GDC: Punch-Out!!

Comeback kid.

As soon as you play Punch-Out!!, it seems obvious. You can't believe you didn't think of it before. You realise that the tense ménage-a-trois between Nintendo, its disgruntled hardcore fans, and its new darlings - the smiling, social, fit families of the Wii generation - might be easily patched up by a trip down memory lane to the places where they all met for the first time, twenty-five years ago: the arcade, and its spin-off stepchild, the NES. Nostalgia, novelty, purity, approachability and depth - something for everyone.

It worked for the DS with NEW Super Mario Bros, after all, but it is fair to say that Punch-Out!! isn't anything like such an obvious candidate. Barring Virtual Console re-releases, nothing's been seen of this vintage boxing series since 1994's Super Punch-Out!! on the SNES, and even that was a decade after the first arcade game bounced into the ring. It hasn't really been copied, either, although Ready 2 Rumble lifted some if its irreverent style. Good: it means Punch-Out!!'s unique cocktail of puzzle-solving, pattern-recognition, reflex rhythm-action and boss rush still tastes fresh and packs a wallop.

"I think easily accessible games are rare," says Bryce Holliday, gameplay director at Canadian developer Next Level Games, which also made Mario Strikers for Nintendo. "Ones that you can walk by the TV and it almost invites you to play it, and when you grab the controls you're not twisting your hands in some arcane manner. The classic arcade feel is just a controller stick with two buttons. The first impression is: I can play this."

You sure can. Punch-Out!! has six inputs; left and right punches, left and right dodges, up (block or aim high), and down (duck). You play it by throwing punches with the remote and nunchuk, and using the stick for the other commands - or by holding to the remote sideways like a NES controller and using the d-pad and 1 and 2 buttons. You can hot-swap these control schemes just by unplugging the nunchuk. In time-honoured tradition, your pint-sized prizefighter Little Mac sits at the bottom of the screen while a giant opponent looms over him, telegraphing punches, offering brief windows of opportunity, and shamelessly, outrageously lambasting every cheap stereotype in the book.

The original launch trailer.

Both control schemes work perfectly, offering crisply defined and immediate responses backed up by the slick animations of the clowning, cel-shaded pugilists. I settled on the motion controls during my half-hour playtest, perhaps because I'm no Punch-Out!! veteran - but also because the minimal, faultless and lightning-quick scheme came as a blessed relief after so many cumbersome Wii games (not least my last miserable encounter with Wii boxing, Ready 2 Rumble Revolution). Punch-Out!!'s purely rhythmic nature means that you move naturally and loosely, and with none of that frantic, contorted flailing, this won't be exhausting to play for long periods.

Nintendo producer Kensuke Tanabe reveals that motion controls were the reason Punch-Out!! came back, joking that it's been so long since the last Punch-Out!! "because we couldn't come up with a good idea for a new Punch-Out!! game for 15 years. I'm joking, but the reason behind the project coming out right now is because we have the new motion controls, and we wanted to implement that in the game."

"I played the NES version in my basement with friends, so to have the original controls just feels natural," counters Halliday. "We think it's important that you should have choice."

With such transparent and responsive controls, you can focus all your attention on dodging your opponent's blows and wearing them down with flurries of counters - or watching for their moments of weakness when you can dive in and earn a star. You can then unleash star punches with A, more powerful the more you have, up to a maximum of three - although if your opponent lays a glove on you, you'll lose them. It's a matter of pattern-recognition mostly, although forcing new patterns by solving a kind of rhythmic puzzle did come into play on the last of the four fighters I encountered.

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