Zen-Nippon Pro Wrestling
Super Famicon / Super Nintendo
I love pro wrestling video games from all around the world.
That being said, "all around the world" in wrestling game circles basically just means Japan and the United States as they are the only two countries that produce them as far as I know. A few years back there was a game released featuring the legendary Mexican promotion AAA, and a few years before that, Legends of Wrestling 2 was released and featured a few unique UK wrestling legends for the European release but that's as close as it comes. For the record, I would have loved to play a game featuring World Of Sport English grappling or even the legendary Stampede promotion from Canada. That would have been great.
Hell, just for the curiosity factor, I'd even play a game featuring the Nigerian wrestling "legend" Power Uti in which he tramples all opposition with his clumsy, weak looking, wrestling maneuvers all while wearing his own particular style of brightly colored wrestling attire and a championship belt he had made and bestowed upon himself. (Seriously, on a side note, if you've never seen Power Uti in action.....you really need to. Interesting to say the least. He's mentioned in Mick Foley's first book. Foley did a tour for him at some point when he was first starting out if I remember correctly.) Anyway, enough of my tangent......on to the game!
BACKGROUND: Zen-Nippon Pro Wrestling, which literally translates to All-Japan Pro Wrestling, was a Japanese wrestling game released for the Super Famicom in Japan on July 16, 1993. This game never got a North American release but you can play it, or any Super Famicom game for that matter, on a NTSC Super Nintendo with just a simple, quick, modification to the console. Even though it's presented in mostly Japanese with some English text, you can still figure out the menus and be able to fully enjoy it within only a few minutes time. That's the nice thing about wrestling games, you can easily enjoy them despite the language barrier, especially the older, more simplified games. It was programmed and distributed by NCS (Natsume).
This game was officially licensed by Giant Baba and the All-Japan Pro Wrestling organization and features a roster of their top wrestlers at the time, even the "gaijins" (foreign/U.S. wrestlers). This is also one of the only games I can think of where you are able to play as the "legendary" Johhny Ace, a/k/a John Laurinaitis, if that's the type of thing you're into. Legend has it that the only reason Johnny Ace was big in AJPW is because he was Mrs. Baba's favorite wrestler. I guess she was into blonde mullets at the time. Go figure. All in all, this game has an amazing roster! It features the likes of Baba, Jumbo Tsuruta, Genichiro Tenryu, Stan Hansen, The Patriot and even one of my all time favorite tag teams, The Miracle Violence Connection ("Dr Death" Steve Williams and Terry "Bamm Bamm" Gordy). This is the point where I usually say "Let's see if this game still holds up." but, not being Japanese or an importer of games back when i was 13 years old, I never played this back in the day. Still though, let's see what this retro wrestling classic has to offer.
GRAPHICS AND SOUND: Personally, I've always loved not only the graphics of the 16-bit era but of the Super Nintendo in particular. When done right, SNES games are really beautiful to look at. The wrestler select screen features digitized photos of the wrestlers so it's easy to see who you are choosing even though the names are in written in kanji. Also, once the match starts, all of the text is in English so if you aren't sure of who you picked, you'll be able to see the names then. The audience, commentators, referee, and wrestlers all look great! My only minor complaint is that all of the wrestlers seem to be hunched over in an odd posture. Guess it was a style choice. I'm not sure but they all appear the same. Also Giant Baba (rest in peace) looks a little bit like E.T. here to me but, with all due respect, he was a sort of odd looking man in real life so it's not all that inaccurate of a representation. The animations for all of the moves seem really smooth and well done and all of the wrestlers look like an accurate depiction of their real life counterparts even including trademark taunts.
GAMEPLAY: Masterful gameplay here. The grappling is really balanced with the usual timing based system that most Japanese games use. Basically the wrestlers walk into each other to initiate a grapple and then you have to press a button combination, just once, as in no button mashing, before your opponent does. The quickest wrestler to push a button wins the grapple and succesfully executes their move. When you are close to the ropes you can throw your opponent out of the ring with a suplex to the outside and are also able to brawl on the outside albeit without chairs or weapons.
There are also no blood effects on the wrestlers which started to become standard around the time, mostly with the Japanese games. Also while close to the ropes, you can "Hot Shot" your opponent throat first on the top rope like the late, great, Eddie Gilbert. Only a few of the wrestlers in the game have maneuvers from the top rope but that makes sense because the roster here is full of big guys that you would never see pull off high flying moves. I just chalk that up to realisim. It doesn't appear that a match can end in a submission, pinfall only, but that's not a terrible flaw....also no signiture finishing moves as far as i can tell but some finishers are there, like you can do a lariat with Stan Hansen or a big body slam with Dr. Death and that's basically their finishers, fanfare or not.
The included modes are a single or tag team series where you fight all of the other wrestlers in the game, single match, ect, and also includes a "training mode" with Giant Baba where he teaches you tips for better play. Truth be told though, it's not that helpful unless you can read and understand kanji. This is a quality wrestling game. So much so that Natsume acutally released one of the games in the Zen-Nippon series in North America, retitled and reskinned as Natsume Championship Wrestling. It features fictional versions of all the wrestlers even though it plays exactly the same.
VERDICT: I'm a big mark for Japanese pro wrestling games, so my opinion may be biased, but this - like a lot of games from Japan - is interesting and worth checking out. It's not that expensive, especially if you can find a copy in North America for sale. The main cost I ran into was the shipping fees for importing a game from Japan. That usually costs about as much as the game itself but still, it doesn't hurt the pockets too much. Depends on how bad you want a physical copy.
If you just wanna try it for fun then I'm sure you can play it on an emulator out there somewhere. The wonderful thing about retro games is that even if you're a casual fan, you can always play just about anything on an emulator that is easily downloaded or even in your browser and if you want to become a collector, then you can seek out the physical copies of the games you love. Long story short, there aren't many bad 16-bit wrestling games out there. You almost can't go wrong with any of them and this happens to be better than most. I seem to have a vague rating system going here but if Title Match Pro Wrestling is -5 stars and a top game would be +5 stars then i give Zen-Nippon Pro Wrestling about +3 stars. A good start to the series and I'm sure it got even better, but we shall see.....