It’s a pretty cool feeling when you’re just soaring through the air, taking in the sights and listening to the deafening roaring of the crowd, only to fall from the air and land a seriously painful elbow on a downed opponent’s solar plexus. Sure, you’ll be crawling to your opponent all sweaty and tired just to pin him/her for the three count, but for a split second, there’s peace and harmony with the universe when you’re flying, twisting and turning through the air. Such is the beauty of acrobatic wrestling, which is a style that Mexican and Japanese wrestlers love obsessively. Be it with high-flying attacks or performing crazy and flashy feats in the ring, these countries love their wrestling fast, dramatic, and flashy, and this has of course translated into video games.
Spike Chunsoft is one such company that has captured the essence of this type of wrestling with their Fire Pro Wrestling series, a 2D isometric view wrestling game that is recognized for its simple yet complex gameplay that appeals to newcomers and veterans alike, and beautiful sprite animations. While the series has not seen as much play stateside as fans would like, Spike has teamed up with Microsoft Game Studios to bring the franchise to the mainstream with Fire Pro Wrestling for Xbox Live Arcade, a game that forgoes the amazing 2D graphics for 3D Xbox Avatar wrestlers.
The story – which is more of a background set-up – is this: the player is a dreamer, full of hopes and aspirations of becoming a pro wrestler. Soon however, he/she wakes up and faces reality, and thanks to a trainer, is immediately entered into the amateur wrestling circuit. Fighting in colorful back yards and bright beaches, the player fights on in hopes of reaching the main stage and becoming champion.
As you can see, the story is as bland and generic as they get, but being a title about wrestling, it isn’t that necessary.
But when it comes to the visuals and sounds, the game is essentially a dumbed down and I dare say ‘cute’ version of its predecessors. Gone are the awesome and powerful 2D sprites, backgrounds that had crowds roaring and screaming, and excellent soundbytes. Instead what we have here are cartoony Microsoft avatars duking it out to the sound of whimsy, carnival tunes, wearing t-shirts that have the muscles painted on them. While this isn’t really that terrible as it sounds, it seems more like something you’d see in a Saturday morning toon rather than in a game that comes with the pedigree of being one of the finest wrestling experiences around. With animations that come with slow, repetitive strikes, flashy throws, multi-camera finishing moves and the very frequent silly attack, it would seem that the game was aimed more towards youngsters.
The same applies to the gameplay contained within this new iteration of the series. The famed complexity of Fire Pro Wrestling has been simplified for the sake of newcomers. There’s a light, strong and charged version of melee strikes, a grab that has selectable options when it lands (and can be countered by pressing the same button), a block and a run button. And that’s pretty much it. It’s good for those that are looking to drop in and just play a few matches, but for fans who are looking for a deeper experience; they can find the game to be too simple for their tastes.
You see, the wrestling in the new Fire Pro Wrestling can be pretty fun and engaging when things click and work well, but it can unfortunately also be quite repetitive, and not to mention occasionally buggy. Matches, which can be of the single, tag team or free-for-all variety, usually boil down to striking or dropping enemies on their heads, taunting them to fill the super meter, and then using said meter to ultimately destroy your opponent and bring his health bar to zero, allowing the player to pin them until the three count. While this pretty much sounds like any other wrestling game out there, the difference here is the amount of options when it comes to being on the offensive.
While move sets can be customized before matches and there’s a large of amount of them available, once you play a match you’re pretty much restricted to using the same three attacks and four grabs. Well into a match you’ll have seen the same animations for attacks so many times, that you’ll soon grow bored of them.
Speaking of animation and attacking, the hit detection in the game is pretty horrible. While normal strikes and grabs normally work as they should, for some strange reason they occasionally overshoot and miss their mark completely, leaving a player exposed to counterattack, which is kind of silly. And then there’s other problems, such as striking at the edge of the ring (where the ropes are), which also has some weird, unfortunate consequences. One that seems to happen all the time is that certain attacks (one’s that usually have players leaping before striking) has wrestlers unintentionally flying over or clipping through the ropes and landing on the ground below for no reason. It really sucks. In other occasions, trying to climb the corner buckle sends players rolling out of the ring, strangely enough. All of these weird, funky bugs keep the game from ever been seen as a serious wrestling game.
To keep things from getting too repetitive, the game does have a lot of customization options available, allowing players to buy costumes or clothing, new moves, or customize the opening theme and taunts of the wrestlers. There’s a nice variety of stuff to choose from, so that’s a plus.
For those looking for a little competition, the game also features online multiplayer, so amateur wrestlers far and wide can challenge each other at any moment. While it’s cool to play with friends and new foes, it doesn’t fix the glaring issues found in the gameplay.
The title also features Avatar Famestar, the new incentive which rewards players with avatar gear. If players are willing to go the distance and play for a while, they can score some wrestling gear for their in-game selves.
When it comes down to it, Spike Chunsoft’s Fire Pro Wrestling is a poor attempt at recreating the series’s former success. If only the game stayed true to its roots, the game would have been great. The inclusion of Microsoft’s avatars and the simplification of gameplay however ruined the game’s challenges. If you can overlook the game’s flaws and simplicity, then you might want to try it, but it’s best if you leave this game down for the count.