My first introduction to wrestling games was Pro Wrestling for NES. I played as Starman until I had nearly worn out one full controller. From there, I moved on to Fire Pro Wrestling on SNES, and the Aki wrestling games on N64 (No Mercy, Wrestlemania 2000, WCW nWo Revenge). Hell, I even dabbled in the Acclaim games, like Warzone and ECW Anarchy Rulz.

Even through three generations worth of THQ and 2K’s Smackdown/WWE games, I always found myself going back to two games in particular: WWF No Mercy and Fire Pro Wrestling Returns. I still bought all the Smackdown/WWE games, but if you were tally up my hours, No Mercy and FPWR would stick out like a sore thumb. I don’t know why I am so attracted to those two games; perhaps it’s the outrageous amount of wrestlers and customization in FPWR and the control scheme/match pacing on No Mercy. Who knows. All I know is that year after year, even though I enjoy the hell out of THQ and 2K’s offerings, I keep holding out for the “next” No Mercy. I longed to play a wrestling game by developers who were actually passionate about this very unique form of entertainment.

Two recent games caught my attention. One is Pro Wrestling X which is currently in an early release alpha on Steam (check it out, it’s like No Mercy’s spiritual successor). The other is 5 Star Wrestling, which I first learned about on a Reddit thread and later started following on Facebook. At GDC this year, I got to meet with the developers of 5 Star Wrestling and try out the game for myself.

Before I delve into the nitty gritty of the game, I want to say that this is the wrestling game that I have been waiting for. Sure it kind of sucks to not have actual wrestler names in the game, but for obvious reasons, we get some pretty entertaining knockoffs instead. My demo consisted of Curtis Angel and Ragnabrok. I wonder who they could be (wink, wink). My personal favorite was Harvey Dee. Serious entertainment here, folks.

Right off the bat, the first thing I noticed was that the control scheme is both familiar, and something completely new. You have your typical shoulder button reversals, buttons for strikes, running, irish whip, etc, but there’s no button to initiate grapples. Every wrestling game I have every played (with the exception of Fire Pro Wrestling Returns) utilizes a button to initiate grapples, and then the same button + a direction to cycle through your various grapple moves. Certain games like No Mercy opened up the moves list even more by allowing an entire suite of moves based off of how long you hold the grapple button (weak grapple and strong grapple). Even games that dabbled with a right stick grapple mechanic usually required a grapple initiation first.

In 5 Star, there is no grapple initiation. You simply walk up to your opponent and flick the right stick in a direction, and a grapple is performed. This not only makes deciding on which move to pull off much easier, but it also creates a better flow of the match, as your wrestler’s moves are not always broken up by an intermediary initiation grapple.

At this point, I know what you’re thinking; “That’s it? Flicking the right stick in one of four directions? That’s not a lot of variety, dude.” I hear you, my good friends. That’s where the shoulder modifiers come into play. In 5 Star, the L2, R2, and L1 buttons act as modifiers for your grapple moves. By holding down one of the shoulder keys, you open up a whole new set of grapples based off the modifier you’re using at the moment. So not only do you have the four base grapple moves just based off of flicking the right stick, but you have an additional twelve moves when using the shoulder modifiers. And that’s just the FRONT grapples. You have a whole new set of back grapples as well. That’s an insane amount of variety.

Speaking of back grapples, there’s one small but important quirk that I absolutely love about 5 Star. Instead of manually grabbing your opponent then turning him around to initiate a back grapple, you simply hold another modifier (R1) down from any position, and your wrestler will immediately transition into a rear grapple and perform the move. It’s as simple as approaching your opponent, holding the modifier and flicking the stick, then watching as your guy performs a punch to the face, transitions to a rear waist lock, then unleashes a German suplex all in one animation sequence. There’s no need for the player to spin the opponent around or “get into position.”

My demo session began with me using Curtis Angel going up against Ragnabrok. I’m not going to name any names, but let’s just say that Angel has the Ankle Lock and Olympic Slam as his finisher, and Ragnabrok uses the F5. I’m willing to bet Harvey Dee has the Frog Splash (or 5 Star Frog Splash if you want to be meta), and Jonny “The Bull” Miavia has something called the Jabroni Slam. I wonder what that looks like…..

The movement throughout my demo was relatively smooth, but there was the odd collision detection issue that popped up here and there (the game is not finished yet, so that’s to be expected). After adjusting to the new control scheme and trying to push all existing WWE 2K habits out of my mind, the game started to flow quite nicely. Dynamic camera angles were fast and plentiful as Curtis and Ragnabrok repeated their epic match from Wrestlema……I mean that one time they may or may not have faced each other in “real life.” Punches flew, slams were made, and after a while, Ragnabrok started to develop bruises all over his body. R2 and L2 reverses grapples and strikes, and a momentum and stamina meter let’s you know where you stand in terms of big moves and finishers.

One of the coolest things about my demo was the limb targeting system. Depending on who your character is, the modifier button will target different things. So as Curtis Angel who’s more of a technician, my L2 grapple modifier was all moves that targeted Ragnabrok’s legs, whereas Ragnabrok’s modifier consisted of lifting power moves like suplexes and powerbombs. By targeting Ragnabrok’s legs, I eventually damaged him to the point to where not only was he sufficiently weakened to where my ankle lock would have gained an easy submission, but he was also so injured that when he tried to powerbomb me, his legs buckled and he failed in his attempt. That’s pretty cool, and something I can’t recall ever seeing in a wrestling game before. I basically damaged Ragnabrok’s legs so much that I effectively took away a whole slew of moves from him. This will give virtual grapplers more of a chance to be their own Cerebral Assassin more than ever before.

As a nice throwback to No Mercy, finishers are allowed as many times as you can manage during the window of time where the finisher is enabled. Unlike the WWE series where you have a set number of finishers, here as long as you have the flashing 5 stars to signify that you can do your finisher, you can unleash as many as you want as long as you don’t tired out your wrestler. As far as finishers go, there’s a nice variety as well. Rather than one type of Olympic Slam or Ankle Lock, holding the modifier when performing a finisher will allow you to unleash a variant of that move. So Angel’s regular finisher might be the Olympic Slam, but with a modifier applied, he might throw a few punches first then transition to the Slam. The Ankle Lock sans modifier looks devastating enough, but imagine applying the modifier and locking in a grapevine in addition to the Ankle Lock. Now imagine irish whipping your opponent into the turnbuckle and performing the Olympic Slam from the top rope. In 5 Star, you have a ton of variety even in your finishing maneuver.

Perhaps the most telling thing I was told from Daniel (5 Star Wrestling dev) was when I asked him about having weapons in the game. As a feature that’s coming later, he said that he didn’t want you to grab a chair and choose between five chair shots. He wants you to be able to choose between 45 different chair shots. “Every move you’ve ever seen anyone do with a chair, I want you to be able to do in the game.” The same answer was given when I asked about ladders. Why have five ladder moves when you can put 45 in there? Variety is the spice of life, and the 5 Star crew wants to give you as much spicy curry as possible as opposed bland cream of wheat (not sure where that analogy came from, but I’m sticking with it).

5 Star Wrestling is all about variety and flow. It may not be as pretty as WWE 2K15 or have the sheer number of characters from Fire Pro Wrestling Returns, but when you have a wrestling game that gives you so many different ways to perform one move, a brilliant limb targeting system, and a simple yet advanced control scheme, then you have something that feels fresh in the world of video game wrestling. In a world of the same Call of Duty game being released year after year, isn’t “fresh” what we’re all clamoring for? Wrestling fans will get it here with 5 Star Wrestling. It’s not only a love letter to wrestling as a whole, but it’s a love letter to the entire genre of wrestling video games. For those of us who have played nearly every wrestling game ever made, there’s lots to like here, and I’m extremely excited to see what the final version looks like.