canuckeh's Punch-Out!! (Wii) review

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The racism returns

If the numerous smug little kids walking around today’s streets with frizzed-out afro hair and gray shirts with NES controller artwork or Super Mario Bros 1 sprites are to be believed, then retro is hip. Flannel seems to be making a comeback and every other rapper on the radio is searching for the next big smash hit by remixing 80s songs with Auto-Tune torture. I feel as though Nintendo shouldn’t be encouraged to cash in on this fad with more video games based on old NES games on account that NEVER STOPPED making Marios, Zeldas and Donkey Kongs to begin with. But then I remember Wii Music and realize that an E3 lineup littered with Mario sequels is not the worst thing that can happen.

I used to think that most 8-bit games should stay dead. The world needs not a new Excitebike, or Ice Climbers, or Ice Hockey, or especially Kid Icarus (which already exists. It’s called God of War people.) And yet here we have a revival of Punch-out!!!

Disclaimer: This game makes the fatal mistake of including misplaced punctuation in the title which I’m going to be ignoring from here on out, because normal people will also ignore the punctuation in conversation too. Just try reading the title out loud, tell someone “Well I’m a tad curious about that PUNCH-OUT!!! game over there”.

Punch-out proves me wrong in ways I could never predict. The folks at Nintendo probably thought that a Punch-out revival would work because it’s a game that you can sell to the masses with motion controls. Every ad I’ve seen of the game prominently highlights that the Wii Fit Balance Board can be utilized to bob and weave like Muhammad Ali. In practice, using the Balance board to dodge attacks has the responsiveness of Butterbean. However, the game does provide a more viable use of the remote/nunchuk “throw the doohickey to punch” setup than Wii Boxing, partly due to how only “punch” is designated to motion controls and all of your other commands are allocated to buttons. But these motion controls just aren’t fast enough for the fast-paced nature of a fistfight against a boxing Russian carbonated beverage-fueled combatant. So you’ll eventually realize that “buttons for all commands” works better than “buttons for some commands” and promptly switch the control setting to “filthy-old-school-style.” FOSS controls (my term, not the game’s) means you hold the remote sideways and play the game like you would an NES controller, taking advantage of what may as well be the smartest design choice Nintendo ever made with the entire Wii console.

No, it’s not the “innovative” controls that make Punch-out relevant in 2009. Rather, it’s the nature of evolution. Fighting games have become complex over the years. By “fighting games”, I’m talking about games based on boxing and combat sports, rather than your Street Fighter-fighting-video-game-fighting games that were always complicated. In the pursuit of realism, fight sport games like Fight Night and the recent UFC title force the player to grasp elaborate control schemes using every button, direction and square inch of plastic on the controller to master the game’s depiction of a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt fighter. All the while demanding the player keep track of each fighter’s fatigue, strength, speed, arm length, leg length, unit length, 50 bars of statistics, pre-fight training, team members, stylistic strategies, organizing the layout of sponsor logos on your pants, what order you want the game to play its hip-hop songlist and your ability to heal wounds as the EA Sports Cutman ©.

So it’s rather refreshing to see a fighting game where all the player needs to know is “you hit them, they don’t hit you.”

You play as, and only as, Little Mac. You’re a 107 lb flyweight with fast hands, quick reflexes and outstanding cardio. He’d be a surefire top contender if only the WVBA had a flyweight division. No, the WVBA adopts the Japan/Pride Fighting Championships philosophy that there is nothing wrong with pitting fighters of all weight classes together and that freak show big-man-versus-little-man matches are big ticket sellers, regardless of fighter health (see Kazushi Sakuraba). And drug testing is nothing more than a crazy American idea. With trainer Doc Louis in his corner to inspire his clean diet with junk food, Mac begins his unlikely journey to topple opponents that outweigh him a good hundred pounds and become the world champion.

The gameplay is all but identical to the original NES Punch-out. Mac throws punches with the two side buttons, aiming at either head or torso, and well as uses the d-pad to block or evade. That it took me a single sentence to explain the basics should give you an idea of the game’s instant accessibility and thus tactical advantage over Fight Night in terms of getting your lady friend interested. The only other control note is that if you hit your enemy at prime moments, you can earn up to three stars that can go towards a powerful A-button uppercut.

Likewise, the 13 opponents will all try to punch, uppercut, boomerangicut, teleport, headbutt, flex, drink, dance, laugh, sometimes box and many other unlikely strategies to defeat you. Fortunately, these are the kinds of boxers that always swing for the fences and would be hopeless in a Floyd Mayweather tactical battle to a decision. The key to success in Punch-out is to study your opponent’s visual and audio cues, learn how to evade their attacks and respond with a buffet of knuckle sandwiches.

And while the difficulty of each opponent raises sharply as you progress, the game at least gives you the tools to succeed. Unlike previous fossils in the series, you have no lives limit and can fight each boxer until you get it right (with the only punishment being the number of losses that surface on your win-loss record. By the end of the game, people will look at your record and ask you to posthumously donate your brain for concussion research.) On top of that, if any particular roid monkey has you stumped, you can go into Doc Louis’s gym: a facility that looks decrepit and run-down, probably has an eviction notice or two lying around, a massive cockroach problem and maybe even a homeless problem…but is also the home of a hologram-projector! One that Mac can use to train against opponents while taking no damage. So while the game is the very epitome of a trial-and-error style, it’s also a very user-friendly form of trial-and-error.

And boy does the game throw some interesting opponents at you. All of the original Punch-out’s cast returns in this game short of Mike Ty….I mean Mr. Dream, along with Super Punch-out alumni Bear Hugger and Aran Ryan (why not Dragon Chan? Bob Charlie? Old guy with the staff?) And boy do they love their Wii debut! Each of the game’s 13 stereotypes are fully realized, oozing with personality in their every punch, walk, pre-round trash talk… even the loading screen graphic is used as a chance to punk you out. Whether its Glass Joe’s nervous stutters, Soda Popinski’s…addiction, or Super Macho Man’s pec flexing, it’s hard to not to fall for these racially charged chums. As a Canuck, I can tell that this game was developed by fellow Canadians because Bear Hugger is the living lumberjack stereotype, complete maple syrup and Joe Bowen reference. The one new fighter of the bunch if Disco Kid, a dancing fool with a funky style who comes off as one of the best of the bunch, and his presence makes me wish developers Next Level Games were given the chance to create some more new faces.

No matter how hard you try, you cannot, cannot, keep a straight face while looking at King Hippo celebrate a knockdown. It’s impossible.

But even the complaint that the 14 fighters isn’t enough holds little water in the spit bucket. Once you’ve beaten all of the fighters and won the title, Title Defense mode is unlocked. Here, each fighter returns with a new look and new gimmick. For example, King Hippo uses a manhole and some tape to stop Little Mac from hitting his weak spot for massive damage.  Each opponent has learned new strategies and will easily beat you and win your title on the first try (yes, even Glass Joe.) So Little Mac becomes the Ric Flair of the WMBA and will have to reclaim his title many times over as he fends off each new challenge.

My biggest issue with Punch-out; once you’ve beaten all contenders, “Mac’s Last Stand” mode is unlocked. Here, you have only three lives to defeat ten opponents and unlock the last hidden fighter (won’t spoil it if you don’t know already) and the hidden Championship mode. Fail, and it becomes locked and you have to start a new save file to unlock it again. The work-around to this (thank you internet) is to copy your save file on an SD card and reload it on the Wii later, but I shouldn’t have to this at all.

Also, being that all fighters are speaking in their native tongues (presumably so the game isn’t labeled as racist) why not allow the option for subtitle translations?

That said, Punch-out has a surprising amount of replay value. You can revisit any opponent at any time in Exhibition mode, and the game gives you a list of three bonus objectives for each fight. Think you can figure the secret to beating Mr Sandman without dodging or blocking? How about knocking down Glass Joe 3 times and then letting him win by decision in a manner that would defy all judging conventions? The game gives just enough leeway in each challenger that each fight doesn’t necessarily have to look the same provided the player is willing to experiment (or look for answers on the internet.)

Finally, the two-player mode. Each player assumes control of a Little Mac and attempts to out-slug their adversary. If one Mac lands enough shots to fill a Giga-meter, that Mac takes a massive growth hormone injection and becomes Giga Mac, a boss-like enemy whom takes the same anti-Mayweather fight approach as the game’s other boxers. This mode is fun for a few minutes but too shallow to truly hold your attention.

But taken as a whole, Punch-out for the Wii is nothing short of fantastic. It’s simple, it’s challenging, yet it has more personality than most any game released before it this year. The trial-and-error approach to fighting may not be everyone’s cup of juice (inside drug reference intended), and I don’t think most people will walk away from Punch-out yearning for a sequel due to its simple nature. But in spite of this, Punch-out will occupy many hours of your time and jab a nice warm, tender bruise in your heart.

4 stars

Posted by headcase

Yeah, I hate that Mac's Last Stand thing too. Great review!

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