I should admit now that I have zero experience with the Fire Pro Wrestling series that appeared on the Game Boy Advance and the Playstation 2 in the previous decade. The series was highly popular in Japan and saw over a dozen entries since the late 1980's, and has a few fans in the States as well. It's just as well, though, as the newest entry in the series, a download title on Xbox Live Arcade, doesn't share very many similarities with the original series, sharing only a name and a high preference for grappling. Truth be told, this is about as basic as wrestling can get.
The newest Fire Pro Wrestling is based around Xbox Avatars, as you take your custom avatar and try to work up the ranks to become the world champion. You're given a few tutorials from a fellow who looks like Doc Louis from Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!! and then let loose into the world of wrestling; the game developers didn't attempt to provide this game with much story. There isn't much need for one, really, but this just underscores the simplicity that runs through the entire game.
The fighting system is about as basic as any I've seen before. There are practically no combos at all, and you're restricted to simple single attacks almost entirely. You have basic strong and weak attacks, charge attacks, and an all-purpose grapple as your main attacks; the standard attacks all do varying amounts of damage, and have a chance of knocking the player down, while grapples have the specific purpose of trying to get an opponent on the mat for a possible pin. Grapples are a bit odd to behold; when you attempt it on someone, both players are prompted for one of the four face buttons, and if both the buttons they press are the same, the grapple is countered. This essentially removes any skill from grappling and replaces it with luck, which isn't my favorite choice.
Being a pro wrestling game, there are some extra elements meant to appeal to those who like showboating. You can taunt your opponent or appeal to the crowd to power up your Soul Gauge, which lets you perform a powerful, signature Finisher move. You can climb in and out of the ring, stand on a fencepost, or bounce yourself off of the ropes for a more powerful grapple attack, like a clothesline. The overall goal, naturally, is to pin your opponent for a three-count, which is made easier if you've taken their health down far enough.
The downside of this simple battle system is that there's practically no strategy to be derived. Every match I played in this game was pretty much the same: my opponent and I would sort of walk around each other, then run toward each other and try to be the first one to get in an attack or grapple. There's no concrete way to get yourself to victory, so you just wail on each other and hope for the best. Compounding the problem is that all of the strong attacks are incredibly slow, and no semi-competent player would ever be hit by an opponent bouncing off the ropes or charging up a strong attack. As a result, it's all punch, kick, grapple until one of you (hopefully) goes down for the count. And that's not even guaranteed. Matches can take forever and still not have any winner at the end.
Despite these complaints, there is still some fun to be had, but it needs to be viewed through the lens of a game like Mario Party. It doesn't feel that much like a game of skill; it's more like the avatars flail around for a bit, and eventually someone wins, or maybe nobody does. If you don't take it too seriously, it can act as a fun party game, but don't go into this expecting a really serious wrestling simulator.
Once you get past the game's well-made tutorials, you get to complete in a variety of either Casual, Champion or Underground matches. The venues change accordingly, as do the character designs, and there are about 18 matches in each category against steadily more challenging opponents. Once you complete enough of those matches, you can engage in the Title Match to become the ultimate champion. In addition to this Career mode, you can also play in Exhibition matches, or try out some online multiplayer.
Others have complained about the multiplayer connectivity problems before, but I personally had no problem, though it should be noted that I played this game on a ludicrously fast connection (95 Mbps down, 83 Mbps up). When I selected the option for "any match" I was able to get into a tag team match in about ten seconds, though I imagine that requesting a more specific match will give someone more trouble. When actually in the match, there was no noticeable lag between the players or with the controller, though again, your mileage may vary.
Online multiplayer did make me question the usefulness of player levels, though. As you play more matches, your level slowly goes up to reflect the amount of experience you've earned. In an online match, however, I was a level 5 character paired with a level 100 character, against a team of two level 60 players. Despite what I thought would be an enormous imbalance, I was able to easily hold my own against the other players and even got in the winning pin. It makes me wonder what the levels even indicate, if they hold practically no weight in an exhibition match. (And in case it sounds like I'm bragging, I was unable to defeat a level 10 NPC in an Underground match, so there you go.)
Being basically a vehicle for Avatars, one thing this game is particularly focused on is customization. The game gives you lots of options for headgear, masks, clothes, shoes and more; items become unlocked as you play, earning experience and in-game money, which you can use to purchase certain items. You can also customize all of your fighting moves, and the more you play, the more flashy and flamboyant your grapples and such can become, which probably adds to the party game atmosphere, since I'm not sure how much more damage these unlocked attacks actually do. The game is also compatible with Avatar Famestar, a system that promotes your Avatar across a number of different games.
The presentation is about what you would expect, really. The world has a rather cartoony quality to it, from the characters to the venues, though it's all nice resolution. The Avatar outfits are accidentally hilarious, however, as it's obvious that the bare muscles shown in some outfits are part of a shirt, like everyone's wearing an ill-fitting muscle suit. The soundtrack is pretty generic rock music that sounds like it was written for a particularly edgy elevator; it's not particularly inspired, though it sets the mood well enough, I suppose.
Overall, Fire Pro Wrestling doesn't really feel like the kind of game that appeals to fans of, well, the original Fire Pro Wrestling. The combat is dumbed down to the point where it almost feels like a crapshoot sometimes, and most of the focus is on spiffing up your Avatar with cool new outfits and flashy moves. Despite being what should be an objectively terrible game, there is a quality of fun to the game that's hard to ignore. If treated as a silly and fun party game, instead of an actual serious wrestling title, Fire Pro Wrestling can probably be a fairly enjoyable addition to your download library. You shouldn't expect a whole lot, but considering it only costs $5, you're probably getting close to your money's worth.
-by Jim Avery for news10.net's Game Guys
(Microsoft supplied a copy of this game for review.)
Version tested: Xbox 360