'Fire Pro Wrestling World' Is Great For All the Reasons the WWE Games Suck
screenshots courtesy of Spike Chunsoft


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'Fire Pro Wrestling World' Is Great For All the Reasons the WWE Games Suck

As fans increasingly turn toward indie and underground wrestling, a DIY wrestling game offers its own form of freedom from WWE.

Every day since Fire Pro Wrestling World was released onto Steam early access in July, I've had a new ritual. I fire up its Steam Workshop and I browse pro wrestlers. They're in the thousands now, a cascade of sprite-based, spandex-clad, postmodern gladiators. I do this more than I actually play; I just download the good ones and keep going, page after page, sipping my coffee and delighting when I find something obscure or odd. It's the recognition humor of the pro wrestling fan—you squeal when Rick and Morty references Star Wars, I squeal when I find a well-made Norman Smiley. The Fire Pro series stretches back to 1989 and across two developers, and has remained roughly the same game throughout that history. With the exception of a few ill-considered and poorly regarded attempts at 3D, Fire Pro has remained game of 2D sprites and timing-based grappling—rather than the more button-mashing approach taken by most pro wrestling games—coupled with a staggeringly robust editor with thousands of moves, and the ability to smudge and alter those tiny pixels in minute ways. Fire Pro Wrestling World does eschew one thing which the series was known for. For decades, the game shipped with a massive roster of real pro wrestlers and martial artists from all over the world. They were renamed, as were the organizations they worked for, to avoid trademark issues, but Fire Pro games came ready to go with a couple hundred bruisers and grapplers. Not this time. The Steam Workshop does the lifting, with the shipped roster being original creations of developer Spike Chunsoft. If you want real wrestlers without making them yourself, you have to rely on your fellow players.


Dr. Painlove rejects Professa Killa's submission. (screenshot by author)

"At first I was worried that the limited size of the starting roster would disappoint fans," admits game director Tomoyuki Matsumoto. "The community was quick to fill in that gap. So we have a new problem—how best to organize the 8000+ Workshop items." As shipped, World is a tool with potential, but only potential. When I fired it up for the first time, I was one of the fans Matsumoto worried about. There was no roster for me to go through, and I had a moment of panic about whether the "right" Brock Lesnar or Shinsuke Nakamura was even possible in the absence of the studio's authority. But I quickly realized he was right: It's really cool to see what other people are doing and there's no issue with filling the rosters, only curating them. An entire cottage industry has sprung up around sharing creations in the three weeks since early access launch. It consists of websites and Facebook pages like Fire Pro Club, where players debate the fidelity of their attempts at recreating reality. Online federations are springing up; most of the ones I've seen aren't about player vs player but letting the computer play both wrestlers in order to see who wins dream matches. More than anything, the hardcore creators are obsessed with setting up their creations' logic; in World, you can dig into the minutiae of how a wrestler behaves, tweaking everything from what percentage of their attempted moves are grapples to how often they taunt. This is the essence of the creator, what separates the masters from the dabblers. It's not enough to have a character called Randy Orton that just looks like Randy Orton; that Randy Orton has to behave properly in the game. "Lots of games have good creation suites, but actually being able to set the logic for your wrestler is what I think sets Fire Pro apart," says Greg Dor on the Fire Pro Club page. "That's the ultimate control over a character when trying to get him to mimic his real life self." That was a common refrain within this community, and it's not as simple as creating the right move-set. As Wil Gold, another community member, puts it, "To be honest, most wrestlers use the same moves. It's WHEN they use those moves that make each wrestler unique."


There's something profound and very old going on here. The character editor is incredibly simple in presentation—t's 2D, after all, so you're primarily dealing with layered colors on small character models and a move list mapped to "Button + Direction." But it's also remarkably complex; there are a lot of moves and the editor, in an attempt to truly capture the way wrestlers play, allows for programming of game logic. But you, the player, have to fill that gap between reality and simulation. That is what has always been unique about Fire Pro's approach compared to other wrestling games. Ever since the first Smackdown game, on up to the current WWE 2K games, American pro wrestling games have moved toward modeling the presentation of WWE's television shows more than being wrestling simulators. This is not to say that those games are bad, but there was a definite shift in emphasis once AKI Corporation stopped making its revered pro wrestling games after WWF No Mercy.

Do you want to cut promos? Press one of these four buttons to pick what you say. Want a cool intro for your created wrestler? Go through this editor to create the elements so it's as "real-looking" as possible.

Fire Pro has never—and never will be—the game with the hyper-realistic sweat and the television style presentation. Instead, it revels in the little gap between complexity and simplicity, asking players to use that most basic of skills: their imaginations. So when people debate who the best CM Punk on the Steam Workshop is, or when they're broadcasting their e-federations as the play-by-play announcer, they're socializing and roleplaying as much as any tabletop group huddled around a table throwing dice. "Fire Pro relies heavily on the user's imagination, so my goal is to create an environment where that imagination can shine," explains Matsumoto.


The desire to conjure imagination via tools which Matsumoto expresses reminds me of nothing as much as Will Wright's old maxim that he wanted to make toys more than games. We have a world of video games which demands more and more realism and cinematic grandiosity, but the byproduct of that is that it sometimes feels like there are no more gaps left for imagination to fill. This isn't to disparage those games. But sometimes it's nice to just have a thing which is as much in your head as on the screen. WWE 2K has slowly squeezed that out of its play. WWE 2K's creation suite is less robust than Fire Pro's, but those games are never really meant to be about your ideas. Instead, there's an endless parade of highly slick stories which are never your own but reflect WWE's obsessions with its own history: recreate Shawn Michaels vs The Undertaker, relive John Cena's career. Fire Pro is about your stories. Make real wrestlers and have a dream match. Do what my brother and I have done for 20 years, with wrestlers all our own, cutting promos and making pay-per-views on nothing but a sheet of paper and a toilet paper roll microphone. Whatever it is, though, the entire game is yours.

Fire Pro Wrestling World, even in early access with some attendant bugs, feels more alive than pro wrestling games have since, well, the last real Fire Pro game 12 years ago. But the landscape has also changed for wrestling, and World isn't here by accident. Indie wrestling is surging in popularity, and New Japan Wrestling is threatening to go global. WWE is fine—I can tell you that I'm probably more of a fan than my ragtag collection of fellow pro wrestling fans and writers online. But it does get stale, even when it's good. That extends to video games. For 12 years, there hasn't been anything except for WWE video games. And yeah, you could always design your own wrestlers (real or from your head), but all of it was leashed to what the WWE games would allow. It made for a samey experience not unlike the increasing ennui around sports games like FIFA—how many times are we going to buy basically the same game with the same creation suite, same physics, and same presentation? "Fire Pro and WWE 2K are both wrestling games, but they're very different beasts," says Matsumoto. "I think the same applies to indie and foreign promotions. I mean, we have a common problem with the lack of exposure, right? If one form of pro wrestling becomes popular, it can only boost the sport as a whole."

The popularity and flexibility of the creation suite offer an avenue for the game's fans to help provide some of that exposure for those indie promotions Matsumoto mentions. The number of Japanese and independent stars available rivals that of the WWE stars and assorted pro wrestling legends in the game's Steam Workshop. Using Fire Pro Wrestling World's available tools to make realistic versions of wrestlers who would otherwise never be in a video game, is extremely popular, and at least one creator on the Fire Pro Club page is doing what he can to use the creator to boost his local favorites.

They don't call her the Boxing EMT for nothing.

"The wrestlers I'm making and will publish soon are mostly local guys who I watch in indie shows," says Bill Wrigley. "I'm trying to represent them accurately in part so that they can get bigger exposure in real life—I know that if I put 'Chikara take note' in the description of a comedy wrestler, people who look up Chikara will also find him." Fire Pro Wrestling World mirrors the indie resurgence of the past several years on the pro wrestling scene. World exists because wrestling exists, in all its vibrancy, strangeness, and wonder. The game is also expanding—Matsumoto tells me that we can expect a booker mode (where you manage your own promotion) and another big batch of moves and parts for the creation suite. Fire Pro coming back is a fresh breeze stirring the stale air of a closed hallway. I'll wait on them for those extra modes and doodads for the creator, as well as final tuning of the online portion. While I do, I'll page through all those endless, wonderful created wrestlers. The weird ones. The legends. The jobbers and everything in between.