[2 January 2011]
I haven’t followed professional wrestling for many years, but I’ll openly admit that I was a rabid fan as a child. I completely fell for the over-the-top story lines and the clear divisions between good and bad characters. It’s not at all surprising that in the era of Hulk Hogan and The Iron Sheik, the WWE (then WWF) was able to produce a Saturday morning animated series featuring their biggest stars, given how cartoony their real-life counterparts already were. As a child, I assumed all of it was real, from the personas of the characters to the violence in the ring. Upon the realization that the outcomes were predetermined, I turned my back on it for a time, but returned when I learned to appreciate it in much the same way as I did other scripted forms of entertainment.
Lucha libre, the acrobatic form of professional wrestling popular in Mexico, is something that I’ve only ever had a superficial knowledge of. A few luchadores have appeared in American professional wrestling, and the image of the masked Mexican wrestler has appeared on the geek radar in places like Nacho Libre, Homestar Runner, Street Fighter IV and Psychonauts. But lucha libre isn’t something that anyone I know has actively followed. While I’ve seen a few matches here and there and they are undeniably fun to watch given the stunts on display, I certainly am not familiar with any of the characters or their story lines. Stereotypically, lucha libre is characterized by speed and acrobatics as opposed to the enormous, muscle-bound personalities that populate American professional wrestling.
Lucha Libre AAA: El Heroes Del Ring represents the first real attempt to bring the popular Mexican spectacle to the forefront in video games, and in many ways, it’s a solid first effort. The audio production and Mexican musical elements fit the source material beautifully. The option for Spanish language commentary is also welcome. The games visual design is similarly well suited to the subject matter. Overall, the design shows polish, and the title makes a great first impression. El Heroes Del Ring‘s problems really only start when it gets to the gameplay.
Traditionally, wrestling video games have seemed remarkably slow paced to me. Even Wrestlefest, an arcade game that I played during the height of my interest in pro wrestling (my obsession with Wrestlefest made me woefully late to the Street Fighter II party) came down to plodding and button mashing over clean technique. Button-mashing in a fighting game isn’t inherently bad when the fighters are separated from one another, and such random input generates neat looking and effective moves. But when fighters are in a clinch, I find such mechanics infuriating. In a multiplayer context, this simply comes down to who can mash the fastest. In single player, it’s more frustrating because the threshold beyond
which you must rapidly hit a button is hidden behind the curtain of AI.
The Fire Pro Wrestling series is perhaps the only one in recent memory that has challenged the traditional wrestling gameplay mechanics by making move input a matter of speed and timing rather than raw button mashing, and it has certainly been received well critically. But Fire Pro as a series remains a cult classic, and while its approach is both unique and commendable, it lacks the approachability that makes the best fighting games enjoyable. As such, it doesn’t seem a style well suited for lucha libre either. Realistically, it may be the case that the ideal game mechanics for professional wrestling games are difficult to identify given the area between sports and entertainment that it uniquely occupies.
Regardless, I’ve always felt that wrestling games would best be suited to an arcade-style presentation. I want speed and simple button combinations. I want the fighters to run more than walk. I’ve never felt this more than while playing El Heroes Del Ring. For all the high flying aerial attacks and acrobatics on display in lucha libre matches, El Heroes Del Ring just plods. A slow game is made slower by sluggish controls. Really, the difference between the aesthetic and technical elements of the game is noticeably large.
It’s such a shame, because the developers clearly took chances by approaching a subject that hasn’t really been explored before in gaming, and that’s certainly something to be applauded. If only similar creativity had gone into the gameplay (or at least a higher degree of technical precision with the chosen gameplay mechanics), El Heroes Del Ring might have been an extraordinarily entertaining experience. As it stands, Lucha Libre AAA: El Heroes Del Ring is a serviceable game for die-hard fans of the source material. But there isn’t nearly enough fun and polish for it to be a crossover success. If Immersion is allowed to develop a sequel, I sincerely hope that they change the gameplay mechanics significantly. As it stands, established wrestling game mechanics (which I’m admittedly not a fan of) have simply been wrapped in the dressing of lucha libre, and the end result is ultimately forgettable.