Confession time: I haven’t done much gaming for fun in the months since the 1UP layoffs. Oh, sure — I’ve dabbled in a little Dragon Quest V here, some Retro Game Challenge there. (The fact that I associate games with losing my job probably doesn’t help matters, either!) But I haven’t been truly addicted to a game since Persona 4 late last year. I’ve been extremely busy working on localization projects recently, and a lot of my “gaming” time these days is focused on making sure sentences don’t overflow text boxes. Still, like all of us, I do have my share of free time. But I think it’s telling that even I — probably one of the few dudes who can honestly say that Resident Evil plotlines “enthrall” him — haven’t “found the time” to crack open my copy of Resident Evil 5.
I’ve been through periods like this before, of course. We all have. Back in college, I was so busy with classes that it took me an entire academic year to make my way through Final Fantasy Tactics. But I’m a gamer at heart, and I knew that it’d only be a matter of time before I found the right game to pull me back in. And it should come as no surprise that the Punch-Out!! reboot released for the Wii this week was the game to do it.
Sure, I’ve recounted on the Geekbox how I went over my allotted gaming time — and subsequently got grounded for a week — in order to finally beat the seemingly (at the time) invincible Piston Honda back in the day. But that doesn’t tell the whole story: Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! on NES may well have been the first game I ever “mastered.” Over the next year or so, I honed pugilist protagonist Little Mac into an adroit, indomitable warrior — helped, in large part, by my lightning-quick prepubescent reflexes. No way in hell would Mr. Sandman catch me with his uppercuts or Super Macho Man come close to laying a hand on me with his succession of brutal twirling punches. And I didn’t think I could beat Mike Tyson. I knew I could — it was just a matter of how fast. In fact, years later, I was shocked at how many never beat Kid Dynamite. From its first appearances in arcades to this Wii incarnation, Punch-Out!! boils down to memorizing patterns and timing — it’s really more of a puzzle game than a sports title.
And that’s exactly why it hooked me again this time around. See, I like puzzles — simple puzzles, that is. Once you start to head into Professor Layton territory or anything Nick Suttner really, really likes, you’ve lost me. But Punch-Out!!’s riddles don’t vex me at all, which is why I love ‘em so much. In fact, most of them are rather self-explanatory. It’s executing your plan of attack that’s the challenge. You see the patterns, but do you have the reflexes and timing to exploit them? The puzzle-based gameplay allows you to improve just enough each time around that you’ve convinced yourself, “OK, come rematch No. 15, I know I’m gonna knock out Great Tiger!” And then it hit me: It was 4 a.m., and I would not go to bed until I beat Great Tiger. Yep, I was finally addicted again.
Sure, this reboot has its share of presentation problems and a bizarre name change in Piston “Hondo” — frankly, I’d argue that Randy Savage has a more legitimate legal beef with Super Macho Man than Japanese automaker Honda has with Piston Honda — but the scrappy Canucks at under-the-radar developer Next Level have captured that classic Punch-Out!! feel even better than Nintendo’s own internal Japanese development team did with the Super NES’ Super Punch-Out in the mid-’90s. Much like Street Fighter 4, Punch-Out!! Wii brings things back to basics — and that’s the roster of classic characters, starting with Rocky Balboa-inspired Little Mac and portly trainer Doc Louis. And why settle for some Glass Joe wannabe in Super Punch-Out!!’s Gabby Jay when you can have the real thing?
But Punch-Out!! Wii’s hidden gem is really its second act: a title-defense mode that combines the nostalgia and classic gameplay of the series with the ingenuity and unpredictability of Zelda‘s second quest — still a vastly underutilized gaming twist. Just when you think you’ve got the answers, Punch-Out!! changes the questions. I’m certainly not going to spoil any of the game’s beefed-up bruisers, but I’ll just say this: As I write this, Glass Joe is kicking my ass. Badly. While Punch-Out!! hooked me with nostalgia, it’s kept me playing by doing something new.