Bringing a franchise that basks under its arcade simplicity to a modern home console is both bold and challenging; however, Little Mac was never one to run away from a big adversary
Out of all old-school Nintendo franchises that spent an obscene amount of time inside the company’s merciless limbo, Punch-Out was not among those that were likely to make a glorious come back. While the game’s first two home-console versions, released for the NES and the Super Nintendo, were packed with fun and challenge, the latter being a feature that is not exactly prominent in modern gaming, its mechanics were extremely simple; perhaps way too straightforward to warrant a full-fledged sequel in a scenario where most games need to have huge scopes to be successful.
However, all rules have their exceptions. And, maybe by feeling that, with the emergence and praise garnered by smaller indie games, the market was becoming warmer towards titles with arcade-like simplicity, Nintendo was brave enough to believe Punch-Out could once again achieve greatness. The responsibility to deliver on that promise was, then, given to Next Level Games.
In a superficial analysis, the Wii version of Punch-Out could easily be described as more of a refurbishment than an overhaul; it is a bright new coat of paint put over a structure that was left mostly unchanged when compared to its arcade origins. Therefore, it would not be surprising to catch one singling it out as a lazy effort that does little to update a franchise that had been dormant for fifteen years. However, playing the game’s Wii version is realizing that the formula still works remarkably well, even when used as the core of a full-fledged console title; and, in that sense, Punch-Out knocks out all accusations of complacency to reveal its true nature: that of a game which is, in equal measures, the product of boldness and sensibility.
Those two concepts come into play because Punch-Out never runs away from what it is: a boxing game that plays more like a puzzle than an actual fighting effort. Players step into the ring as Little Mac, an underdog boxer from New York who needs to climb up the ranks of three circuits (Minor, Major, and World) in order to become the world champion. Punch-Out, though, exists in a parallel universe in which boxing is, to put it in mild terms, weird: moving around the ring is not an option; there are no weight categories; and psychological evaluations of athletes are certainly not performed, because such an absurd cast of lunatics would never be allowed to step into the fray in normal conditions.
Due to the limitations of movement, in Punch-Out players have two main concerns: dodging and punching. Button 1 performs a left hook while button 2 executes a right hook; when combined with the D-pad’s upward direction, these buttons are used to land jabs. Avoiding attacks by the adversary, meanwhile, can be done by dodging to the sides, ducking or blocking. Finally, it is possible to unleash a special punch with the A-button; the move, however, is only activated once three stars – which are earned by punching adversaries at very specific moments – are gathered.
Given it is a Wii game, developers did not miss the opportunity to utilize the system’s motion controls. They exist here as an option in which the Wiimote and Nunchuck represent the character’s left and right hands respectively, and although there is some excitement in watching Little Mac punch faces and bellies as one recreates the same motions in their living room, the novelty is bound to wear out with time. The standard NES configuration of the Wiimote, with the device turned sideways, proves to be ideal for the intense gameplay of Punch-Out, which requires brutal timing and absurdly precise responsiveness.
Such need for accurate response stems from Punch-Out’s incredibly unique, borderline inimitable, brand of gameplay. Little Mac’s way to the top will be paved with the tears, and invisible blood, of thirteen boxers. And, for each one of them, the general process for the achievement of sweet victory will be the same. All boxers follow a blatantly predetermined pattern: every one of their attacks is preceded by cues that will let players know what is coming, and dodging them successfully is the only way to land blows on the opponent, as they become temporarily vulnerable.
It is all easier said than done, though. As matches go on, cues become briefer, attacks come in at a faster place, and new surprising moves are thrown into the pattern to catch Little Mac off guard; and, naturally, as Little Mac climbs up the ranks, adversaries with larger sets of techniques, smaller vulnerability windows, more powerful blows, and faster gaps between cue and punch will show up. Punch-Out, then, is one constant delightful grind that requires memorization and rhythm; it is a dance in which one wrong move does not end with a toe that is stepped on, but with a cheek hitting the cold floor.
The total number of rivals – thirteen – may not seem like much, but Punch-Out’s approach to boxing makes each encounter last considerably, as players need to learn the behavior of opponents to perfection. Moreover, the game’s legs grow considerably once one takes into account how after winning it all, Little Mac will go through a title defense that includes rematches against all of his defeated rivals, who will reappear with more complicated patterns, stronger attacks and new ways to defend themselves. It all sounds brutal, and in a way it is, but Punch-Out’s lengthy uphill climb is smooth, satisfying, and rewarding: battles get progressively harder all the way through the game, but – with so much sweat and tears involved – players’ agility, perception, and endurance also improve as Little Mac advances.
To those who are looking for even more content and to have the limit of their skills tested – and Punch-Out is a game that will bring out such desire for many, thanks to its addictive simplicity – there are the challenges of the exhibition mode. Once boxers are defeated in the career mode, it is possible to face them in friendly combats, which would not have been truly special save for one sweet detail: the fact that each of the two forms of the boxers, the regular one and the one that is encountered during Mac’s title defense, comes with three challenges to be met.
These sound, at first, downright impossible, such as beating a mighty boxer without dodging or taking one down with just one punch. However, not only are they doable with clever tricks and absolutely impeccable timing, they are also incredibly fun to perform, as players will slowly find new ways to beat their opponents down and uncover all twisted little secrets hidden within their attack patterns.
Speaking of Little Mac’s rivals, they have been – historically – one of Punch-Out’s signature and most appealing features, and the Wii version of the game retains that quality. Coming from different nations around the world, Punch-Out’s main stars are built around stereotypes related to those countries: there is the fragile croissant-eating Frenchman; the Spanish Don Juan who doubles a bullfighter; the vodka-drinking Russian; the drunk, and positively psychotic, Irishman; the Canadian bear-loving lumberjack; and more. Although such brand of humor has fallen out of favor with many, those who are not offended by it will be absolutely thrilled with Punch-Out’s over-the-top depiction of the boxers and their habits, a quality that makes each adversary an immediately likable and undoubtedly iconic character within the Nintendo canon.
Due to having its home in a console that is significantly more powerful than the one that had housed its prequel, Punch-Out gives the franchise a big update in presentation and sound. All of its characters are voice-acted, and those who are born in non-English speaking countries have plenty of lines in their own language, which is a nice detailed touch; additionally, the game is supported by very solid sound effects and songs that, albeit a little repetitive, get the job done. Moreover, the break between fights is usually adorned by cutscenes that show Little Mac training beside his mentor, the legendary Doc Louis. It is a shame, however, that the introduction of Little Mac’s adversaries is done via slideshows of pictures that portray the boxers’ hobbies and personalities, as cutscenes would have been far more effective and welcome.
The star of the show, in the presentation department, though, is certainly the game’s cell-shaded look. Not only does it work towards alleviating a lot of the violence that happens inside the ring, it also fits like a glove when it comes to Punch-Out’s general humor, which turns the fights into extremely light-hearted affairs thanks to the characters’ dialogues and reactions. The game takes advantage of its simple setup, as only two characters appear on screen, to present their moves and models with as much detail as possible, turning the whole package into an incredible sight for the eyes.
In the end, Nintendo’s brave decision to bring a game that was born in an arcade to the arena of modern gaming without altering an inch of its core structure pays off in a big way. Punch-Out’s inborn simplicity has not made its gameplay age one tiny bit. In a world where games are becoming more complex and bloated by the hour, its straightforward ways actually highlight the brilliant charm of its design and augment the addictive nature of its setup. Through punches, dodges and a whole lot of hard work, Little Mac proves he can stand side-by-side with all of the industry’s giants. They may be bigger than him, but – as Punch-Out shows – taking down adversaries of a much larger stature is what that humble boxer does for a living.