It’s extremely difficult to craft a game that hits the “fun for everyone” mark without it also becoming a dumbed-down mess. Nintendo’s remarkably good at this though, from Mario to Wii Sports, as well as the original Punch-Out!! for NES. Even 20 years after its release, the first game remains a strong connection among gamers and non-gamers thanks to its pick-up-and-play appeal and freakish, goofy ass boxers. Truly, Punch-Out!! is one of the most beloved franchises Nintendo owns, despite having only two prior games.
We’re stupidly happy to say the latest entry is just as approachable as the classics, yet simultaneously offers a deceptively deep, frustratingly awesome fighting system that rewards risk takers and creative thinkers.
To the casual player, it’s a colorful, exaggerated take on boxing that’s plain ol’ fun to play. They’ll see the game like this:
Above: A simple dodge-then-counter approach will suffice
For the advanced players, those who’ve played the NES and SNES games over and over, the simple “move out of the way” approach disappears, revealing an ocean of feints, counterattacks and one-punch KOs that drastically change depending on who you’re fighting. They’ll see the game more like this:
Above: Experimentation reveals many, many new ways to win
Each of the 13 boxers has his own repeating pattern of trademark attacks, and each of these swings is preceded by a “tell” that lets you know which attack he’s about to do. Examples: they’ll flash red before swinging, or move their eyebrows, or say something out loud. Gamers who identify with that first image will just move and try to counterattack. Gamers who understand the second image have a bevy of choices with various consequences.
Do you just move out of the way and return punches? Do you attempt to interrupt their attack with a well-timed jab? If so, do you strike their face or stomach? Do you use your level one Star Punch or save up for more? Figuring out when and where to strike is the meat of the game, so there’s tons of replay value here for those who want to shave every last second off their KO time or discover the most destructive combos. It’s not about clearing the game and watching the credits, it’s about systematically destroying each and every opponent in the fastest, flashiest way possible.
Above: This flashing jewel means Great Tiger’s about to jab
This “deep as you want it to be” approach is mirrored in the game’s two primary modes. The first trip through the three circuits will be suitably tough for newcomers and comparatively easy for vets; if you’re really good, beating the game will take about two, three hours tops. After that, Title Defense mode opens up with the same roster of boxers, only now they’ve learned from their previous mistakes and come at you with all-new patterns and moves.
Above: Glass Joe in Title Defense is… actually kinda tough
We’re hardened fans and had a hell of a time scraping through Title Defense. You’ll have to fight some of these guys five, six, even 10 times before knocking them down. So, a casual player can “beat” the game reasonably, while the rest of us can sink our teeth into the wholly different experience that is Title Defense. The only downside to this mode is, well, they deal substantially more damage than you can, can absorb more pain than you can and apparently don’t even have to obey traditional boxing rules – you have to knock ‘em down three times in one match (TKO), but they can hit you so hard on the second knockdown, you’re instantly beaten. Makes you want to scream.
It’s one of those things where you’ll swear you’re going to break the controller in half, smash the disc and throw the Wii into the deepest volcano on Earth because Bald Bull is too goddamn hard… and still find yourself back in the ring 10 minutes later, ready to try again. Like we said, frustratingly awesome.
Then there’s Exhibition, essentially a practice mode that lets you duke it out with the other boxers without fear of tarnishing your win/loss record. Helpful, but even in this expected, throwaway mode Next Level Games has found a way to actually make you care about a practice mode.
Above: Boxer-specific achievements!
Each boxer (both regular and Title Defense versions) has three unique goals to meet in Exhibition mode. Just about every one of them requires you to deconstruct the opponent’s attacks and figure out how to absolutely annihilate them, sometimes without ever missing a punch or being hit yourself.
These extremely demanding guidelines help crystallize the idea that Punch-Out!! is more than dodging and punching, and anyone who sinks in the required time will become insanely good, in the same “holy crap” kind of way as someone who’s effortlessly five-starring Expert songs in Guitar Hero.
Above: A sound test is your reward
Obviously there are no Achievement Points or Trophies to win. Instead, completing all three goals will unlock that boxer’s sound test, where you can listen to their various dialogue utterances and a country-specific version of the memorable Punch-Out!! theme. We had a grand old time dicking around with the audio (mainly for our filthy, stupid podcast) but you know what would have been better? Effing leaderboards!
Above: Please, god damn it
Punch-Out!! and 1994’s Super Punch-Out!! keep track of your best KO times. That’s where most of the replay comes from - trying to slice seconds off your total time. In the SNES days we were content to take the Super Punch-Out!! cart over to a friend’s house and gloat about our unbeatable times… but in 2009, with all these internets flowing freely, it makes no sense whatsoever to omit leaderboards.
There could have been a bustling, one-upping community borne from this, and instead, we get a tacked-on versus mode that’s barely worth acknowledging. No one wants a “versus” Punch-Out!! because a large part of its appeal is getting friends in a room that’ll blurt out strategies, or demand the controller for their own attempt to KO the towering doofus onscreen. That’s how it was 20 years ago, and that’s how the new game is today.
Above: Punch-Out!! appears in the office, five dudes drop everything to watch/advise/correct
All we needed was a list of the best times per boxer and we’d be playing Punch-Out!! for weeks on end, trying to climb to the top of the boards. Without this online list, replay solely comes from how much time you want to spend perfecting your techniques against the 13 boxers. Not interested in replaying the same guys over and over and over? This ain’t for you.
Eagle-eyed GR readers may recall us specifically demanding this game a year ago, well before it was officially announced, and one of the features we really wanted to see was Balance Board support. How cool would it be to actually lean, duck and punch with a Board/Wii Remote combo? Turns out that it’s a fair bit of fun, and a viable way to play through the game.
The leaning controls are a little spotty though, making this the most difficult way to play. That said, if you really get into it, and we mean really lean into the dodges and squat to duck and so on, you can work up a decent sweat simply by playing an already-awesome videogame. Big points for that, Nintendo.
Fight Night Round 3? This isn’t even on Wii, but unaware video-pugilists might see boxers on the cover of Punch-Out!! and think it’s another gritty, ultra-realistic depiction of the sport. Not so at all. They’re as separate as can be, but Punch-Out!! carries the same intensely playable DNA as its real-world cousin.
Super Punch-Out!! ? Recently released on Virtual Console, and in our eyes one of the best SNES games ever made. The Wii game builds on certain aspects, removes a few others (Star Punches aren’t as strategic as SPO’s power meter), and makes a great companion title. Equal in overall score, though SPO has more boxers (16 against 13).
Punch-Out!! expertly walks the line between casual punchy-punchy and “serious gamer” depth. As with all the best fighting games, it’s not about seeing the end, it’s about how you get there.
May 18, 2009
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