Version tested: Wii
In 1966, according to Wikipedia - which I've certainly never known to be wrong about anything - Don King stomped an employee to death over a debt of 600 dollars. I mention this only because it makes Don King's Prizefighter the first videogame series I can think of that's endorsed by somebody who's actually killed a man - well, at least since Lesley Grantham's Super-Trick Snowboarding gave us so many hours of fun on the SEGA Megadrive. Still, it feels a little churlish bringing it up, really: King's served his sentence and deserves a second chance. He's done his time, and now, with Don King Boxing, we're doing ours.
When it appeared on the 360 last year, Prizefighter was widely lauded for lacklustre graphics, unwelcome difficulty spikes, and collision detection so bad that you almost felt you were playing a boxing simulation on the Holodeck of the Starship Enterprise. If you're the kind of person who suspects that all this wonky game really needed to snap it into shape was the addition of Wii controls, I should very like to meet you - presumably once you get back from New York City, where you've been optimistically waiting for the Titanic to finally arrive.
Clear your mind and hope for the best, though. Oh dear: things start in a distinctly unpromising manner. After an unconvincing intro sequence with an astonishingly juddery frame rate, you're dumped into an unskippable tutorial, which attempts to introduce you to the game's controls. They're pretty simple really: holding the remote and nunchuk upright, a push forward handles jabs and straights, hooks are activated by a swing to each side, and uppercuts come via a gentle flick. Pushing either B or Z directs blows to the body rather the head, and, with movement handled by the stick, there are further options for guarding, dodging, and accessing the pleasantly unshowy special moves - more powerful variations of each punch, which leave a brief trail of red light lingering behind them.
As move-sets go, it's actually rather elegant - an entirely instinctive range of controls which are easy to memorise and full of punchy promise. Sadly, what the tutorial is really teaching you is that none of this matters much.
Don King Boxing, it turns out, is woefully imprecise. And not just, "I pressed the wrong button in the elevator and now I'm on the wrong floor" imprecise, but, "I set off to drive to the laundrette and somehow ended up in Ukraine" imprecise. While the game can just about distinguish your inputs while it's teaching you each separate attacks one at a time, as soon as you reach the combo stage of the tutorial the frustration jolts into overdrive, with every shake of the remote or nunchuk offering you an entirely unexpected outcome, while the too-subtle variations in the punch animations leave you with little to distinguish between jabs and uppercuts anyway.
That the tutorial asks you to fill in chains of specific moves in order to proceed is bad enough, but throw on top of that a focus on timing, which the game leaves you to discover for yourself - and which the remote can rarely handle anyway - and it becomes clear that the game has managed the impossible: it's found a magical plateau of annoyance where precision and imprecision become inextricably knotted - the game demanding a level of strict control over your inputs while offering you tools which mean you can only achieve them through a mixture of luck and sheer bloody-mindedness.
Whatever option you plump for - I opted for bouts of screaming followed by a smattering of bitter tears - a mere four minutes into the tutorial, even the most elegant and controlled of players may start to wonder if they'll ever get to see the rest of the campaign at all, or if they'll spend eternity struggling to chain together three simple straights, while their Wii registers hooks, dodges, uppercuts and a weird ghost attack where the boxer's arm passes spookily through his enemy's torso. As tutorials go, it does an admirable job of providing a guided tour of the game's many frustrations and limitations.
It's a pleasant surprise, then, to discover that the game waiting beyond the tutorial is dull rather than wretched. As expected, once mastering the moves is out of the way, you can largely forget about them, as Don King generally requires nothing more of you than a concentrated succession of grand mal seizures to work through its range of bouts. The fighting system itself has a hint of tactical grace to it, success theoretically lying with a balance of health versus stamina, softening opponents up with simple jabs before striking out with a super-powered special. The truth is, however, that by this point you're so depressingly aware of the game's inability to distinguish between anything but the most simple of attacks that there's very little sense in trying to plan your moves, and when the campaign ramps up its difficulty and demands specific patterns to beat later enemies, you know that it simply can't be trusted to play fair.
It's a shame, as the game's story mode isn't that bad: its tale of a journey from obscurity to stardom is traditional, yet strangely wholesome, and the sprinkling of famous talking heads that crop up along the way add a certain appeal for fans of the sport. And graphically, the game is better than you might be expecting, too: backgrounds are simple but often characterful, and the fighter models are fairly good, even if each boxer appears to be stuck with a single facial expression throughout the match, whether you're taking a pummelling from them or knocking them out of a nearby window (possibly, however, this is a subtle reference to the dangers of brain damage inherent in the sweet science).
Elsewhere there's a two-player option, training modes, which are suitably exhausting, and tacked-on support for the balance board - used for simple things like dodges - that never quite justifies the pain involved in taking it out of the cupboard, dusting it off, and finding four AA batteries.
None of these offerings will distract you from the realisation that 2K's game is a fairly slight work, and, despite King's winningly verbose interjections, its hip-hop soundbeds and clinical menus make it pretty characterless too. The sad truth is, if you already have a Wii, you've already got a better boxing title in the shape of Wii Sports - a game that not only allows you to pummel away at a cartoon representation of your sister, but also effortlessly possesses more charm, more wit, and - worryingly - a lot more precision than anything this can offer. Overall, Don King Boxing is one fight you might want to walk away from: not because it's dangerous, then, but because it's an irritating bore.
3 / 10