Punch-Out!! (Wii) review
"I always enjoyed the portraits and the clever little sayings that opponents offered in the NES installment, but such elements could only go so far. Movements in the actual ring were likewise limited by hardware. This time around, things are much more convincing throughout. King Hippo laughs arrogantly as he faces you, as if insulted that such a puny challenger would dare to face him. Upon finding himself lying on the mat, Soda Popinski will resort to swigging liquid from a bottle before rising to his feet in a rage."
I was generally awful at Punch-Out!! on the NES, but I'm okay with that. I can enjoy it anyway! There's something irresistible about the interactive story of one young boxer's battle to reach the top of the boxing circuit as he faces off against some of the most memorable characters ever to gather in a sports title. Even when things aren't going properly, it's a terrific experience.
Consider it a testament to the game's quality design that even in 2009, with several respected boxing titles available, people of all skill levels continue to enjoy the NES classic. Some of those folks still praise it as one of the finest sports titles ever produced for a console. Considering that remarkable pedigree, I was concerned when I heard that Nintendo had handed development of the newest installment--the first in many years--to an external team at a relatively unknown company called Next Level Games. I needn't have worried, though; polished and quirky in all the right ways, not to mention true to its predecessors to an extent that's bound to make some retro gamers giggle with glee, the new Punch-Out!! is nearly everything that fans of the original ever could have hoped for. A few things do hold it back, though.
One potential source of disappointment is the roster, so let's get that out of the way right now. There are thirteen boxers that you can face off against, plus a final hidden character that only becomes available once you've thoroughly mastered everything else. That's not a particularly hefty number, certainly, and only one of them is a new design (though certainly a memorable one). The others have all appeared in previous outings. With only a few exceptions, you could almost say that this is a remake of the NES game in the same the way that Street Fighter IV was sometimes considered a remake of Super Street Fighter II.
Of course, the characters now look much better in Punch-Out!! for Wii than ever before. They have much more personality, as well. I always enjoyed the portraits and the clever little sayings that opponents offered in the NES installment, but such elements could only go so far. Movements in the actual ring were likewise limited by hardware. This time around, things are much more convincing throughout. King Hippo laughs arrogantly as he faces you, as if insulted that such a puny challenger would dare to face him. Upon finding himself lying on the mat, Soda Popinski will resort to swigging liquid from a bottle before rising to his feet in a rage. There also are some butt and pectoral wiggles elsewhere in the game that were unexpectedly obvious, plus characters all benefit from excellent voice work and some comical stills that do a nice job of maintaining a light atmosphere.
Playing through the three circuits and facing each contender should take most players only a few brief hours, which is another issue that the Punch-Out!! revival needed to overcome. The good news is that as a result of the lean design, there's much less repetition on your way to the top. You're no longer knocked back a round if you lose a match. You can make another attempt whenever it suits you, or another twenty, without being forced to fight an opponent you already can dominate. Some may protest this as a cheapening of the experience, but that doesn't prove to be the case for a few reasons.
The first reason is that once you've competed against a given boxer, you can attempt challenges by fighting him in an exhibition match. These events really force you to play in ways that you otherwise might not and give you a new motivation to face old adversaries. For example, the three tasks most immediately available for Glass Joe ask you to defeat him without using evasive moves, to find his one-hit knockout and to knock him down three times before losing the overall match by decision of the judge. If you do all of that, then you'll gain access to some of the excellent voice assets relating to his character... every snooty French line!
The developers took things a step further, too. Once you've defeated the champion--no small task if you're not good at memorizing patterns or seeing visual cues coming--you'll be able to face your familiar opponents again as you struggle to maintain your title. However, the weaknesses that you cleverly exploited on your ascension have now been rectified by your wily challengers. You'll have to form new strategies if you want to keep them from reclaiming the title that you worked so hard to earn!
This system ensures that players of all skill levels have something to enjoy, though there's still a bit of a learning curve. Punch-Out!! plays out much the same as it always did--with low and high left and right hooks, stars when you land an especially neat punch and a super-powerful uppercut that can be unleashed at critical moments--but sometimes it's not obvious why you're getting your butt handed to you by a rival. Fortunately, Doc is on hand to give you excellent advice. It's fun to consider how many people from the new generation of gamers will get to experience tips on how to survive Bald Bull's charge for the first time thanks to this new release. Your loyal trainer even starts to recommend that you join the now-defunct Nintendo Fun Club, which I thought was an especially nice touch.
While a lot of the things that I appreciated most about Punch-Out!! have been true of the series since it's first installment, there are a few nods to evolving industry standards, as well. Now you'll find new control options and even a split-screen mode so that two friends can box with one another when they tire of the computer opponents. Personally, I found the NES-style control scheme to be just about perfect and quickly saved that as my default setting for my profile. That approach worked out great and saved me from hitting myself in the chin with cords and wrist straps, but I didn't like that menus between matches must be navigated by the Wii Remote in its pointer capacity. It's a shame that the differing control schemes weren't more fully supported and that there's no Classic Controller support.
With all of that said, the complaints that I've leveled against Punch-Out!! mostly amount to nitpicks. You'll probably notice them too but have a hard time bringing yourself to care much. The limited roster, the initial lack of difficulty and even the control scheme might disappoint initially, but it's easy to forgive those potential pitfalls in the face of the otherwise exemplary execution and the satisfaction that comes from boxing against such a colorful cast of characters. Whether you're returning to the franchise for the hundredth time or just encountering it for the first, this revival surely ranks among the most worthwhile that the industry has ever seen. Little Mac wins again!
Staff review by Jason Venter (May 24, 2009)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
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