While the market has been flooded by endless and faceless US wrestling titles in the last few years, Western gamers have largely ignored the slow trickle of high quality Japanese Fire Pro titles. Luckily, the arrival of the GameBoy Advance created a gateway of sorts for those craving such a game; tracking down the Dreamcast version may not be as easy, but itís worth the effort.
Regular consumers of Wrestlemania, No Mercy or similar US franchises (or those that have ignored Wrestling games totally) - consider yourselves warned - you might be in for something of a shock. Fire Pro is to those US based games what Street Fighter is to Tekken: less glitz and glam and far more substance. Fire Pro Wrestling is as old as old school can be (originating from way back in 1989) yet fresh enough to compete with the slickly produced new breed of 3D wrestlers. From the start there is a realisation that this game is different; perfect timing and a sense of the game play structure are absolutely necessary for survival let alone success; button mashing results in becoming intimately acquainted with the canvas.
The first big change for wrestle fans is the lack of grapple button. Instead, walking toward an opponent sees the two challengers neatly locked in to a grapple. Once embraced with your hefty foe perfect timing is required - choose from a raft of different attacks, in three different strengths (weak, medium or strong) or attempt an Irish Whip, sending your opponent flying across the ring and bouncing off the ropes. Follow this with a high punch, neck choke or for the brave hearted a flying drop kick, thereís a myriad of other well-animated moves of course. Bouts can take a while to complete; sure there are Criticals (instant win moves) that can be pulled off at any time (with real skill and a large dose of luck), but expect to have to grind out wins, sizing up the opposition, working out their strengths and weaknesses, before slowly wearing them down.
Attempting a strong attack straight off the bat is likely to lead to a painful reversal. Bide your time, execute the weak moves and with your enemy on the ground, choose a target on the body and just keep working! Sooner or later, blood, heavy breathing and slower movement will show you its time to move up a gear, unleashing the strong moves that will eventually create the chance to finish the fight. When the time is right, attempt the pin down for 3 seconds, go for the submission or simply beat the opponent to within an inch of his life and watch as he lies motionless on the canvas incapable of beating the ten count.
Choosing your style of destruction is a personal thing. Gamers will soon garner a taste for the kind of fighter that suits them best, as well as when to go all in and when to take a breather (and recover some strength). When loose of your opponent, you can punch or kick your way through the fight, even exit the ring and see what weapons are available under the canvas. A good whack on the back with a flat back chair never gets old! Regardless of your style of play, with all the available wresters and moves, Fire Pro is ready to accommodate.
Visually the game moves well, though no Guilty Gear X in appearance it still has its own 16 bit charm (think Big Daddy not Hulk Hogan), but it's certainly no show case for Sega's Dreamcast. The fights take place in an isometric three-quarter view, with the majority of the ring on screen at all times. The wrestlers themselves, depicted using sprite based graphics, have bundles of charm and the huge variation between the two hundred plus fighters is credit to some serious artistic craftsmanship. Everything is animated efficiently enough that you know what is happening at all times and the precision needed to take on the foe is never impeded. The effects are well handled too, from the glamorous ring intros to the exploding cage modeís pyrotechnics. Audio, though, can be another matter. Mostly the sound is OK, the music is cheesy but in-keeping, while the sounds of the grunts, slaps, kicks and punches are well handled (if a little repetitive). The crowd noises, though, are lacking, leaving the atmosphere as flat as a reverse chest whip.
The only thing that rivals the depth of game play is the array of game modes on offer (One on One, Tag Team, Death match, Battle Royal, Octagon Match, Exploding Cage, Road to Victory, three on three, four on four and more). Everything a budding wrestler could want (or imagine) is here, everything has value and everything will be played.
The icing on the cake (more like an extra tier) is the sublime Create-A-Wrestler (CAW) mode. Having well over 200 ready-to-use wrestlers just isn't enough for some gamers. Not only can the visual appearance of your future title contender be tailored, but any one of over 2,000 moves can be attributed too. Real life monikers have been changed to protect the innocent (and to save Spike from certain court action) but visually they look just like the real thing. And, even now, 3 years on from release, a lively on-line community continues, a huge array of new fighters along with hundreds of custom moves readily available.
So far, so perfect, right? However, the game does have some weaknesses. The perfect timing that is required can make the game feel a little sterile and lacking in out-and-out excitement. The methodical game play can make fights seem a tad predictable and even stagnant. For experienced players, some fights have the feel of wrestling-by-numbers, with the first few minutes of the fight a formality that must be completed in order to reach the real contest. It's perfectly possible to lose a bout within the opening exchanges but a lack of concentration would be the likely culprit here. The counter-argument here is that Fire Pro rewards planned attack strategies, and patience and preparation are key to any conflict. Such niggles are overweighed by the rewards of the game, practice makes perfect and with so much depth and variation on offer you can always take a break from the career mode to jump in to a bit of wire caged mayhem. If wrestling is a problem for you then think of this as highly skilled Japanese combat. But, if wrestling is your thing, then you must give this a go. Either way, be warned; a hardcore like obsession is likely to ensue.
A review by Gareth C