Fire Pro Wrestling has a much longer and storied history than the pair of GBA titles that have come to North America. This series has existed since the TurboGrafx era in Japan, with multiple entries appearing on that console, as well as the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, Sega Saturn, Dreamcast, and PlayStation 2. None of those console games have come to the US--that is, until now. Publisher Agetec has brought Fire Pro Wrestling Returns to North American PlayStation 2s, and at the discount rate of $14.99 at that. Granted, this game is kind of a tough sale. With its decidedly ancient graphics, arcane menus, deceptively complex gameplay, and roster of largely unfamiliar wrestlers, Fire Pro Returns practically screams "go away!" to anyone who likes easy to pick up wrestling games that are full of familiar faces. But even for all its peculiarities, Fire Pro's enjoyable gameplay, as well as nifty roster of modes and features, make it worth a look for wrestling fans hunting for something a bit different.
Fire Pro Returns is much like its many, many predecessors. In fact, if you're one of the people who imported any of the previous games in the series, you'll feel right at home here because few, if any major aspects of the game, have really changed, apart from the sudden use of the English language in all the various menu screens. But let's assume that you haven't been importing these games over the years and, at best, only know the GBA games. What you need to know is that Fire Pro Returns harks back to a much, much older era of wrestling games. The 2D era, specifically. Yes, all the graphics are 2D, with all the sprite-based wrestler models and somewhat choppy animations that go along with two-dimensional visuals. By no means are the visuals terrible: If this were a SNES game, it'd be one of the best-looking games on the system, in fact. It's just a very old-looking game, and little has been done over the years to jazz up the visuals in any capacity. The music isn't much better, sounding roughly like what would happen if Kenny Loggins got ahold of a busted keyboard.
If the notion of a 2D wrestling game on your PlayStation 2 hasn't already sent you running, screaming for the hills, you'll be happy to hear that despite the archaic look of the game, it's still one of the deepest and most enjoyable pure wrestlers out there. The gameplay seems extremely simple at first--that is, until you jump into your first match and get destroyed by the artificial intelligence. This is not a button masher, and if you try to play it as one, you will only frustrate yourself immensely. The gameplay revolves around a grappling system that is extremely focused on precise and careful timing. The basic moves are executed much as other modern wrestlers, where you simply press a direction on the D pad in conjunction with one of the face buttons on the controller to pull out a specific type of move. The trick is how grapples are initiated. Any time you go face-to-face with an opposing wrestler, a grapple is automatically initiated, and the player to hit his move first, gets it. But getting it first doesn't mean you should start smashing buttons the second you start to lock up. There is a very precise timing to it--essentially, the moment the wrestler's hands start to touch, it's time to go. Getting this timing down is initially quite the flustering experience, but once you get it, you get it, and it becomes second nature.
The grappling system is perhaps the trickiest aspect of the gameplay, though there's lots more to consider. For a 2D game, Fire Pro doesn't skimp on all the modern conventions of wrestling games. There are tons of different moves, multiple weapons to use, battle royals, tournaments, a matchmaker mode (where you can build your own event cards and try to create the most exciting matches possible to win favor with the crowd), violent gimmick matches (cage matches, mixed-martial art matches, electrified barbed wire ropes exploding death matches, and fluorescent tubes landmine death matches, among others), weight balancing among the wrestlers, and even a nice balance to the matches, forcing you to use weaker attacks on opponents before hitting them with the heavy stuff, lest you find yourself getting reversed constantly. The AI is extremely adept, keeping you in check whenever you try to cheat a little and start hitting the big attacks early. It also plays to each wrestler's style. High flyers pull out a lot of neat acrobatic moves, power guys slam you like crazy, and the superstars play to the crowd every chance they get. A lot of this has to do with the game's insanely programmable AI system, which sets everything from how often each wrestler performs its signature moves to how often it picks up a fallen wrestler off the mat versus going in for a submission.
It's a staggeringly complex system, and one that anyone can mess with in the game's create-a-wrestler mode. This is arguably the game's biggest draw for multiple reasons. For one, it lets you edit any of the game's hundreds of preexisting wrestlers however you like. All of these wrestlers are based on real-life grapplers, though the bulk of them are Japanese superstars who you've never heard of in all likelihood. There are a few notable American wrestlers in there, including Andre the Giant, Terry Funk, Kevin Nash, Scott Hall, and Sting, among others. But to avoid unpleasantness with copyrighting, all these guys have fake names and look just slightly different from their real-life counterparts. But hey, with the edit mode, now you can just go in and rename them as you please.
Or, you could create any of your favorite wrestlers with the create mode. There are hundreds and hundreds of available faces to choose from, many of which are based on existing wrestlers. With all the available costume options, not to mention the thousands of moves you can pick from, it's not difficult to design just about any real-life grappler. Plus, if you're inclined to start messing with all the different AI and skill attributes, you could literally spend hours upon hours just building a few different wrestlers. And the result won't be for naught because you'll see your creations behave exactly how you tell them to behave.
The only problem with the edit mode--and this is actually an issue with the game as a whole--is the menu system. Fire Pro's menus look and feel like they were designed by a lunatic with highly questionable organization skills. All the fonts are gigantic and hideous-looking, while menu navigation makes just about no sense whatsoever. The process of actually creating a new wrestler requires you to dive several submenus deeper than you should have to, including menus that you might not even know are there until you accidentally press the square button on the main edit mode screen, and nothing in the game itself actually explains this process. Even the various game modes suffer as a result of this labyrinthine menu design. For instance, the game's save system doesn't really apply while you're in a given mode. This means that if you're in the matchmaker mode, you can only quick save in between events, but that doesn't actually save to the memory card. Only when you back out of the mode entirely, do you have the option to save your game data to the memory card, and there are several areas in the mode where it doesn't seem like you can back out at all. The same goes for any other mode that requires saving. It would take a game's save system setting your memory card on fire for it to be more unfriendly than this one.
That's really the key thing about Fire Pro Wrestling Returns: It's not an especially friendly game for the newcomer. It is unapologetically a Fire Pro game and almost seems to expect a certain knowledge of the series right from the get-go. There are no real tutorials to speak of, nothing built-in to help you ease into what is an extremely complex game across the board. So, ultimately, Fire Pro remains a somewhat niche product: a deep, intense wrestling game for people who don't care about such modern frills as real promotional licenses, 3D graphics, simple-to-use gameplay designs, and the like. While the actual number of those people might be on the lower side, this is a game that such an audience is guaranteed to love for its depth and level of challenge. And even if you don't fall into this category, any wrestling fan really ought to give this one a shot, given its ridiculously cheap price tag. You'll definitely be getting more than your money's worth.