Agetec released Returns in the U.S. as a budget title in 2007, and while the game may not have reached the lofty sales peak of the licensed WWE games, the rare U.S. release of a Fire Pro game on console still managed to generate tons of excitement while earning a whole new legion of die-hard supporters that may have been hesitant to import earlier titles. I authored online guides for both Z and Returns, and briefly served as a technical consultant when Agetec brought Returns Stateside.
Finally receiving due credit as one of the best wrestling game franchises of all-time, it seemed as though the Fire Pro series might be peacefully put to rest... that is until Microsoft came along and unceremoniously kicked open its coffin. Wanting to show off their flashy new avatar system for their popular Xbox 360 console, Microsoft licensed the revered Fire Pro name in 2012 then proceeded to crap out one of the worst wrestling games in history (go ahead and Google it, the screenshots tell you everything you need to know). All I can say is that I hope it was one helluva paycheck for the Spike team. Played by no one and scoffed at by everyone, Microsoft's cringe-y Xbox Live Arcade exclusive Fire Pro Wrestling accomplished little more than dragging the Fire Pro brand through the mud, and once again passionate fans were screaming that the series couldn't go out like this.
And then... silence. For the longest time there was no word from Spike concerning future development on the Fire Pro franchise. Was Spike done with wrestling? Did Microsoft own the Fire Pro name? No one knew. To make matters even more frustrating, a new generation of consoles allowed for nearly limitless storage, patch fixing to address programming errors, and even the opportunity to provide further content in the form of DLC. Not to mention the advent of HDTV brought a crisp new level of detail to the on-screen action. If any game series might benefit from these technological advancements, it seemed as though Fire Pro could be that series. Yet Spike seemed content to let the franchise lie dormant, and for the next five years it really felt as though Microsoft's Fire Pro Wrestling—by far the worst video game with the words "Fire Pro" in the title—would be the unfortunate coda to this treasured series.
Which is exactly why it came as a shock when—twelve years after the last true Fire Pro game in Returns—Spike announced Fire Pro Wrestling World for PlayStation 4 and Windows. Rising from the ashes like the mercurial phoenix yet again, Spike returned to their 2-D rasslin' roots to give Fire Pro fans most—if not all—of the modern amenities they'd been dreaming about. One massive feature is that players can now share their creations online, so if you're looking for that obscure wrestler from a decades-old indie promotion, odds are you'll find him or her, perhaps in several variations. In my searches of obscure Japanese indie wrestlers, there were very few that I was unable to track down. Custom wrestler slots now top out at 1,500 (take that 2K!), and gamers can even invent custom moves and sprite sheets to compliment their creations.
Maybe the best part is that after all this time, the beloved Fire Pro fighting engine has lost none of its appeal. Along with 6 Men Scramble, Fire Pro Wrestling D and Fire Pro Wrestling Returns, Fire Pro Wrestling World represents another high-water mark for the series, and one will hopefully keep fans happy for the next dozen years or so. Will this be the last Fire Pro game? Who's to say? All I can say is playing World makes me feel like young Einstein all over again, printing out letter-sized sheets by the ream so that I can memorize The Great Sasuke's moveset or craft that ultimate Diamond Dallas Page edit. - BW