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.
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.
It's so pure, so simple, but Nintendo and Next Level are keen to stress that there's an awful lot more to Punch-Out!! than meets the eye. "There are hidden elements in the Punch-Out!! universe. The original game is about finding the tells, finding the weaknesses, solving the hidden puzzles," says Halliday. "So there are a few elements to the controls that aren't quite visible but users will discover over time while they master the game." One of these may or may not be related to the Wii's new enhanced motion sensor, MotionPlus - Tanabe says we'll have to wait for the final release to find out.
The same goes for online leaderboards. And for whether Mario or other Nintendo characters might appear as cameo referees (they don't in what we see). And what the roster of fighters will be, and whether it will include real-world stars like the NES game's Mike Tyson ("you can find out yourself if you play the game all the way through to the end," chuckles Tanabe mischievously). Multiplayer, at least, Halliday is willing to confirm, if not explain. "We're trying to broaden the experience of the game to more fans, so having a multiplayer mode - while challenging with the Punch-Out!!-style gameplay mechanic - was something that we were interested to do from the outset of the project," he says.
It sounds like a slight game - and we don't know much about it, given it's just two months away from its 22nd May release - but when the developers hint at its hidden waters, we believe them. Perhaps it's Halliday's obvious understanding and admiration of the original's deceptive depth. "Playing the original games, there's always a way to just barely beat the boxers, and you get the satisfaction of overcoming that fight, but there's also a lot of satisfaction in learning everything there is to know about that boxer," he says.
"We're not allowed to discuss it at this time, but there are more hidden things, more exploratory things in the game to keep you coming back to perfect those boxers, and put your scores up on YouTube and compare yourself with anyone in the world... We barely fit this game onto a DVD, the amount of content that we've jammed into this is pretty impressive compared to our previous games. A simple yet deep experience I think is totally valid in this market."
If Punch-Out!! is defined by one thing more than its layered, arcade-puzzler gameplay, it's the cast of boxers. In our preview, we meet feeble Frenchie Glass Joe (who goes down in a hail of croissants), uppity Kraut Von Kaiser and brain-damaged fatty King Hippo, all old favourites, plus newcomer Disco Kid, a camp, preening dancefloor peacock. Each is introduced by a quick tableau of cartoon stills, and voiced in their own language. It's not politically correct, it's not subtle, and it's not pulling its punches. It is funny though (funnier than the slightly stilted lines from your trainer, at any rate).
"I think the most important thing is the David and Goliath, underdog sort of story," says audio director Chad York. "I think all of the characters represent different types of bullies, and everyone relates to a different boxer, so we tried to capture the essence of all the different scenarios we could think of that classic underdogs have gone through."
Unsophisticated, maybe, but it's pure personality. Everything about this disarmingly straight-down-the-line, pitch-perfect revival is. The complete lack of audiovisual frippery, focusing everything on the larger-than-life characters and taut, information-rich sound. The transposition of sudden keyframe animations to the smooth but rapid and rhythmic lunges and eye-bulging antics of the cast of characters. The clipped precision of the timing, the subtle surprises in the fight routines.
We're going to have to take Punch-Out!!'s replay value and feature set on trust, for now, but we can already tell that Nintendo and Next Level have done a minor classic with this update - and in the process, revived a side of Nintendo we've rarely seen since SNES days, the masters of the tight-but-loose, cheeky-but-clever single-player arcade game. And that's something absolutely every Wii owner would enjoy.
Punch-Out!! is due out for Wii on 22nd May.