Mention the name Fire Pro Wrestling to hardcore wrestling fans, and they'll tell you that it was one of the best wrestling titles to never make it out of Japan (until much, much later). For 20 years, the series has represented some of the deepest sprite-based wrestling on any console with enough customization to let you make just about any wrestler you want. Next to WWF No Mercy, the games have come to represent what video game wrestling can do. When Microsoft announced the return of the franchise to Xbox Live Arcade, fans were ecstatic. When they learned that it was purely avatar-based, those same fans expressed disappointment. Now that the final product has finally arrived, only the most casual of wrestling fans should bother trying this.
Fire Pro Wrestling covers some of the basics of pro wrestling. Players have three different strike types, each ranging in the amount of damage that can be doled out. Quick strikes can be comboed on their own, heavy strikes can be used either alone or at the end of a combo, and a charged strike. Grappling lets you use one of four grappling moves, and it can also be used to counter opponents on the top turnbuckle. Players can reverse the applied grapple if they hit the same button that the opponent used to initiate the grapple. There's a block move that can also stun the opponent if you time it correctly. You can climb the top turnbuckle and dive out of the ring to attack an opponent, and you can either strike a fallen foe or kick him up to perform more damage. Taunting helps build up a super meter, and once that's filled, you can initiate a supertaunt before grabbing the opponent and unleashing a devastating supermove.
The emphasis on simple pro wrestling is apparent when you discover some of the things you can't do even though they're staples of the sport. There are no submission moves, so you can only win a match with pins. Moves associated with ropes are also missing, so while you can't perform The Undertaker's old-school rope walk, you can't even clothesline an opponent or get him in a running grapple. The wrestling is kept clean to the point where chairs and kendo sticks are missing, and you can forget about slamming your opponent to the side of the ring when you're fighting on the outside. There are also no tag-team-specific moves beyond your finisher, and you can neither attack the waiting partner nor have him illegally get into the ring unless it's to break up a pin. The last time a pro wrestling game felt so simple was during the NES days, when Nintendo's Pro Wrestling was the best of the genre.
Believe it or not, the simplicity makes room for some depth via a RPG-like customization process. After your first tutorial match, you can create your character's move set for just about any situation. Moves are earned as you rank up, and each move is graded in terms of how much damage it inflicts, how much stamina it spends, etc. Oddly, the grading is best done on the field since it isn't clear whether a higher or lower grade is better for some statistics. While earning a move is one thing, applying it is another since your own stats act as a gateway. The stats are split up into six separate categories ranging from some self-explanatory things like strength and stamina to a few obscure items such as luck, which determines your chances of being countered on a grapple move.
That depth in character building also applies to character aesthetics, though not in a way you'd expect. Within the game, there are various costumes and pieces that'll give your wrestler just the right look if you want something like a lumberjack or luchador. You can try for a shirtless wrestler, but since there's no way to define muscles for avatars, you'll have to make do with long-sleeved muscle shirts — even though that can look tacky. You can expand your customization library thanks to the available avatar clothes in the XBL Marketplace. Admittedly, it is kind of a rip-off to get the best customization this way, and there are some costumes that don't seem to work properly in the game, but it's amusing to have a four-way bout with imitations of Master Chief, Sherlock Holmes, Sonic the Hedgehog and Zack Ryder.
Sadly, that is the most customization that Fire Pro Wrestling lets you do. Ring and belt customization are completely missing. You also can't personalize your avatar-style outfits for use in the game, so you're at the mercy of whatever Microsoft has for sale in its marketplace. For the die-hard fans, that's tough for a series that has prided itself on being extremely customizable.
There really are only two offered offline modes. The campaign mode is split up into three different divisions, each with three subdivisions. Those divisions give you about eight matches and some minigames, such as being able to get out of a pin closest to three seconds without hitting the actual limit. The matches are against pre-set opponents of both genders and all ages, and while most are singles contests, some are tag-team and four-way matches. Once you complete all of the courses, you'll have the chance to enter the main event to win the Xbox Championship. Exhibition mode simply takes the campaign modes and lets you play with your offline friends.
The title's quirks and dated nature really show up when you begin playing. Some basic punches don't look like they hit hard enough, but by contrast, other moves are exaggerated, like picking up someone from the mat or jumping from the top turnbuckle. Characters fly very high in the air, stomps are more like hops on the fallen body, and picking up a person consists of kicking him into the air and having him land on his feet. Grapple moves fall squarely in the middle despite the dramatic camera angles, with the only exception being supermoves, which have just the right amount of force and flash to look spectacular.
Despite these issues, one can see how a casual fan could have some fun with the title. With the simple button layout and mechanics, casual fans may find that this title isn't too overwhelming. Unfortunately, the lack of moves and techniques end up being the big trade-off for such simplicity, and one has to wonder why no developer has been able to strike that magical balance.
Online play is spotty. Matches have the same modes as offline play, so there isn't anything exclusive on that front. Lag is present and fluctuates wildly. In one 10-minute bout, the performance ranged from smooth to debilitating with frequent pauses. There is still a healthy community of players online, so you shouldn't have too much trouble finding an opponent. One quirk about online play is that you can only see your statistics. The health, stamina and energy meters of your opponents and your tag-team partner are absent from view, even though those stats are always visible in an offline game.
The sound is decidedly average. The effects are there, but they lack punch. Hits sound softer than before, and the sound of you rolling on the ring feels cartoonish. Your avatars elicit some noises when taunting, but they either sound too high-pitched or too low, and there's no way to change how you want the wordless taunts to play out. The music is mostly generic rock material with very little variation per song, but what makes it grating is that the same song often repeats per stage. With such a wide variety of music used for entrances, it's perplexing that there are so few songs used during the matches.
Since the game makes heavy use of avatars, the appearance matches appropriately. All of the backgrounds, from the beachside rings to the seedy alleyways, are displayed in bright colors and a few moving elements. With the exception of the arenas, most of the environments have sparse crowds filled with people displaying the same animations no matter what's happening on-screen. Ring ropes behave fine when you bounce off of them, but they seem to take on a mind of their own when you're going through them. Your characters animate fine, though lots of the moves don't seem to connect with the opponent. The only real positive here is that the frame rate holds at a very steady 60fps with no drop during the flashiest of supermoves.
Putting the name Fire Pro Wrestling on this game does neither the franchise nor the game any favors. The name evokes memories of a technically deep game, but the mechanics are only as deep as some of the very early pro wrestling titles. Only the customization of characters shows off glimmers of the depth for which the series is known, and even then, you'll be paying a pretty penny to get that to look the way you want it to. Even if you can accept the simplicity, some of the basic mechanics don't work properly, bringing down the whole thing several notches. If you're looking for a game that is devoid of a technical learning curve, grab the demo and see if this fits the bill. Combat and pro wrestling aficionados would be better served with any other wrestling title that's offered on the system.
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