Graveyard: All-Star Pro Wrestling 3

Watch your step, for you’ve just entered the Graveyard. Inside, we’ll be digging up games that have long been without a pulse. You’ll see both good and bad souls unearthed every month as we search through the more… forgotten…parts of history.

Square Enix is a name that comes to mind when you think of all manner of RPGs, but they dabbled in a few different pro wrestling games over the years and found their groove as time went on. The Japanese-only All-Star Pro Wrestling games started off being weird, but in a good way. It featured a control scheme revolving around using the two analog sticks of the PS2 alongside something more traditional and was far ahead of the curve in that regard. It wasn’t until Smackdown vs. Raw 2007 that you would see major mainline WWE games using analog sticks this extensively and to control as many functions.

The sequel upped the ante with wrestlers from New Japan, NOAH and Zero One while this last incarnation added more freelancers including icons like Vader and the MMA and puro legend Don Frye. All-Star Pro Wrestling 3 aimed to capture the spectacle of pro wrestling alongside the in-ring drama in ways that few games since have attempted to. Ring entrances are a big part of the presentation for both the real-world and virtual product and none have truly captured the emotion possible with a walkout like ASPW 3 did while also capturing so much of the music between the notes.

Like Aki did with their N64 classics, a lot went into putting accurate taunting and body language to help tell the story of the wrestlers in the match. All-Star Pro Wrestling III makes it easy to lose yourself in the drama of pro wrestling — first with the walkouts and then with the in-ring action. Kenta Kobashi’s real-life entrances were some of the most dramatic in the era represented here because he was past his physical prime and beaten up, but still able to shine brightly when bell time came and every single movement looked like it labored him and that’s replicated here. His walk to the ring is a task in and of itself and he stops to show appreciation to the fans.

Other introductions do things like use unusual camera angles to show off the lighting rigs above the ring and add a sense of scale to the venues you’re in. No game since has done quite what this one does in terms of making the crowd both look full while also showing them in such a way that they aren’t just stick people or low-poly models. They’re given a faded look to put focus on the wrestler and the staging and it works wonderfully at showing the size of the venue and the importance of the wrestlers. The game excels at small touches like this and that blends into the in-ring action as well.

Much like Toukon Retsuden from Yuke’s before it, ASPW 3 focuses on the physical drama of a match with a mix of hard strikes and violent slams alongside submissions and out of the ring clashes too. Strikes have a light and heavy component as do grapples and things can be put together in sequences to do more damage while increasing the risk of a counter as well. There’s a risk/reward system in place for trying to have your cake and eat it too with a seamless move into another move and that could quickly put you into a more vulnerable position.

The reversal system is powerful and features organic-looking animations that play into the moves being reversed perfectly. There are no jarring animation changes like with Aki’s half-crab counter being used for any face-down ground grapple on the legs being countered. The strikes are a mix of forceful and violent, with slaps to the face having a nice pop to them, while hard chops rattle the body. Excessive shots lead to the user getting winded, but can also fire up the person taking the shots as they absorb the impact and fire back with a big shot of their own as a last gasp to save themselves from more punishment.

Replicating the amotion of a pro wrestling match is something that many games struggle to do and that All-Star Pro Wrestling 3 makes look easy. Like Aki’s games and Toukon Retsuden before it, by focusing on treating pro wrestling as a sporting contest, every part of the environment becomes something that can do damage in an organic way. Throwing someone into the turnbuckle opens the door to strikes, grapples or top rope attacks. Battling on the floor leads to attacks on the guardrail and slams on the elevated rampway result in a loud thud due to the surface being so much harder than the ring mat itself.

ASPW 3 allows players to enjoy singles matches, tag matches or four way elimination matches. The latter, much like the TR games, provide some of the most fun action in the game since you have all the chaos of a tag team match but a bit more fun since there’s more to keep track of and more rivals to take out. You can still attack rivals with two on one attacks from a makeshift ally and while the match type isn’t done a lot in Japan, it’s still a riot to do in a game — especially with elimination rules intact to see who the last survivor is.

Visually, All-Star Pro Wrestling 3 is the finest Japanese pro wrestling game of the past 20 years — for positive and negative reasons. No game since has captured how epic big-time Japanese wrestling matches can feel, but we also haven’t had a lot of them on the market either. Fire Pro Wrestling World was the last one and that is a 2D game and nothing has come out in 3D to capture the modern generation of talent. Still, the visuals hold up well over time thanks to a lot of details in the character models and fluid animation alongside a focus on making sure the venues look big-time and have a lot of detail.

Entrance music blares for all of the in-game talent as do crowd chants for their walkout, furthering the feel that a war is about to unfold in the ring. The smacks of every strike ring through and with a good set of headphones, it’s incredible how great a job was done at making hard strike feel like something that should knock someone out instantly. It’s clear that a lot of work went into the sound design and it pays off big-time in the final product.

All-Star Pro Wrestling 3 is a must-have for anyone with a Japanese game-playable PS2. It only goes for about $40 complete and offers up an incredible time capsule in Japanese pro wrestling history. You’ve got New Japan and NOAH in a single game, albeit with a scaled-back roster for both companies, but one of the finest gameplay engines ever for simulating pro wrestling action and one that’s held up over nearly twenty years. It doesn’t have a ton of mode options, but makes up for it with top-shelf gameplay. It’s a shame that the game can’t be re-released due to it being a licensing nightmare, because with Japanese pro wrestling being more in-fashion now than it has ever been in North America, it would probably do well if the concept was repeated now. Either way, it’s a fantastic time capsule of a game and a must-own for any Japanese pro wrestling fan.