About this series:
I write game reviews for the University of Missouri-Columbia's student-run newspaper The Maneater. However, the process usually goes something like this:
1) Write review.
2) Squash it down to under 600 words for the paper.
3) Feel unsatisfied with the final product.
So I'm taking this opportunity to share my full, un-edited reviews with you guys, complete with every facet of the games that I feel are worth discussing. Hope you enjoy!
The Punch-Out!! series has been a victim of revisionist history. Few people mistook the games as simulations of real boxing, but were all of those fond memories still misguided? Every opponent was just a fixed pattern of jabs and uppercuts, designed to be memorized through trial and error.
Next Level Games accepted the task of re-introducing Punch-Out!! to the gaming world on Wii. Part re-make, part re-hash, yet all raucous fun, this version focuses on what made Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!! great in the first place. So as most fans' ideas of what a new Punch-Out!! game should be, it's pretty much perfect.
Punch-Out!! is not a boxing game (the fighters can't even maneuver around the ring), but as an action/puzzle hybrid where the puzzles are presented as boxing matches, it's pretty fantastic. Every attack has some form of answer: dodge left, dodge right, duck, block, or interrupt with a punch. Finding the fastest and most efficient path to a TKO can be addictive fun.
Reviving a series designed around two buttons and a D-pad in 2009 sounds foolish, but the twitch-reflex-based mechanics of Punch-Out!! have aged remarkably well. With a Wii controller held sideways, this game offers NES-era precision and challenge in their purest forms. A Punch-Out!! designed for motion controls (which is an option here should you so desire) isn't a bad idea, but this rendition clearly uses the NES original as a starting point. You'll have more fun quietly ignoring the motion control options altogether.
For the first two hours, players will pursue the world championship belt by taking down thirteen other competitors that stand in Little Mac's way. Although this portion feels like a re-make more than anything else (the boxers use the same moves and even have the same weak spots), Punch-Out!! shines brightest here because you can actually read incoming attacks and react accordingly. Memorizing the patterns is just a crutch to fall back on if your reflexes can't do the job alone.
After claiming the belt, all of the defeated opponents line up for rematches in the significantly tougher Title Defense mode. Some have new tricks up their sleeves and can't be put down the same way as before, but the immense challenge comes from their increased speed and multitude of fake-outs. Losing the belt to the puny Frenchman Glass Joe is a humbling experience indeed.
While the Contender portion of the career was both fun and challenging, Title Defense mode is just plain challenging. As the number of opponents begins to wind down, they'll throw out attacks way faster than any normal human can possibly telegraph, and the timing for certain attacks feels almost too specific. Defeating these guys on first sight will be nigh impossible. Still, this evokes hardcore difficulty of the NES original, so veterans should find Title Defense a welcome challenge.
The two-player versus mode makes for a neat bonus, but probably won't keep players hooked for more than three rounds. Landing punches and dodging feels even more awkward and less skill-based than the Boxing mode in Wii Sports (something I wouldn't have thought possible). One player eventually grows in size to make the fight a more traditional "big guy versus little guy" fight, but like the rest of the game, the advantage lies squarely in the corner of the big guy. It doesn't feel very balanced, but Punch-Out!! was always a single-player series, so the product as a whole is no worse off for including this mode as an option.
The best part of this classic revival has to be the returning cast of characters, now more emotive and colorful than ever. Favorites like King Hippo, Bald Bull and Great Tiger never got the attention they deserved next to the rest of Nintendo's iconic mascots, so it's great for these guys to have a second moment in the spotlight.
Each fighter is a blatant stereotype of his ethnicity, but it's all in good fun. Their personalities are akin to pro wrestlers' villain personas on television: you love to hate them. Some may perceive Punch-Out!! as the most racist game of all time, but like Avenue Q says: "everyone is a little bit racist." The world champ, Mr. Sandman, is the most neutral (no gimmicks; just a really tough dude), and he actually makes a competent substitute for Tyson. He uses moves from Tyson's playbook anyway, so he makes a welcome choice for the final challenger.
These boxers have tons of secrets built into them. Did you know that you can knock the crown off King Hippo's head? You will when the game tasks you with such a challenge. Discovering new ways to land punches and knock guys out in one hit makes replaying Punch-Out!! after the end of the Career mode plenty worthwhile.
If you never understood what the big deal was about Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!!, let this game turn you into a believer. The Nintendo faithful are bound to master every facet of the Wii game in the same fashion as they did the NES game. Record times will be set and new secrets will be discovered, but one thing will always remain the same: Little Mac looks funny wearing a pink track suit.
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