Friday, April 4, 2014

A Loser is Us: Fire Pro's Masato Masuda Dies

Back in the 1990s, there was a fierce rivalry between two American wrestling leagues, as well as the two developers contracted to make games for them. Some players pledged their allegiance to Yuke's and its WWE series, while others cast their lot with AKI Corporation, creators of the WCW/NWO games. However, a few especially dedicated wrestling fans refused to take a side in this battle, and instead declared their loyalty to the Fire Pro Wrestling series.

Six Man Scramble on the Sega Saturn, the
game that put Fire Pro Wrestling on the map.
(image courtesy of Terrible Pain)
Originally designed as a spiritual successor to the quirky but strangely entertaining NES game Pro Wrestling, Fire Pro had blossomed into an incredibly comprehensive simulation of the sport by the late 1990s, when Six Man Scramble was released for the Sega Saturn. The game didn't have the big names or the polished graphics of its better-known competitors, but it did offer almost limitless variety in its create-a-wrestler mode, as well as gameplay that was incredibly deep yet surprisingly approachable. If Yuke's and AKI's respective games were like front row tickets to Wrestlemania, Fire Pro Wrestling was more akin to a backstage pass at a mid-level event... perhaps not as flashy, but ultimately more satisfying.

It's with a heavy heart that I report that Masato Masuda, the creator of this cult classic, died of undisclosed causes at the age of 48. The news was revealed by Goichi Suda, a former co-worker who went on to achieve fame as the creator of stylish action titles like No More Heroes and Killer is Dead. On his Twitter page, Suda stated, "I genuinely pray for his happiness in the next world. He was one of the greatest creators of video games and he was my direct teacher. Thank you for giving us our favorite Fire Pro Wrestling. You are the god of it."

Personally, I wasn't always crazy about Fire Pro Wrestling. My first taste of the game was the dreadful Sega Genesis release Fire Pro Gaiden, which I'd found at a game rental store in Southern Michigan where I spent an unhealthy chunk of my teenage years. However, as the series improved and started to find its audience, I gave it another chance, picking up a used copy of Fire Pro Wrestling for my original Game Boy Advance at the turn of the century. It quickly turned me into a fan as well... I spent countless hours hunched over the Game Boy's tiny, light-deprived screen, making my own wrestlers and bending their spines in the ring.

Not long after, I purchased Fire Pro D for the Dreamcast and the series' swan song, Fire Pro Wrestling Returns on the Playstation 2. (Yes, there was a Fire Pro game released later on the Xbox Live Arcade service. I don't like to talk about it.) I honestly didn't enjoy Fire Pro D much thanks to the unforgiving timing for grapples, but Fire Pro Wrestling Returns quickly turned into a classic with the download of a save game packed with familiar fighters. Hulk Hogan! Macho Man Randy Savage! Sting in both his pre and post-goth phases! Uh, Hard Gay? Well, he must have been popular somewhere, anyway. I was nearly as fond of Fire Pro R as the earlier handheld game, and was crushed when I discovered that Amazon was selling it for just five dollars shortly after its release. (I suspect that it's going for far more on eBay seven years later. It's the curse of the underground hit, I suppose.)

For shame, Playstation 2 owners... for shame!
If you haven't played Fire Pro Wrestling yet, now is as good a time as any. The Game Boy Advance version is a pretty good starting point, although you can choose nearly anything in the series from 1996 on and have a lot of fun with it. (No, not Iron Slam '96. Not Blazing Tornado either.) And while you're sending your opponent's head into the canvas, put the game on pause, snap into your favorite spiced meat by-product, and remember who made it all possible. Thanks for everything, Mr. Masuda.

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