Insert Disk collects All Japan Pro Wrestling Featuring Virtua for the Sega Saturn.
Today’s retro game review is All Japan Pro Wrestling Featuring Virtua for the Sega Saturn. This retro gaming classic is part of the 25th anniversary celebration of the AJPW (All Japan Pro Wrestling League). The game does a fantastic job of bringing realistic wrestling moves to the Sega Saturn. Expect big name stars such as Giant Baba but also cameo appearances by Virtua Fighters Wolf Hawkfield and Jeffry McWild. One of the Sega Saturn’s finest hidden gems. AKA Zen-Nihon Pro Wrestling Featuring Virtua.
Greetings collectors and welcome to today’s retro game review. For those that have followed the channel for a while you’ll know that I have a certain love of the Sega Saturn and in particular Japanese exclusives. As such from time to time I import the odd game or two. Ok, hundreds but that’s not the point. Every now and again I’ll arrange a bulk shipment in from Akihabara, going after those games that I’m really after but at times also picking up games to flesh out the collection.
A few years ago now I picked up this game, All Japan Pro Wrestling featuring Virtua. Yes, that is its real title. I spun up the disc, played for a few minutes and wrote this one off at the time, just another in a sea of wrestling games. However, I don’t mind admitting that I was wrong. I saw this one in the stock the other day and gave it another go. How was I so wrong about the game? On a second play with fresh eyes this may just be one of the best wrestling games of all time. Even if Japanese wrestling really isn’t your kind of thing, stay around to see what this game has to offer.
So, I’m going to have to preface this episode with the obvious. I’m a big fan of Japanese culture, in particular it’s gaming scene which is why you’ll see so many episodes dedicated to the subject. Inevitably though my interests spun out in to the other delights that Japanese culture has to offer. There’s the Anime, Gashapon, the business culture, weird and wonderful cosplay, their obsession with KFC and of course their games industry which is second to none.
One area that never really struck a chord with me though was Japanese wrestling. Not of the sumo variety but the Pro Wrestling scene. Think WWF but with more angry businessmen shouting at the ring. So, when I picked up All Japan Pro Wrestling “Featuring Virtua” it was more for the novelty of the cameo appearance of Virtua Fighter’s Wolf Hawkfield and Jeffry McWild.
You see the game is what I can only describe as a serious attempt at the genre, rather than the other generic polygon fighters that were doing the rounds back in the day. The game features 10 of Japan’s Pro wrestlers, this is essentially a licenced game but with two Virtua Fighter characters thrown in for good measure. It’s a bit like playing FIFA and having Soccer Kid turn up (or Magic Marko for that matter). Despite the slightly odd premise and my less than perfect knowledge of Japanese Pro wrestling I’d like to explain why this is a must have fighting game for Saturn owners.
For someone who’s only main forays in to wrestling games were a few rounds on various N64 releases, Pro Wrestling for the Master System… awesome game by the way. And of course WWF Wrestle mania on the Commodore Amiga it might seem strange that I would recommend this one but I thoroughly do.
First of all select your wrestler from the roster. For the aficionados and Westerners your likely to perhaps know some of the wrestlers such as Stan Hansen, Steve Williams, Gary Albright aka Dr Death and Johnny Ace. As these wrestled in other leagues such as the WCW and UWF before their appearance on the Japanese Pro Wrestling scene. Then there’s this guy that takes up 4 profile spaces, Giant Baba. More on him later. For entertainment though I rather enjoy choosing the Virtua Fighter characters as they are more familiar to me. My comfort blanket if you will in to this new strange world of Japanese Pro Wrestling.
Each match starts with a ring walk and this does feel reminiscent of a real wrestling match. The camera angles, the intro music and the crowd cheering. It’s a pretty decent offering. It has to be said that this game was released in 1997 as part of the 25th anniversary of the AJPW league. However, it really didn’t show off the best graphics that the Sega Saturn had to offer. The crowd is, well yes it’s basically a stretched bitmap, a low detail one at that. We had already seen much better implementations in almost every fighting game prior. As for the characters. Well here I’m a bit divided. The real life characters actually look fairly decent and it’s definitely possible to see the likeness to their head shot photos. Jeffry also looks fairly decent and fits in well. Wolf on the other hand, he certainly looks different to the most recent Virtua Fighter 2 model at the time, losing some shading and texture detail. If I was being cynical I’d also say that the developers simply mapped some pre-existing textures over a generic wireframe. But hey, he does look like Wolf so that’s a bonus.
On with the wrestling. Where to start, if you’re expecting Virtua Fighter then you will be disappointed as I was when I first picked the game up. I would be mercilessly beaten down by the computer opponent in all kinds of elaborate ways. By the time the opponent was climbing the ring and jumping on me, I knew that I was failing badly. It was as if I was playing in a different fighting language. Combos like Virtua Fighter, no that doesn’t work. Single special hits, well they are very few and far between. So what’s the answer? Well, it’s a bit like my experience with Last Bronx. You can’t play it as you would a Virtua Fighter or Dead Or Alive affair. This isn’t an arcade beat ’em up. The penny dropped for me in Last Bronx when I dug deeper in to the game play mechanics. It was all about the dance. It was about the massive damage dealt by combos at the risk of getting sucked in to the opponent’s game. Once I’d leant the rhythm and the moves, Last Bronx became one of my favourite tactical fighters of all time.
All Japan Pro Wrestling has its own very specific dance. If Last Bronx is an emotional high energy Tango, Pro Wrestling is more of a choreographed Waltz. It best to think of it as a series of thrilling set pieces. The steps go as follows.
Step 1: Attack
This generally involves a few well aimed slaps or even a boot to the face.
Step 2: Hold
Now that you’ve softened your opponent up they may even begin to feel dazed. Use this as your change to hold them. Then move swiftly on to step 3.
Step 3: Throw
These are your big hitters. You’ve got to the stage where you can overpower your opponent enough to pick them up and cave their head in to the ring. Satisfying.
But there’s more to Pro Wrestling than this. Ultimately a winner is decided by either a 3 count pin. Or a devastating injury to one of the wrestlers.
Each of these outcomes seem rather straight forward but the path there is actually a little more involved. Take the injury stoppage rule for example. You’re most likely to inflict one of these by your special move. However, to get to the position of powering up the special move you’re going to need to be fighting for a while to build up the gage. See these yellow bars here. Build these up and then let lose that power move when you can. If you can land a devastating blow you’ll see an onscreen info graphic informing you of the injury. Cool, his neck is breaking. In this case my opponent is hell bent on breaking my arm until I submit. Method two, the 3 count pin is what most of us will recognise from more traditional wrestling. When your opponent is down, simply pin them. Or if you’re getting the hang of the game use one of the more elaborate pin moves.
In terms of the move set for the Virtua Fighter characters, expect a bit of a departure from the main series. There’s no crazy jump distances or extreme combos. However, much of the move set has been retained and blended in to a more realistic mould. It’s been translated in a very sympathetic way that makes the characters feel familiar yet also part of this grittier world. However, beating your opponent to a pulp is only half the story, half the dance if you will. You see this is wrestling and as I mentioned earlier, much more of a choreographed entertainment. At the top of the screen you may have noticed a blue bar. This represents the mood of the audience, who are they getting behind and cheering for? They seem to love Akiyama as he goes to work on me but the tide can always swing. Having the crowd behind you makes the opponent much easier to pin. So you should do everything you can to pull off a variety of moves and if necessary showboat for the attention of the crowd. It’s an interesting mechanic and prevents you from just button bashing or using the same techniques. The crowd want a show and you must give it to them to win.
It would take me a while to go over everything included in the game play here but it has everything you could hope for in terms of depth. Stuck in a grapple, then mash those buttons to pull off a reversal. You can throw your opponent in to the ropes and land swift vengeance. You can even go outside of the ring to inflict pain in front of the crowds. Or jump off the ropes to please the crowd. It’s at this moment when I broke this guys back that I knew I was hooked. All in all, this is a fantastic game once you get to know the rules and the moves.
And oh my, those moves. It’s not uncommon to receive a moves sheet in Japanese fighting games but Pro Wrestling, well it’s more of a bible.
Just look at this fold out poster. It shows all the special moves and grapple progressions. See here, lead in with a B button grapple. Then forward A, finished off with a back and C to perform a DDT. Or what about this little gem. B to grapple. B to grapple further. From there you have 4 options. Perhaps A to attack. Then C to end the combo with a throw. It’s all very comprehensive and once you sink in a bit of time learning the move sets the game actually becomes very satisfying. This is indeed a wall chart… oh and it’s double sided!
So, is there anything not to like? Well as mentioned the background is a little lacklustre but on balance the action is on the wrestlers so I can easily forgive this. Especially with the knowledge that really this game is more of a showcase to the intricate wrestling move system. The music, surprisingly good. Each wrestler comes out to their own track and generally it’s very decent, especially for a sports game. The presentation is rather decent in terms of a physical release. Plenty of bio information as well as the aforementioned move set help and general basic introductions to see you on your way. This is a weighty package and everything I think fans of the sport would want to see. The roster of characters. Well it’s varied. The models are well put together for the most part. Certainly nowhere near the best on the system but the gameplay seems to override the shortcoming for the most part. If you can accommodate a bit of polygon clipping here and there then you’ll have no major gripes with the character models. And that’s perhaps as the game was created using motion capture techniques from wrestlers involved in the game. The move sets seem genuine and although Pro wrestling tends to be over theatrical in the first place, this plays very well in to the style of the game. You’ll also be able to squeeze out 60 fps from this one on the original Japanese hardware and I found the general flow of the game play very pleasing. So, overall a rather solid title.
Oh yes, there is one absolutely glaring issue in the game. Remember this guy, Giant Baba. He’s real, 209cm, that’s 6ft 10 inches and one of the founders of the AJPW. In short, he’s a tall legend. There was even a time he teamed up with Andre the Giant (true story). Anyway, he’s a bit of an icon for the sport and much deserved too from what I understand. So, just what happened here? Firstly his profile image. He definitely looks like he’s straining hard for something. Quite a departure from some of the other more flattering headshots on display. Anyway, it’s all about the game play. You’ll notice as Giant Baba enters the ring his scale causes several issues. See here as he tries to pass through the ropes. The polygon clipping is so extreme I think the developers just admitted defeat with the hopes gamers would skip this part. It’s not an issue in terms of game play but it does seem a little out of place, seeing as they could have perhaps changed the animation to him stepping over the ropes. I’m nit-picking here a bit though.
However, the clipping also becomes an issue when in combat. See here as his scale compared to the other wrestlers leads to what I can only describe as a polygon clipping nightmare. It’s not game breaking but certainly jarring when the rest of the game has been so polished. Thirdly is the most obvious, Baba’s speed. He’s ridiculously slow, I mean, really slow. He actually struggles to walk across the ring to the opponent and his attacks seem so dialled in you’ll defiantly want to steer clear of using him on your first play through. He is very powerful though should he land a throw.
Perhaps the other side of the coin though is that he rather fun to play against. After a few matches in the one player game Giant Baba will call you out in a cut scene. No doubt offering to smack you down. However, his lumbering form makes him a real target if you know what you’re doing. Here a managed to beat him out of the ring and then cave his head in to the ringside for some critical damage to his skull. And then again. And then once more for good measure making sure to break his neck.
Whilst it is satisfying you can’t help thinking that in real life Baba should be more of a boss character. Instead he comes off far more as a novelty due to his implementation. It’s a shame as a bit more thought around the execution here could have added another level of game play variety. I’m fairly sure the conversation at Sega went something like this. “You must include Giant Baba”. “Well, ok but it won’t look good”. “Do it anyway, it’s his game”. With my gripes around Giant Baba aside All Japan Pro wrestling is an absolutely fantastic game. Until recently I certainly didn’t see myself as someone that would recommend a rather unfamiliar retro wrestling title, exclusive to the Sega Saturn of all places but here we are.
My first impressions were quite wrong and I’m pleased to have given this one another chance. It’s a very well presented package both physically and in game. The move system has depth and the learning curve is gentle enough to get you hooked and make you want to learn the more complex move sets.
As an experience it’s genuinely fun to play and it will take you some time to see all the moves and learn all of the opponent’s strengths and weaknesses. Even if you’re not too familiar with the sport I think that there’s something about this game that makes it accessible. It’s not an all-out brawler and it’s slightly slower, controlled tactical pace makes it stand out in a very positive light.
So next time you’re importing from Japan look out for this one. It’s not yet prohibitively expensive or too challenging to track down. Although I’ve not played a great deal of wrestling games, All Japan Pro Wrestling Featuring Virtua has quickly risen to my favourite of the 32-bit era. It just goes to show that there’s always one more hidden gem to find on the Sega Saturn. Until next time, happy gaming.