Next Level Games with the TKO.
One thing I’ll never understand is the growing belief among developers today that games must be soft and easy in order for them to appeal to the widest variety of consumers (this especially applies to a lot of Wii software, which developers want to tailor to the ever-expanding audience of moms, grandparents, females, and so on). Problem is, the belief is wholly misguided. Certainly there is a market for hold-my-hand games that never challenge the gamer from start to finish, but writing off challenge as a critical component of the package effectively alienates anyone who appreciates a game that acknowledges their competence.
Likewise, another trend in modern gaming is the philosophy that games need to be made increasingly complex in order to be entertaining or long-lasting, especially to the core gaming segment. Again, the situation is similar: there’s market for that, but it isn’t the rule. Both schools of thought are off the mark equidistantly in different directions. The net result of all this confusion is, tragically, a shrinking selection of games which embrace that classic gaming sweet spot: not complex but very challenging. In short, people want to be challenged, but they don’t want to spend endless hours learning how to play.
Next Level Games’ Punch-Out!! revival gets it. Twenty-two years ago, Little Mac first entered the boxing ring in the NES original, which many of us recall as a catalyst in the development of our already well-established thirsts for challenging memorization-based games (not to mention having helped us to invent new, creative curse words). The unforgiving (yet thoroughly lighthearted) nature of the game required players to face a string of increasingly difficult opponents, meticulously studying their ticks and patterns in an effort to prepare split-second responses that would allow them to win the fight with a shockingly-disadvantaged boxer. It’s a classic title which features an endearing cast of hilariously stereotypical opponents and a prevailing underdog theme to help counterbalance the unapologetic challenge.
But most importantly, the basic gameplay is simple; it’s the mastering of this gameplay to tackle insurmountable challenges that makes the game so appealing. And while its NES ancestor exploited this strategy to its benefit, the Wii remake magnifies that success to produce a deceptively deep package that is sure to appeal to self-respecting gamers of all varieties.
Balance wins the battle
And that’s true whether you’re boxing or making games. Punch-Out!! is easy to play: you can choose between motion control (with or without the Wii Balance Board) or classic NES-style button controls. Either one works well enough, though needless to say, for more precision (which you’ll certainly want in some of the later fights), the trusty old button control can’t be beaten. Motion controls are still fun, though, especially if you don’t mind the exercise—punching with the Wii remote/nunchuk and leaning to dodge and block with the balance board can quickly translate to a real-life workout. And fortunately, the punch type selection (jab/uppercut) and other critical tasks are still mapped to buttons even if you’re using the motion controls, so a great deal of precision is still intact.
With that out of the way, fans of the original will notice few fundamental gameplay changes and plenty of familiarities. The fights are all still entirely pattern-based—thankfully—as that’s what the game’s all about. Just to clarify this point outright, Punch-Out!! isn’t and never was meant to be a realistic boxing simulator. Far from it; the characters are outlandish, their moves and techniques are ridiculous in nature, and the game itself is really more about memorization than technique. It’s a sort of action/puzzle game, if you will, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.
Most of the rest of the underlying fabric is still at work here, too. The fundamental options at your disposal are still limited to left/right jabs and uppercuts, dodging left/right, blocking, and ducking (don’t worry; that’s more than enough to be confusing in the heat of a tough match). Star punches are still available, made possible by special stars you can collect by hitting boxers in just the right way at just the right time. Once you become acquainted with an opponent’s patterns, this often becomes a natural strategic element, and many times it’s even required (especially in the later fights). And you can even hit the “select” button (well, on Wii, the minus button) to have Doc refill some of Mac’s energy once per fight (only this time, he does so via chocolate bar consumption as opposed to… er, let’s just say pouring his man love on Mac).
Even many of the boxers are returning from the original title (you might recall Bald Bull, Don Flamenco, Piston Hond—er, Hondo…); there are only three newcomers this time, in fact, with a total of fourteen boxers in all. But don’t worry—all of the original contenders have refreshed their repertoires to some degree, and the trip through the fourteen is undoubtedly challenging enough for most gamers. It’s also remarkably funny, since Next Level Games has infused each of the game’s characters with a colorful sense of personality—everyone from the wisecracking, chocolate-loving Doc Louis to the classic array of multinational challengers. Prior to each match, a brief introduction to each character takes place, showcasing their blatantly stereotypical nature via a series of four hand-drawn illustrations. Throughout the actual fights, the beautifully-animated boxers spew taunts and interjections in their native language as they dance around the ring in their own signature style.
If you’re lucky (well, talented and rehearsed), you’ll make it all the way through the final boxer, the indomitable Mr. Sandman. But even then, you’re far from finished. After completing your quest for the title belt, you’re then made to defend it from those same boxers you’ve already defeated; and the second time around, they’ve learned from their mistakes, and they’re completely different. Title Defense Mode doesn’t just feature mere palette-swaps of the original boxers—both their appearances and their strategies have been heavily modified. For instance, Glass Joe’s introduction depicts his visit to his doctor, incapacitated and distraught from his recent loss to Little Mac, which results in his being fitted with a specially-made foam head-protector. Naturally, Joe wears this to the boxing match (to no objection of the officials), and Little Mac is thus left to discover a new approach to taking him down. Oh yeah, and did we mention that this time, he’s tough?
Walks in parks prohibited
Speaking of tough, I’d like to reiterate the fact that this game as a whole is one heck of a challenge. It’s classically unforgiving and relentless, and it’s all the better for it. Some folks prior to release were heard to complain that the opposing boxers flicker red for a moment prior to striking; well, let me say to those people: trust me, it doesn’t matter. Punch-Out!! for Wii is at least twice as difficult as the NES original, so if you’re concerned the game is going to disappoint in the realm of challenge, don’t be.
Along with the challenge, the other leg to the formula which makes the game so appealing is its depth. This becomes particularly apparent the first time you wander into the Exhibition Mode, which allows you to rematch any opponent while seeking to fulfill a selection of three boxer-specific objectives. These range from knocking them out within a seemingly-impossible predefined time frame to finding a certain number of ways to acquire stars throughout the match. It’s fascinating the first time you realize how much has gone into the development of each challenger’s network of patterns: with the right amount of practice and near-perfect timing, it is in fact possible to defeat any one of your opponents very quickly.
If you’re stuck on an opponent, Exhibition Mode even offers the option to practice the battle with a harmless holographic doppelganger; this is great for learning their weaknesses and perfecting your knowledge of their timing and telegraphs. And accomplishing each set of boxer challenges unlocks their audio gallery, which includes their own unique versions of the Punch-Out!! theme musics.
The Extra Mile
Punch-Out!! goes that extra mile without overextending itself. It knows it’s a remake of the NES original and it does everything in its power to incorporate the appeal of its ancestry, while expanding upon it intelligently and cautiously. Another area where this sort of careful attention is evident is presentation; Next Level Games has really done an amazing job of recreating and modernizing the franchise. Each boxer is fluidly and gorgeously animated, and they look simply awesome. They also feature their own unique style of background music in Exhibition Mode, which is always a variation of the classic Punch-Out!! music—and these themes all feature live instrumentation and are extremely well-done.
Oh, and there’s even a multiplayer mode where you can take swings at one of your friends to raise a special meter in pursuit of Giga Mac, an enormous (and, predictably, deadly) rendition of Mac who can spell quick defeat for said friend. Doc provides positively unhelpful (and yet consistently hilarious) advice, including “remember, second place is best of the rest” and “what’s your Brain Age?”
It’s this sort of meticulous game design and heavy polishing that makes the game a joy to behold. If every remake were done this way, no one would ever have to worry about their favorite franchises getting butchered in the midst of modernization. Hats off to Next Level Games: what they’ve produced here is verifiably superior to its predecessors in every category, and a whole heck of a lot of fun.