Chances are, unless you're a die-hard fan of Japanese pro wrestling, you've never heard of the Fire ProWrestling series. However, the Fire Pro franchise has been around longer than you might think--since the days of the 16-bit systems, Fire Pro games have found their way to many different consoles, including the Super Nintendo, Sega Saturn, TurboGrafx-16, PlayStation, Dreamcast, and Game Boy Advance. The games have always been about a fast-paced style of play, 2D sprite-based graphics, and a staggeringly deep list of available modes and characters. As time and technology have progressed, little has changed in the realm of the Fire Pro series, and frankly, the series is quickly becoming obsolete when compared with the numerous 3D offerings available in the wrestling game market. Fire ProWrestling Z, the latest game in the series is, unsurprisingly, the last, according to Spike, the developer of the game; and if, in fact, Fire ProWrestling Z is the final chapter in the long-running series, it is a truly fitting end to one of the greatest franchises in wrestling game history.
Unlike conventional wrestling games, and even most unconventional wrestling games, Fire ProWrestling Z features no specific license whatsoever. Instead, thanks to the slightly more relaxed copyright laws of Japan, the game features a host of wrestlers from "fake" leagues that are, in actuality, based on real wrestlers, shoot fighters, and leagues from around the world. Real-life Japanese leagues featured in the game include New Japan Pro, All Japan Pro, Noah, Zero-One, Toryumon, Big Japan, Michinoku Pro, Pride, and K-1, and the game also includes the Mexican AAA league and a US league that vaguely resembles the new NWA-TNA promotion. Each league and character has a slightly changed name, so, for instance, All Japan Pro Wrestling would instead be Olive Japan Pro Wrestling, and the wrestler Ultimo Dragon is actually referred to as Azteca Dragon.
Each game in the Fire Pro series has used essentially the same control scheme, and Fire Pro Z is no different. Each wrestler has three attacks, represented on the PlayStation 2 controller by the square, X, and circle buttons respectively. Each attack button by itself performs a strike with a varying degree of damage. The Fire Pro games also employ a unique grappling system; rather than just using a grapple button, you perform a grapple by coming into direct contact with your opponent while moving around the ring. When you make contact, the grappling animation will immediately start, and your task will be to press one of the three attack buttons, along with a direction on the D pad, at the precisely correct moment to perform your move. The timing on this is absolutely brutal, and even on the easiest difficulty level, most players should find it very challenging at first.
In addition to attacking, you can run, which is done with the triangle button. When you press it, your wrestler will run in whatever direction you press on the D pad. However, if you press it during a grapple, you can toss your opponent into the ropes or into the corner, setting him up for a more powerful attack. You can also perform various submission and ground attacks by hitting the various attack buttons either at the head or foot of your downed opponent, and you can also pin your opponent for the three count.
Fire ProWrestling Z, much like its predecessors, features a bevy of different modes, both single- and multiplayer. On the single-player side of things, the primary mode is the story mode. When you begin, you're presented with four different story options. Each story stars one wrestler from the game and presents you with a plot that seems to closely map that wrestler's real-life career. Mitsuharu Misawa, for instance, works his way through All Japan, eventually starting up the Noah League, and Keiji Mutoh goes through some of his more notable feuds, including bouts against such stars as Masa Chono and Ric Flair, both as Mutoh and his alter ego, The Great Muta. The trouble is that the entire story is played out through lengthy text-based scenes, where you'll find yourself staring at a static image of the person you're talking to, while you skip through tons and tons of Japanese text before getting to a match. However, completing each story mode allows you to unlock a hefty number of wrestlers, and you can unlock them even if you lose every single match, so it's worth the effort.
The game's other single-player mode is the victory road. You begin by selecting from one of the game's available title belts, which include heavyweight, heavyweight tag, junior weight, junior weight tag, and six- and eight-man tag titles. You then go through a series of bouts against an onslaught of different wrestlers, working your way up through the ranks until finally reaching the title match. Winning any of these titles unlocks the title match mode, where you can defend or challenge for the title at will, without having to go back through the victory road all over again. You'll also find a host of multiplayer match options. Match types include basic single and tag matches, elimination and round robin tournaments, elimination tag matches, and a battle royal.
What is perhaps the most famous aspect of the Fire Pro games, and easily the best facet of Fire ProWrestling Z, is its create-a-wrestler mode. Though the game already features close to 400 playable wrestlers, you can create any number of famous faces from the WWE, WCW, and the like. Everything is editable, including body parts and clothing, and there are literally thousands of different moves to choose from, fully designable CPU logic and strength, and weakness points for a number of different categories. This mode is irrefutably the best of its kind and should provide hours upon hours of entertainment for any hard-core wrestling game fan.
When it comes down to graphics and sound, the unfortunate fact remains that these games are essentially bulked-up 16-bit titles, so on a system as powerful as the PlayStation 2, they just don't measure up. There is certainly something to be said for the charm of the game's look, as it does host thousands of different move animations, and the game's wrestlers actually aren't bad to look at. Still, the 2D look is likely to be a turnoff for the majority of modern-day wrestling game fans. The game's audio is equally sparse, but functional. Save for basic grunts and slams and a few different phrases spouted by the in-ring referee, there aren't many sound effects to be found during gameplay. There are a number of various theme songs to choose from for each wrestler, but in true Japanese wrestling fashion, the majority of these tunes sound like cheese-ball 1980s-era rock ballads, and they aren't pleasant to listen to. However, there are a few themes that sound pretty similar to some of the more notable WWE theme songs, so it isn't a total loss.
While the game's graphical and audio limitations are even more glaring in this day and age, Fire Pro Z still manages to outperform the bulk of the games in the 3D wrestling genre when it comes to quality gameplay. The classic style of Fire ProWrestling is fully intact here, and the end result is one of the deepest and most enjoyable wrestling games ever created. With only two GBA Fire Pro games having made the jump to the US, it seems likely that Fire Pro Z will remain in its native tongue. The game has its share of Japanese text, but its nothing that a translation FAQ can't solve. If you are a fan of quality wrestling games and have the means to import Japanese titles, Fire ProWrestling Z is just too good to be ignored.