At first Lucha Libre feels like a spiritual successor to the beloved Nintendo 64 wrestling games developed by AKI with similar grappling, counter and taunt systems. First, you wear down opponents with strikes and weak grapple moves like snapmares and jawbreakers, which don't just hurt the other guy, but lower his popularity with the fans while boosting your own. As your rival weakens, you can hit him with stronger grapple moves like DDTs and powerbombs or climb the turnbuckle for dives and splashes. Or, you can whip the audience into a frenzy with taunts. When your popularity meter is full you can go into special mode and hit one of your two finishing moves. If you're at the receiving end, you can mash buttons Track & Field-style to kick out of pin attempts or regroup from attacks.
The only genuinely great thing about Lucha Libre is the mask editor.
Lucha Libre is no WWF No Mercy, though. It's not even WCW vs. nWo: World Tour. Those AKI games were deep but easy to understand, and simulated the flow and feel of actual wrestling matches better than any video game before or since. Lucha Libre is just a shallow knock-off, with limited move-sets, nonsensical story modes, and no gimmicks beyond handicap matches and hair vs. mask grudge matches.
Speed is the biggest problem. Lucha libre is a lightning-fast acrobatic exposition masquerading as a fight. In Lucha Libre the fastest and most agile performers in the industry still move like Andre the Giant after a big meal. These luchadores don't run so much as stroll while wildly swinging their arms and legs to simulate speed. I almost expected Dr. Wagner Jr. to stop and take a breath when I first Irish-whipped him into the ropes.
How can a game about mask-wearing supermen who perform death-defying stunts on top of each other be so boring? From minor bugs (the game freezes for a second before every pinfall or decision in the story mode), to baffling design decisions (there's no card or pay-per-view editor, and only four create-a-wrestler slots), to an online mode that maybe three people are playing, small frustrations suck out whatever fun you might stumble upon. Call it death by a thousand knife-edged chops.
The only genuinely great thing about Lucha Libre is the mask editor. It's ridiculous how many options there are, with dozens of designs and accessories like fins and animal ears. It's easy to make almost any masked wrestler you want.
A Mexican wrestling game is a great idea. Heck, any alternative to WWE Smackdown! Vs. Raw is welcome, especially one that focuses on an idiosyncratic style of wrestling that's never been turned into a game before. Unfortunately, the only thing hiding under this particular luchadore's mask is a truly mediocre game.
This review is based on the 360 retail version of Lucha Libre: AAA Heroes del Ring provided by Slang. Garrett Martin is a Boston-based freelancer who covers the video game industry for the Boston Herald and other publications.