All Japan Pro Wrestling Featuring Virtua (1997, Sega for Saturn)
Let’s take a look at another excellent fighting game from Japan that deserved to be released in the USA. Indeed, this is the only 3D wrestling videogame for the Sega Saturn, and it’s a terrific showpiece that deserves a place in your library alongside Fighting Vipers and Fighters Megamix. All Japan Pro Wrestling is very affordable (as little as $10), highly playable, richly rewarding and guaranteed to add excitement to any social gathering.
While most wrestling games of the era seemed to rely on mashing buttons in hopes that something good will happen, this title is far more intelligent, complex and strategic. It plays like a cousin to Virtua Fighter, while incorporating the styles and techniques of the sport. Your moves consist of attacks, grabs and throws, with the ability to perform hold reversals and throw escapes. The controls are easy to grasp, and you can learn to chain attacks together, such as grabbing an opponent, changing the position, throwing him to the ground, picking him back up, then throwing him again, all to roaring crowds. You can even perform moves when close to the ropes, or perform flying turnbuckle moves, or even escape the ring, which is always a lot of fun.
There are a number of gameplay innovations in this game: Reversals, Damage Levels, Broken Bones and Crowd Approval. Reversals enable you to escape nearly any grapple maneuver or throw, performed when an icon appears on-screen. Even the reversals themselves can be reversed (I’m reminded of the “hold” moves in Dead or Alive). As attacks can be strung together, you can disrupt your opponent’s rhythm if you know what you’re doing. Damage levels work like “special” meters in fighting games, in that it builds up as you successfully perform attacks. When you reach DM level 50 and 80, you can perform your most devastating and crowd-pleasing attacks. Broken Bones occur when you take too much damage in a specific region, such as your head, neck, back, arms or legs. A warning icon will occur when you’re in danger, and subsequent hits will result in broken bones. When two bones are broken, the referee will intervene and end the match. Finally, the crowd approval rewards showmanship and pizazz. It’s not enough to merely knock down your opponent and get a quick three-count. You have to win the crowd over with variety and style. As the excitement grows, the crowd will roar and chant your name, which is not only very cool, it makes it easier for you to pin your opponent (and harder to become pinned yourself).
As the title indicates, this is based on the All Japan Pro Wrestling League, which was founded in 1972. The cast of characters include a mix of Japanese and American wrestlers, all motion captured and wonderfully animated with a balletic grace. It’s quite something to see, a tone poem of grace and violence. If you’re like me, you’ll skip all the real-life wrestlers and play as Jeffry and Wolf from Virtua Fighter, who make a very welcome cameo appearance. They fit like a glove, especially Jeffry, who takes to wrestling like a duck to water. It’s fascinating that both characters are based on real fighters (“Bear Killer” Willie Williams and Jim Steele), which is probably why they work so well here. You can perform all the major attacks, grabs and throws from Virtua Fighter 3, and these are some of the most satisfying attacks in the game.
The graphics are highly polished and smooth, moving at a rock solid 30 frames-per-second, and feels like a further refinement from Fighters Megamix. The characters feel meaty and solid, with a subtle degree of shading and lighting. The arena and ring are a highly impressive mix of 3D polygons and 2D bitmaps, with digitized crowd in the background. All Japan Pro Wrestling is highly impressive not just by Saturn standards; this game can compete against the wrestling games on Nintendo 64.
Yes, I can understand that licensing would have made things more expensive for Sega of America, either to secure a WWF or WCW license, or to simply import the AJPW players. Whatever. Once again, Bernie Stolar choked. Wrestling videogames were huge during the 32/64-bit era, as any teenager or college student at the time will tell you. The Nintendo 64 had a virtual lock on the genre. Saturn could have had a piece of that action.
This game was followed by the two Giant Gram titles on Dreamcast, which continue the tradition, but also sacrifice some of the strategic gameplay in favor of a faster, more arcade-oriented style. All three are must-haves for fighting and wrestling game fans, but I have a gnawing feeling in my gut telling me the Saturn original is the best.