Bill Abner and the rest of the Gameshark boys are out at E3 this week so there's no Cracked LCD. I didn't get to go because they don't cover board games at E3. It turns out that in the war between video games and board games, board games lost. Badly.
Anyway, I would like to go to E3 someday. So I thought I would write a video game review for the first time in my life to show those snooty video game journalists that I can put on the big boy pants too. I picked PUNCH-OUT as my review subject. Forgive me if it sucks.
Third round, title bout, and the World Video Boxing Association belt is on the line. Mr. Sandman lands a vicious uppercut that lands across his challenger’s jaw like a slab of granite.
It’s nighty-night time for Little Mac. He reels, staggers back against the ropes. I’m standing up off the couch yelling “Come on Little Mac, come on Little Mac!” I know his steadfast trainer, Doc, is somewhere off screen doing the same thing. The diminutive pugilist canters forward in the by now all-too familiar animation that ends with his battered face colliding with the canvas. “Come on Little Mac!”
Little Mac stops. I don’t’ know if he’s heard me or the furious clickety-click of the 1 and 2 buttons the Wiimote, that may or may not have anything to do with what is about to happen. He braces himself, sticks a foot forward, grits his teeth, steadys himself, and he’s back in the fight. Thirty seconds and a lot of bobbing, weaving, and star punches later Doc is hoisting Little Mac up onto his shoulder, the pop of flashbulbs illuminating the title belt. Mr. Sandman is defeated. I just beat PUNCH-OUT, the new remake of the classic game for the Nintendo Wii
And I totally feel like a champ.
I’ve always loved the PUNCH-OUT!! games even though I really could care less about boxing. I’m pretty sure that every kid who had an NES circa 1987 had a copy of MIKE TYSON’ S PUNCH-OUT, and I don’t think anyone who played the game as a kid has anything but fond memories of it. I probably beat the game a hundred times myself, and when it was released on Virtual Console it was a no-brainer purchase. The original NES game featured a charming yet challenging cast of cartoonish boxers and the gameplay put virtually every old-school video gaming skill to the test- observation, reaction, pattern recognition, timing, and memorization. The original NES game, even though the pre-rape/pre-cannibalism Mike Tyson is no longer on board as one of the scariest and most formidiable end-game bosses of all time, is still very much a timeless classic today. The SNES version, also on Virtual Console, was pretty great as well but there was something about the NES game that was absolutely magical.
Maybe it was the physicality of the game. Your boxer, Little Mac, was so much smaller than everybody else he was fighting. He had to actually jump up just to pop the other guy in the jaw. Little Mac’s smallness in the face of adversity was something that anyone, particularly kids, could relate to. Like most great sports stories, PUNCH-OUT was about the underdog persevering- even if you had to fight Tyson a hundred times to finally beat him. The magic could also be the genuinely funny and unforgettable characters- Glass Joe, King Hippo, Great Tiger- all representing good-natured stereotypes and as many styles of boxing. Or maybe it was in the secrets that the game had, the hidden depth. What punches, combinations, and timings would produce stars? Why does Doc rub Little Mac’s arm faster when I push select? How do you knock King Hippo’s crown off his ugly head? These were the kinds of things that we had serious discussions over as kids, and we waited for our copies of the Nintendo Fun Club newsletter for answers.
So now, twenty years later, Next Level brings us a new edition of PUNCH-OUT and I’ll be damned if they didn’t zero right in on those magical qualities- particularly the simple gameplay and larger-than-life characters- and produce what is easily one of the top games for the Wii and an absolute masterpiece of nostalgic game design. The game is all heart, and it really stands out against a lot of the samey, repetitive product that is on the video game market today. But what’s more, the new PUNCH-OUT turns out to be a better game than its forebears, if only because the updated, cel-shaded graphics and a more cinematic style than we ever thought possible in the 1980s brings the unadulterated classic gameplay forward into the 21st century and cements the game as one of the absolute great
Nintendo franchises. It’s been long overdue, but I think with the new PUNCH-OUT that Little Mac and his opponents are finally cemented among the pantheon of great Nintendo characters. If Little Mac isn’t in the next SUPER SMASH BROS., there is no justice in the world.
There’s really very little to discuss in terms of how PUNCH-OUT plays because the game is so old-school simple it makes today’s casual games look complex. Chances are you already know what the deal is, but if you don’t you’ll figure it out within about 20 seconds of your first fight with poor ol’ Glass Joe. Dodge, block, duck, and punch. There’s no moving around the ring, no complex simulation of actual boxing moves, or anything like that. It’s not a boxing simulator, it’s more of an arcade-style game about boxing. The game allows for three control schemes- a Wiimote/nunchuck configuration, that with the WiiFit balance board added for “footwork”, and the more traditional Wiimote-on-the-side D-pad and buttons method. The new controls work OK and can be pretty fun, but true PUNCH-OUT champions are going to want the precision and flawless timing of the classic control setup. Casual gamers will go for the motion controls, but I can’t imagine being able to actually beat some of the top boxers with them.
The game is really just about avoiding punches and returning them, but you’ll be shocked at how deep it is beyond the basics. Certain punches, evasions, and combos work better against some opponents and a big part of the game is figuring out how each fighter signals certain moves or recognizing when it’s time to defend or go on the offensive. Most of the fighters have certain “tells”- Piston Hondo’s wiggling eyebrow, Great Tiger’s flashing jewel, or Bear Hugger’s raspberry-blowing antics for example. Some punches, timed at the just the right moment, can score an instant knockdown or even a KO. Others will yield a star- you can collect up to three but if Little Mac gets hit then you lose them all. The stars allow Little Mac to perform a star punch, a kind of super uppercut that can do tremendous amounts of damage. Three falls and it’s a TKO, with
Playing through the game for the first time, particularly if you’re a PUNCH-OUT veteran, is a pure delight. The first time I knocked Glass Joe down, I giggled because he made kind of an updated version of the woozy sound he used to make on his way to the mat in the old NES game. At one point, Doc says “Join the Nintendo Fun Cl…I mean, join Club Nintendo”. There’s obviously a real affection for the original game and its idiosyncrasies and I really appreciated that Next Level was smart enough to keep the little things everybody remembers. When I won the first belt and got to the first cinematic of Doc training Little Mac for the next fights, I found myself thinking “they better show Doc on the bike and Little Mac in his pink track suit.” And they did. Just like you remember it, but updated in a respectful and heartfelt way that honors the memory but makes it something current for today’s audiences. The one complaint I have is that the referee isn’t Mario, it’s some young Kenny Rogers looking guy.
But seeing these classic characters again- but this time in even more larger-than-life cel-shaded and beautifully animated form- had me smiling all the way through the road to the championship. Their signature moves are all here so King Hippo still drops his draws and Super Macho Man still does that irritating spin punch, but there’s just more of everything. The animation is truly amazing in how it brings these characters to life- watching Von Kaiser, in slow motion, reacting in horror to your incoming star punch, is funny every single time.
The game really is about these characters as much as the gameplay, so it’s great to see that so much attention was paid by Next Level in presenting them. Just like in the original game, they all have between-round quips (but this time delivered in speech- and in their native tongues!) but what’s more, there’s pre-match vignettes that further highlight the hilarious and endearing stereotypes they represent. My favorite little piece of characterization that Next level added though is when Little Mac Kos a boxer. I won’t spoil the surprises, but suffice to say that seeing King Hippo go down in a flurry of pineapples and bananas raining from the sky was absolutely hilarious. Two of the boxers, Aran Ryan and Bear Hugger are from the SNES game. One is totally new to this edition, Disco Kid. He fits in like he’s always belonged there. And yes, he’s a hilarious, good-natured stereotype.
Once you’re done with the initial tournament and you’ve put Mr. Sandman to bed (not an easy task- I had to go to Doc’s hologram trainer for a couple of rounds before I could figure out how to land a single punch on the guy), PUNCH-OUT offers quite a bit of extended play value. When you beat a boxer, you unlock their exhibition mode. In exhibition mode, each fighter has three achievement-like challenges. You might have to KO somebody in a set amount of time or find six different ways to earn stars from a boxer, for example. Some of them are quite difficult, and not only do they really put your PUNCH-OUT skills to the test but they also lure out some of the game’s deeper subtleties. There’s a real sense of discovery in the challenges as you fight to try to meet them- I’ve found these exhibition fights extremely satisfying.
But wait, there’s more. All those guys you beat up aren’t too happy. Winning the championship also unlocks a title defense mode, where Little Mac has to fight his way through everybody again. But this time, They’ve learned a few tricks. Glass Joe goes to the doctor and gets headgear so you can’t pound on his face like you did the first time. Von Kaiser cuts away his 1980’s hair cut and shows up with a Mike Tyson-style fade. What’s more, the characters’ animations sometimes have an extra beat that throws your timing totally off, they’ll dodge star punches, and they’re faster. Even Glass Joe will kick your ass, and if you know Glass Joe you know that there’s something wrong with that. I had to fight him six times in the title defense mode to finally make him explode croissants all over the place. The challenge is great, the victories even more satisfying.
That’s really what makes PUNCH-OUT for me outside of these core elements- there’s a real sense of satisfaction when you win a fight, a real sense of accomplishment and victory over the odds. There’s a very real drama in the fights, a feeling that you’re really overcoming adversity. It’s downright thrilling to be into the third round of a tough match and be 2-2 on falls and you just barely squeak a few punches by for a win. The game has a weird psychological effect like that- Soda Popinski might beat you half to death the first five times you go against him, but there’s this tangible breaking point where you start to get better and eventually you win the fight. And it’s because of nothing other than pure video gaming skill. It still feels like a million bucks, just like it did when I first laid Tyson out when I was a kid.
The big question is, of course, how much of this game’s greatness is that it’s really just an updated version of a classic game? The answer, I think, is pretty much all of it and I don’t think that’s a liability at all. There is new material- the challenges, the title defense mode, and a sort of perfunctory multiplayer mode- and I think there’s more than enough to satisfy old-time PUNCH-OUT fans. I do think that there could have been a little more extra content but by the same token, the game could have been padded out with mini-games and other unwelcome features so I’m glad they erred on the side of minimalism. More significantly, I think the game is totally accessible not only to kids, casual gamers, and older people who may have missed PUNCH-OUT before, but it’s also completely appealing to the hardcore gamer. The kids and the casual crowd will dig the funny boxers and the motion controls. The hardcore gamers will really get into the strategy and challenge level of the extended game modes.
So who won’t like PUNCH-OUT? Anybody who hates fun, colorfulness, smiling, or laughing will not enjoy PUNCH-OUT at all. I’d like to direct those folks to any number of Xbox 360 or PS3 games featuring sullen, protagonists with CGI facial hair in rusty power armor and graphics that look like somebody spilled dirty dishwater on your HDTV screen. I love PUNCH-OUT, obviously, and I love that it represents not only a sense of nostalgia and the return of a truly classic game but also I think it embodies a spirit of fun and challenge that has been missing from a lot of current video games. When the Wii first released, I felt hopeful that a new era of video gaming was coming where the qualities of simple fun would return. Sadly, the casual gaming revolution lead by the Wii hasn’t recaptured that as the system has squandered its potential on countless shovelware games designed to cash in on new demographics. But I think PUNCH-OUT is very much that failed promise made flesh, and I think it is absolutely one of the must-have games for the system, and one of the best arguments for standing by the system despite its sketchy library. It’s all heart, just like the original game.