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"The title screen leaves no doubts: this is a game for men."
A cheap 2D fighting game with unique controls and atmosphere. That'd sell you, right? Now, add in that the fighters are, shall we say, large gentlemen, wearing next to nothing, and that the unique controls involve mashing one of the four face buttons as quickly as possible, and that the atmosphere includes the judge yelling the same thing every three seconds. Still with me? All right then.
You can't come to The Sumo and try to play like a regular fighting game, because you will lose. It just doesn't work that way. Sure you may get a few slaps in, maybe even a reverse spin, and then get a lucky poke to knock the opponent out of the ring, but if he happens to clinch up you're gonna be eatin' sand.
So, the clinch. The meat. Don't be scared of that big sweaty naked man coming at you. Embrace him. Then wait for your timing bar to reach the end, and hammer one of the four face buttons as quickly as possible (Square = lift, Triangle = reversal, Circle = force back, X = shove back). Win this type of timing exchange three or four times in a row and you usually win.
The tricky part is, if once you miss, the AI usually has a faster timing meter on the next exchange--so they can get a nasty streak against you and what looks like a sure win turns in to a loss in seconds. You've also got to watch out that they don't try dizzying you with a slap or reversing you out of the ring before you can clinch.
The game has no timer, you just go until someone falls or gets pushed out of the ring. The no time thing is funny--for instance, at the beginning of a match the two fighters just squat there facing each other indefinitely, until both push one of the four buttons to initiate the first exchange, which works sort of like Rock/Paper/Scissors I think. Win this first pass and you could have your opponent's strength down to less than half in an eyeblink, leaving him on the verge of being muscled to the ground.
So it's interesting. Timing and not reflexes carry the day here, and you have to be patient and not press any input until your timing meter fills up, otherwise it resets and your fighter is at the opponent's mercy for at least one exchange. There isn't a whole lot more to it than this timing/mashing thing though--the AI gets tougher as you fight through Arcade mode, better at timing and at resisting being thrown, but that's about it.
There's a "Making" mode of sorts thick with kanji--not the sort of thing I could manage without a FAQ. I think the gist is that you make a fighter, win battles, and increase his skills in between fights--that's all a guess though. It looks like in Vs you can load up a fighter saved in Making mode.
The graphics are 2D but a sort of illustrated, highly stylized sort of thing that looks okay in screenshots but doesn't animate all that well. Sound effects are pretty forgettable aside from the referee (or someone) shouting the same darn thing over and over. The six backgrounds, with both day and night versions, fit in with the character art style but don't stand out in any impressive way. The high point of the art comes after a round is won, where it shows a very nice image of the type of win made (ring out, throw, etc) in an elegant illustrated style far better than the live sprite art.
It's unusual, you have to give it that, and the strategy at least makes you think a bit when you first pick up the game. I'd like to try some Vs. and see how the button mashing carries over against another player--could be rather insane.