Review by SpaceOddity87
Sleeper Hit from AKI
Growing up in the late 90s, pro-wrestling was inescapable, and AKI's wrestling games for the Nintendo 64 were a big factor driving my fandom. Sure, I watched both "Nitro" and "Raw", but countless more hours were spent playing Revenge, Wrestlemania 2000, and No Mercy both with friends and in the career modes. These titles seemed to nail the ebb and flow of a pro-wrestling match in a way that most other titles just didn't get, while still giving the player the right amount of agency. For years, I considered No Mercy to be the pinnacle of AKI's wrestling titles without knowing anything about their Virtual Pro Wrestling titles, and when I learned that many aficionados considered VPW2 to be even better than No Mercy, I had to try it, and it certainly lived up to the hype. However, there was certainly less hype around this first title, Virtual Pro Wrestling 64, with many suggesting that it was just a localized version of World Tour. Still, I had to try it for myself.
While I am a huge proponent of the game, in many ways, VPW64 does feel somewhat like double dipping. Both it and World Tour feature the same gameplay, and if you've been played any AKI titles, you should know what to expect. For the uninitiated, the controls in AKI's games are ingeniously simple. A is used for grapples and B is used for strike, and directional pad controls your characters movements. These simple controls go a long way towards making the games feel accessible, and with all the grapple combinations that you can perform, it's surprisingly deep. It's great that you don't need to remember any special button combinations to perform your favorite wrestler's signature moves, and while certain wrestlers have their strengths, they all control more or less the same way, making it really easy to switch between characters once you get the feel of the game down. The other notable feature of the gameplay is a spirit meter. Once it is full, you can perform special grapples and aerial wrestlers may also perform different flying attacks. Some of the buttons assignments are different in this title than what we would see in later AKI titles, but most elements of these controls would stay the same through their entire oeuvre. While the series would mostly become more refined as it went along, World Tour and VPW64 do feature at least one gameplay feature that would not carry on, which is that some wrestlers will perform different aerial attacks depending on how the opponent is situated. While this doesn't make or break the game, I have to admit that I wish they would have left this option in later titles. Although VPW64 does not have as many maneuvers as some of the later AKI titles, it's still a blast to play even 20 years later and does not feel incomplete.
As strong as the gameplay is, the presentation is decidedly mediocre. None of AKI's N64 titles were outstanding in terms of graphics, but World Tour set an incredibly low bar, and VPW64 barely changed anything about the looks of the game. The moves are well animated, with some of them clearly being recreated from classic matches, but the character models leave a lot to be desired. Between their faces and attires, you generally can identify the real life counterparts of these wrestlers, but their faces are just static images, and unexpressive. This is true of all of AKI's N64 games, but the whole thing feels a bit more bland here, particularly with its muted color palette. The music on the other hand is likably goofy. There are some new songs here with more of a traditional Japanese flair, but much of the synth rock of World Tour returns here as well, sounding a bit like the Mega Man X games of the SNES with higher quality samples. Not all of the songs are memorable, and the soundtrack not something that you would likely choose to listen to outside of the game, but overall it's a lot more tuneful than what AKI would use in some of their later titles.
Despite having so much in common, there are some major differences between VPW64 and World Tour. That the roster is significantly expanded and arguably the most robust of any title that they've released. While they only had the license for WCW's characters, and the other promotions in the game use fictitious names, there are many recognizable wrestlers from other promotions like New Japan Pro Wrestling and All Japan Wrestling and even some MMA fighters. Some of these such as the Great Sasuke and TAKA Michinoku were already present in World Tour, but here you can play as people ranging from Kenta Kobashi to the Great Muta to Ken Shamrock. While VPW2 and Revenge did feature some unlicensed characters in addition to their respective AJPW and WCW licenses, the characters here are much closer to the real life counterparts, and since you can edit the names of each wrestler, it makes for a very convincing roster with match-ups that you would never see outside of a Fire Pro Wrestling game. There are some fighters that were in World Tour that are missing here, but overall, the line-up is greatly improved, especially if you like puroresu.
Other than the roster, the biggest improvement here is to the AI, which is much more competitive and intelligent than what was in World Tour. This was also the biggest difference between Wrestlemania 2000 and VPW2, and it makes you wonder if AKI thought they had to dumb down the WCW and WWF games for the North American audience. While it doesn't go as far as its sequel, you will sometimes have to earn your victories in VPW64, and that certainly adds to the replayability. Unlike some games, getting a special does not guarantee victory nor is it necessary to use special moves at all to win. Perhaps reflecting the difference in style between North American wrestling and puroresu, pin fall victories are not necessarily your best bet, and the game seems to encourage you to use strikes and submissions to finish your opponent. All of these factors make for an improved playing experience, and playing against intelligent computer opponents is sometimes just as thrilling as playing against human ones, which is not always the case.
Beyond those two factors, VPW64 is very close to its North American counterpart. The championship mode is very similar, albeit with some different titles and the only new gameplay mode is a battle royal that allows for a 4-player free-for-all, and this would be standard in all future titles. The aforementioned wrestler edit mode is identical to the one found in Revenge, meaning that you can change each wrestler's attire and name, but you won't be able to create characters from scratch, so it has limited application. The only other differences to the gameplay are some different arenas and some different music, but much of it is the same. Lastly, the game does feature a quality of life upgrade in that it has an internal battery save instead of requiring a memory pak.
Overall, AKI probably did intend for VPW64 to be a simple repackaging of World Tour for Japanese audiences, but there are enough differences to make it worth a look for fans of their other titles, and if you haven't played either title, VPW64 is definitely the way to go. Given that World Tour is not nearly as beloved by N64 owners as Wrestlemania 2000 and No Mercy, it's not so surprising that its Japanese counterpart has been overlooked, while Virtual Pro Wrestling 2 has become a darling, but this first Virtual Pro Wrestling is a great title in its own right, ranking above World Tour and Revenge and not as far from the WWF titles as you might expect. If you've played all the other titles and still want more, this is the one.
Product Release: Virtual Pro Wrestling 64 (JP, 12/19/97)
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