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Victorious Boxers: Ippo's Road to Glory (PlayStation 2) artwork

This is the last round!

The Boss thinks I don't know what round it is? I must look like shit. I believe it after these seven rounds—I can feel the swollen flaps of skin closing in around my eyes. I won't stop now, but I can't help that feeling—

You've done well!

'Yeah,' I respond. And I have done well—I was getting pummeled after the third round and somehow swung it around, set my own rhythm, clearly been dominating in the home stretch—Vorg just won't stay down! People have said that about me, but these scrappers are a different breed. I knew the competition in an underground, big-purse event like this would be fierce, but…this is a den of mercenaries and thugs. They want blood, and they've set the rules accordingly. You have to knock a man down three times in a single round for a TKO, and these aren't the type of fighters who curl into a ball and call it quits. I hear Vorg was a lower-level KGB strongman, and the Soviet-red trunks with the hammer and sickle certainly don't contradict the rumors. All most of these sloppy palookas can do is take a solid beating before hitting the mat, but Vorg is the opposite: a lean, economical fighter who can string punches together as well as anyone on the circuit. And he can take a solid beating better than all the palookas put together. He's casual when I knock him down, dusting himself off with an unconcerned glance in my direction (he doesn't smile) seconds after I'm sure he's lights out. I've knocked him down eight times in the last four rounds.

Fight any way you like!

There's the bell. It's time.

I can probably hope for a points victory if I don't get knocked out, but Zangief won't let this round slip away without trying something. He's already coming at me, fast, and I am about to shit myself. My fear gets the best of me: I shut my eyes and throw a huge, ridiculous uppercut Vorg would be able to see a mile away...

...I don't see the punch connect or the expression on Vorg's face, but I see his legs buckle. A flurry of flashbulbs goes off in the audience and Vorg crumples to the side. He couldn't look more done, but sure enough he twitches, almost imperceptibly, as the referee bellows, "Two!" and Vorg slowly begins to rise. It's not a tentative, scared slow— it's a methodical slow. He's ready before the count of eight.

We exchange a few blows, get in a few scuffles—I can't get in there without taking a jab or two in the face. I start feel dizzy, but maybe he does too: he's getting a little sloppy for the first time in eight rounds. When I see an opening on his body, I take it, putting together a combo that ends with what feels and sounds colossal, a smash to in the softest part of the torso. I swear I hear ribs break, but I hit Vorg where there are no ribs. The camera flashes are even more intense. He collapses. I almost do, too—do I have any everything I had went into the punch that I hope crushes Vorg's gut, and his will in the process. Curled up in a tight fetal position, his back to me, if it were any other boxer I'd be pumping my fist in the air. But I wait, and sure enough he has another miraculous recovery before the ref reaches three. I think I notice the first angry glint in Vorg's eye.

When he comes at me for what we both know is going to be the final encounter—there's little time left in the round, and if he's not on his last legs then I sure as hell am—I can only clench my teeth, put my guard up, and wait for the bell. It's almost done, although I'm not sure whether I'll be standing up or flat on my face. In between punches, Vorg takes a deep breath...I think back to what the Boss said yesterday in the gym: "Hit him with a right hook when I comes up for air!" I do it reflexively, and Vorg looks momentarily stunned. I know I don’t have the time or energy to unleash the massive Gazzel Punch the Boss taught me before, but I can do something simple: I position my body and rip my left hand as straight as an arrow into his nose. He goes down, but barely, as the bell announces the TKO. The Boss and Yagi rush the ring, and Vorg gets up yet again, stalking away to his corner. I wonder if anyone could keep him down.

This is a fight I had during a recent session of Victorious Boxers, although none of this was in the script. Apparently this game is based on a Japanese comic, but the compelling narrative certainly didn’t make it stateside. You’d be hard-pressed to believe people made a living writing these storylines after watching the same mind-numbing cinema after each victory: "That was a fine knock-out! Keep it that way next time, too!" Young Ippo Makanouchi’s journey to the top is something you'll probably want to tap the start button through. But the game, not a narrative pasted on top, writes its own stories. I was imagining this epic bout as if it were happening to me. Isn’t that the raison d’?tre of videogaming? I certainly wouldn't be flaunting my creative writing 'skills' if I didn't think there was a good reason, and my reason is this: Victorious Boxers is an immersive, immersive boxing game that overcomes its technical limitations and shoddy localization with brilliant, masterful design.

Most games brought over from Japan these days have pretty slick presentation. Katamari Damacy is the best example, a game that Namco could not have seen having anything more than niche appeal that nevertheless has spiffy production values and vast amounts of English text with knowing, self-conscious Japlish. Victorious Boxers takes a few steps back—before the time when translators working on these games spoke fluent English, and certainly before the translators made fun of their predecessors' English deficiencies—back to the days of grammatically confusing menus and inconsistent spellings. I'm still not sure whether it's Volg or Vorg Zangief, and apparently boxing trunks only have room for three letters, because his said VOL in one cutscene and VLG in another.

These little foibles often work in groups to take a gamer out of the experience, but when you sit down and play Victorious Boxers you'll be thrust right back in. Eschewing any sort of blocking, the combat revolves around body position. Ducking and swaying to avoid punches while simultaneously gaining a good vantage point to rock your opponent is how the game is played, and it is breathtakingly engaging and complex. I like a fighting game that rewards skilled players and punishes button mashers, and VB does it better than any mainstream title out there (even the demanding Virtua Fighter 4). If just go in swinging, you'll feel like you're controlling a large boulder. If you know what you're doing, you can light up an opponent's face like a pinball machine.

I also like a game, of any genre, that seems to care most about what's most important. I don't want a product that flings superfluous crap in my face to distract me from what it's lacking, and VB keeps it honest. The overall presentation is uneven, but the things that are good—the fluid body movements, the rousing music that grows more ominous and desperate as fights drag on, the fighting system itself—are what needed to be good to make the whole package work.

Victorious Boxers is lean and efficient, as any good featherweight should be. But it also packs a terrifically immersive punch.

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Community review by careless_whisper (July 07, 2005)

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