NCS Zen-Nippon Pro Wrestling
Business was booming for Japanese professional wrestling in the early 1990s. There were plenty of federations out there, but two dominated the rest: Shin-Nippon (New Japan) Pro Wrestling and Zen-Nippon (All Japan) Pro Wrestling (often refered to by abreviations of their English translations - NJPW and AJPW, respectively). At the same time the genre was also experiencing an explosion of popularity in the Japanese video gaming scene, thanks to Human Entertainment's revolutionary Fire Pro series. Varie quickly licensed Shin-Nippon for a series of SFC and GB games, but fans of Zen-Nippon had to wait a bit longer. In 1993, NCS (makers of Langrisser, Cho Aniki, and Assault Suits) secured the license, leading to a brief, but prolific, period of development that produced a series of five games for SFC and GB in a mere two years. (There are other games based on te wresting federation that have nothing to do with this series, as they were not made by NCS.)
Like with Varie's Shin-Nippon Pro Wrestling series, the main attraction of NCS' Zen-Nippon wrestling series is its official license. The rosters vary slightly from game to game, and are stocked full of wrestlers from Zen Nippon's glory days. Everybody from fan favorite Misawa, to American performers like Stan Hansen, Johnny ACE, and "Dr. Death" Steve Williams, to the high-flying Patriot, to all-time great Kenta Kobashi, and the legendary Giant Baba - they all make appearances. The casts are both large and classic enough to appeal to everybody, from the most intense puroresu fan to anybody who's only interested in wrestlers for their campiness. However, as it's restricted to wrestlers from Zen-Nippon, there are nowhere near as many characters as several other entries in the genre from around the same time. Still, there are more wrestlers available than in anything America was getting at the time, and over a dozen and a half different guys show up over the course of the series.
For those of you who've never played any Japanese Fire Pro-style timing-based wrestling games before, you'll need to know how the grappling system works to play every game in the series other than Fight da Pon!, one of the stranger entries of the series. Here's a brief explanation: When two wrestlers collide, they'll automatically enter into a grapple. When their palms hit each other's shoulders, you need to enter the command for your attack. If you're quicker to do this than your opponent, without being too early, then you'll perform your move. Grappling moves are executed by combining a button with a direction on the D-pad.
The first title in NCS' series is aptly titled Zen-Nippon Pro Wrestling. Other than being the first ZNPW game ever, it's mostly notable for its many modes of play. After the title screen you are given the following options in this order: Championship, Tag Championship, Tournament, Tag Tournament, 2 Player Vs., Team Battle, and Training. In Team Battle you select from either of two pre-made teams of four, choose a captain, then proceed through a series of tag matches, ending whenever somebody's team captain gets pinned. Training is a tutorial where Giant Baba coaches you (the player) in a few of the game's basics.
There are sixteen characters in total, and, while their movesets differ, the commands for each are identical. Other than the standard wrestling maneuvers, you can do cool things like set the other guy up after they take a fall, or bounce them off of the ropes by body slamming them. Only a few wrestlers have any flying attacks, but when you do leap off of the turnbuckle, the CPU will politely stand a downed foe up to take the hit if needed. When outside of grapples, you can combine your A button attacks with a direction on the D-pad to perform power moves. You pin and tag with L, taunt with R, and kick out of pins by mashing L and R. Opposed to most of the standard Fire Pro-style wrestlers, you've got a visible, and very long, health meter that gradually replenishes over time. Matches will only end if somebody is pinned for a 3 count or leaves the ring for a 10 count (as opposed to the Japanese standard 20 count). So, you can stand on the turnbuckle for as long as you like, you can't get knocked out, there are no disqualifications, and submission holds won't do anything other than drain health.
Zen-Nippon Pro Wrestling plays well, but it just doesn't do anything extraordinary to make it stand out among the rest of the genre. Even in 1993, with Fire Pro already available for the hardware, there couldn't have been much reason to play this other than its license/cast. A year later, in 1994, this was actually licensed for release in America by Natsume. It had the license removed, the characters redrawn, and the name was changed to Natsume Championship Wrestling.
Zen-Nippon Pro Wrestling Dash is more of an update rather than a sequel. It plays the same way, except it's more focused on tag team matches, a few wrestlers from the original have been replaced, and the gameplay modes have been mixed around. The start-up screen has these modes of play in the following order: Tag Tournament, Tag Championship, Championship, Tournament, Vs., 4-Way Elimination, and Training. The Vs. setting allows for up to four people to play at once if you have the multi-tap, and you can team up with another player in tag matches or go head-to-head. The 4-Way elimination match puts four wrestlers in the ring at once to duke it out, with the winner being the last combatant left standing - definitely the coolest mode in the game.
There's also the ability to perform team attacks during a tag team match. After tagging your partner, the guy who just tagged out will stay in the ring just long enough to make an attempted grapple. If you make contact with them at about the same time, then you'll enter into the grapple as well. You need to enter your command when the second member of your team's palms hit your foe's shoulders for the team attack to work. They're all variations of standard attacks, but they differ from what you'd do on your own, and they're more powerful. The only other difference to the basic gameplay is that there's the odd bug here or there. The only time that it's really a problem is when sometimes the CPU will inexplicably refuse to re-enter the ring if you are still standing in it - forcing you to exit if you're not interested in a ridiculously easy win.
In-game it looks completely identical to its predecessor, but the presentation has been beefed up a tad. There are ring entrances before each match, the character profiles have been changed from the digitized images of the original to much better looking sprite art images, and the wide shot of the ring behind the setup screen has been replace with a digitized image of the entire cast. Dash isn't very different from the original, but it's a definite improvement. If you're searching for a Zen-Nippon licensed title, then this is well worth looking into for what it does offer.
Fight da Pon! is a bit of an odd duck in the wrestling genre. For starters, it's not a normal wrestling game, at all. Instead, it's a scenario-based board game with card-based matches. If that weren't bizarre enough, it's basically a wrestling/Zen-Nippon parody, eschewing any and all sim elements for the sake of humor, and favoring chibi-style graphics over a more serious look. It's all really amusing, even if you don't have any idea who any of these people are, and there's a hell of a lot of charm to the game. You might even find yourself laughing out loud at times, like when Kobashi gets jump kicked into oblivion in the locker room scene in the first scenario or when Kawada gets hit by a semi-truck.
You begin with five scenarios that you can play in any order. When you finish all of those, you get a sixth, and then a seventh stage when you beat that. There are multiple paths across the boards, but they always end up at the same space. If you land on a blue space then you get a randomly selected card. Whereas if you land on a red space, then you'll lose a randomly selected card. Anytime you come across a space with a big exclamation your turn automatically ends, regardless of how many spaces you still have left to move, and you're shown a goofy plot sequence. Even though the entire game is in Japanese, there's so much amusing nonsense throughout, and the characters are so overly animated, that it's easy to figure out the gist of what's going on.
Whenever you land on a yellow square, you fight another wrestler - if the fight isn't related to the plot, then this will be a generic masked NPC named Zako. Before the match begins, you select five cards from your stock. Each card represents a different move, which is shown being performed on it. As opposed to most card-based games, the matches play out in real time. Your wrestler will move by themselves, so all you have to do is wait for them to be in a position to attack, and then select the move that you'd like. As far as I can tell, this seems to only require that they're standing. Only one wrestler can attack at a time, and there aren't any move priorities, so if you're both able to attack then it's just a race to push a button first. When a card is selected at the right time, it will flash to indicate which move is being performed. If you'd rather just play wrestling matches without the board game, then you can select Battle mode from the start up screen and go up against either a second player or the CPU.
Much of the game's charm comes from its weirdness. Each scenario ends at a big "GOAL" space, where its plot concludes and you take on the stage's final boss. They're mostly masked wrestlers with completely ridiculous disguises, like a rabbit, a bear, or an analogue clock (?!). There's a different plot for each level, but the main character is essentially Giant Baba, who has to take on the first and final scenarios by himself. When you reach the very last boss fight, you meet up with the coolest and most absurd character in wrestling game history: MECHABABA! This guy has actually gained something of a cult following among puroresu game fans. As if that weren't crazy enough, Samson and Adon from Cho Aniki both make cameo appearances in the crowd. They're visible during the second scenario when Giant Baba encounters the bear-masked wrestlers. Fight da Pon! is an oddity, that's for certain, but it's actually really good, and by far the most memorable game in the series.
A year after the first two installments on Nintendo's 16-bit console, NCS brought the series to Game Boy in the form of Zen-Nippon Pro Wrestling Jet. The character roster has been reduced to eight, and the modes of play have been reduced to the three basics - 1-on-1, Tag, and 2-Player. The only rule change is that you can also get counted out if you stay on the turnbuckle for a 5 count. With only two buttons on the Gameboy, a few modifications had to be made to the controls. You just have to tap left or right twice to run, and whipping you foe into the ropes is executed by holding left or right on the D-pad and pushing B. Pushing A and B pins, performs submission holds against sitting opponents, executes special moves, and will regain control of your wrestler if pushed when you hit the ropes.
Even with its smaller cast, it's a damn good miniaturization of the series. For a Game Boy game, NCS has recreated the SFC gameplay with astonishing accuracy, down to its physics and controls, and they've even doubled your aerial attacks in the process. Easily the second best GB wrestler after the mighty HAL Wrestling.
Zen-Nippon Pro Wrestling 2: 3-4 Budokan was the final installment in NCS' series. It plays more or less identically to Dash, but improves and expands on everything. The roster brings back each of the wrestlers from the first two games, showcasing a grand total of nineteen of Zen-Nippon's biggest stars of the era. It introduces a sorely lacking submission system to the series, and expands everybody's moveset with more submission holds and grappling maneuvers. This time you apparently need to get in a couple of low-powered strikes before your stronger grappling moves work, sort of like in Fire Pro. The health bar has been removed, but you'll quickly get a feel for how much damage you can take before you can no longer escape pins or submission holds.
You're given two rather misleading selections from the title screen - Start and Option. "Option" is actually the normal gameplay modes (from left to right: Championship, Tag, Tag Tournament, Tournament, Vs. (Again allowing four players with a multi-tap), and 4-Way Elimination), whereas "Start" begins Budokan mode. In Budokan mode, you have to schedule an entire night's worth of matches. You get to select the kind of match and who fights in it, but each wrestler can only fight once over the course of the show. After everything is set up you assign each character to either a player or the CPU (meaning that you can just watch if you like). At the beginning of the night, there will be a lot of empty seats, and the stadium will either fill up or get even emptier depending on the kind of show that you put on - VERY cool. You can find "crowd pleasing matches" in wrestling games like the GBA Fire Pro titles these days, but this was a very innovative idea at the time.
The graphics have the same basic look that the first two titles do, but everybody's been completely redrawn to give them a higher level of detail. There are other details that improve the presentation, like a really cool looking match-up screen before each fight, and flashbulbs that go off along the ringside when you perform a really powerful move. However, there's a bit of slowdown here or there, and it's still as buggy as ever. The problem with the CPU refusing to re-enter the ring is still present, though not quite as bad, but the worse problem comes from move priority bugs. For example, you might lock up in a grapple, body slam the other guy, and then magically float into the air up-side down and piledrive yourself headfirst into the canvas. Still, overall, Budokan is a pretty good game to close out an interesting series by NCS.