Version tested: GameBoy Advance
Leeeeeeet's get reeeeeady
It's a sign of the times that nowadays if someone mentions wrestling, you automatically think of sweaty Americans in Speedos dancing around pretending to hit one another. Back in the old days (and I mean old - we're talking Romans here), wrestlers were men of honour. Sure, they rolled around on the ground trying to snap one another's limbs, but they did it with dignity. Fire Pro Wrestling from developer Spike and BAM Entertainment harks us back to those cherished days of yore when a grip was hard to get out of, and a choke meant you choked, and also brings us up to date with the latest fighting styles from all over the world. The reason for the weird-sounding name is that the game makes its way from Japan, and brings with it 200 pre-made wrestlers skilled in the arts of Jujitsu, kick boxing, Luchador and all that. A darn sight more entertaining than an American pantomime. Fire Pro is a GBA exclusive, featuring plenty of fighting styles, proper technical wrestling and four person multiplayer. By virtue of its celebrated status as a "proper wrestling" game, Fire Pro also shies away from the button bashing arcade style beat 'em up to the point where you simply cannot do anything meaningful if you resort to slapping this and that. This means that you will have to read the manual to understand what you're meant to be doing.
To win at Fire Pro you have to grapple, and grappling is a fine art. As your two fighters square up and dash at one another, you perform your grapple combo just as the two meet, and if you get it right, you get the upper hand. The game boasts perfectly acceptable visuals, with smooth animation and decent sized fighters, and it offers visual aids so that you can tell how your fighter is bearing up. As you battle your opponent the fighting wears you out and the repetition of different moves starts to take its toll. If you're caught in a lot of arm locks for example, you lose strength and reversals are easier for the other guy. This is true of virtually every physical attribute - you have to wear them down and hurt them to get anywhere. The game wouldn't last very long if it took just a couple of armlocks to swing a match irreversibly in one direction though, and fighters can often achieve miraculous comebacks by going for a weak spot - particularly in multiplayer when the other chap has to fight to make sure he executes the right reversal or grapple combo on cue. Fire Pro Wrestling's emphasis on technical precision is a blessing, but it also acts as something of a curse. I have a really dated memory of watching a Killer Instinct master pulling off 80 hit combos in the arcade. He just moved the sticks around slowly and carefully, tapping buttons as he needed to and everything just happened. On the contrary, I sat there, adrenaline running as the combos mounted up trying (literally) with all my might to get the hits. That felt like fighting; there was aggression. For the other chap it was pressing some buttons to move some pixels. Fighting games need to be energetic and although Fire Pro Wrestling is a special breed of fighting game, and a very good one to boot, it doesn't have that electricity found in rival fighters.
There's no mistaking that if you're a fan of realistic wrestling this will impress you. And if you're not the only fan in your local area it will be even better; the multiplayer mode is as exhaustive as the single player. On your own you can fight in any style you like under a number of roofs until you feel up to a gruelling Audience Match or an octagonal steel cage fight. Substitute a like-minded friend for an AI opponent and you will have hours of fun. Get four players together and the possibility of double-team moves and reversals comes into play, at which point Fire Pro resembles a ballet more than a game! The difficulty is, for a multiplayer fight to be fun in Fire Pro you need two (or indeed four) calm, collected players who enjoy calculating their fights instead of pumping iron into them. It isn't for everyone, and it's certainly not for newcomers. One of the best things about fighting games that encourage button bashing is that newbies can still give veterans a run for their money and occasionally cause an upset. In Fire Pro, you're better off doing nothing than button bashing if you want to last more than a few seconds. So perhaps the game's biggest charm will demonize it in the eyes of others. It's a tough break, but it does mean that it's harder to recommend Fire Pro. Fortunately you'll know whether you fancy it or not. Personally I found it less exciting than my import copy of Street Fighter, but I definitely have a lot of time for it regardless. As a wrestling game Fire Pro does a lot of things well, with a measured style and a degree of originality, packed into a genre of Smackdowns and Manias, but as a handheld game it makes a few mistakes.
7 / 10