Giant Bomb Review

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Punch-Out!! Review

5
  • Wii

Punch-Out!! builds on the strengths of the NES original in some smart, simple ways that, when combined with a stylish, playful presentation, makes for a terrific experience.

Knock him out!
Knock him out!
At face value, the idea of trying to remake Punch-Out!! in the year 2009 seems like a dicey proposition at best. The original Punch-Out!! holds incredible nostalgic value for a lot of people, myself included, but the simple pattern-recognition gameplay doesn't seem like it would hold up today. On the other hand, trying to modernize Punch-Out!! with more complicated controls or a more realistic approach to boxing could very easily undermine the game's accessible appeal. Somehow, Nintendo manages to avoid both of these pitfalls with Punch-Out!! for the Wii, a game that capitalizes on the game's nostalgic legacy without feeling pandering or rehashed.

The biggest strength that Punch-Out!! has is that it recognizes the things that make Punch-Out!! such a fondly remembered game in the first place. First and foremost it's the larger-than-life, caricatured fighters you face off against as the plucky and diminutive Little Mac. The game features the full roster from the original Punch-Out!! To be clear, this means you'll sadly be squaring off against Mr. Sandman, and not Mike Tyson, for your title belt. Mr. Sandman is a fine opponent, and Nintendo has a fistful of good reasons to want to steer clear of Tyson, but for me, it's one of the few improvements that could have been made.

There are a couple of new fighters, as well as one from Super Punch-Out!!, and while many of the fighters are based on cultural or ethnic caricatures that might be borderline insensitive in 2009, it's all presented with a tone that's too easy-going and absurd to take that seriously. You'd have to have a pretty sour disposition to take offense at croissants falling out of Glass Joe when you knock him down, or the pieces of sushi that circle Piston Hondo's head when you've got him dazed. It's perfectly fine, though, to be offended by the fact that they changed Piston Honda's name, presumably for legal reasons.

The game pays a loving amount of attention to the way the fighters look, move, and sound, which is good, because they take up most of the screen and supply the game with its personality. Considering this is the first Punch-Out!! game since polygonal graphics and voice acting became the norm, it's a novelty in and of itself to see and hear these characters rendered this way, but they're also just really well executed. The cel-shaded graphics compliment the fighters' cartoonishly exaggerated physiques, and there's an expressiveness to the characters that, even when they're speaking a foreign language, let you know what's on their mind. Little Mac remains the silent protagonist, though his trainer Doc is eager to spout misremembered boxing platitudes, helpful advice, or whatever errant thought might be sauntering through his head in between rounds. The game mines the classic Punch-Out!! music quite successfully, and it really benefits from the energetic instrumentation.

Don't let his size fool you, Little Mac packs a punch.
Don't let his size fool you, Little Mac packs a punch.
Also key to the Punch-Out!! experience is the gameplay, which boils boxing down to a simple-yet-effective combination of pattern recognition and crackerjack timing. This isn't Fight Night, so you don't have to sweat ring position or, really, anything remotely resembling actual boxing, but this game does make some appreciable modifications to the core Punch-Out!! formula. Taking a page from Super Punch-Out!!, you can duck as well as dodge incoming punches, and a lot of attacks require you to move in a specific way to avoid taking damage. The other fighters have a bizarre tendency to telegraph their different punches and combos in really obvious, flamboyant ways, and it doesn't help their cause when they flash red right before they come for you. You might recognize a lot of the fighters, and maybe even some of their specific moves and weaknesses, but they've all got a few new tricks up their sleeves. The game takes its time ramping up the difficulty, though there comes a point where your timing and your reflexes are just as paramount to success as your ability to memorize a fighter's patterns. 

Structurally, the game initially might seem identical to the original. You work your way up through 13 fighters in three different circuits before you can call the WVBA championship yours. Once you get the belt, though, you unlock a second stage to your career, where you have to defend your title against the same fighters you just bested. This time, though, they've been training for you, and everyone is tougher, faster, and craftier in the ring. Many of them have changed their look dramatically, sometimes in ways that effect their core characteristics. 

Glass Joe, for example, enters the ring wearing headgear that keeps his glass jaw from being such a liability. Similarly, King Hippo rolls in with a manhole cover taped over his usually tender belly button. In both of these cases, it adds a second layer of figuring out how to overcome these fighters' new defenses, though everyone comes with a number of devastating new attacks. It's a clever design choice that addresses the issue of brevity when it comes to Punch-Out!!, even if it's not massive. For me, this is where Punch-Out!! really started getting tough in the way that I remember Punch-Out!! being tough, though it doesn't punish you for a loss by starting you back at square one. You can take as many runs at a fighter as you need, and there's a training mode where you can take on a fighter without the admittedly minor penalty of ruining your win/loss record.

The game also offers a two-player split-screen mode, pitting two Little Macs against each other. The action feels decidedly different here, and not just because of the fact that you're going up against someone who, at least to start, is the same size as you. The timing is much tighter, and if you take too long to throw a punch, or your opponent blocks or dodges your punch, you turn blue, which temporarily prevents you from throwing any punches. The best part about the multiplayer is the ability to transform into Giga Mac when you land enough punches. In addition to turning you into a monstrous, wild-haired freak, it switches from split-screen to a perspective that mimics the single-player game, essentially letting you play the game as one of the outsized fighters you're always going up against. Without any options to speak of, the multiplayer feels slight, but it's got some brief appeal.

A familiar face with a new trick.
A familiar face with a new trick.
You can play Punch-Out!! a couple of different ways on the Wii. You can go with just the Wii remote held sideways, providing control that's nearly identical to the NES classic, or you can go with a remote-and-nunchuk combo that you can swing at the screen to throw punches. There's also support for the Wii Balance Board, which you can use to duck and dodge incoming attacks. Personally, I found that the experience suffered with the motion controls and the optional balance board, particularly as the game gets harder. The gameplay in Punch-Out!! is very digital in nature, and the remote-only setup plays to that fact. With the motion controls, I felt like I was getting something that was more complicated without being tangibly better.

Not to harp on this point too much, but save for the inclusion of Mike Tyson, I'm not sure you could expect much better from a Punch-Out!! remake. That's not to say you couldn't make an arcade-style boxing game that was deeper and longer-lasting, but then it just wouldn't be Punch-Out!!