Version tested: Wii
They don't make 'em like they used to. It's a complaint made often enough about games but levelled more often these days at Nintendo - a company regarded by many as having abandoned its distinguished heritage, and having ignored its loyal audience in pursuit of the mass-market dollar. Whatever the merit of such criticism, it's hard not to view the Wii version of Punch-Out!! as a pointed response.
You want the old days back? Then have them. Have a nostalgic comeback from a series not seen in 15 years. Play a brand new eighties arcade game in your own home, one that's been lovingly updated and is painstakingly faithful to its roots.
Swap motion-sensitive technology for holding your Wii remote like a NES controller and shredding your thumb on the d-pad. Relive the pain and joy of gameplay that demands razor-sharp reactions, pattern-learning and exhaustive trial and error. Understand that Nintendo can make 'em like they used to, any time they feel like it.
The question is, do we really still want 'em?
Maybe. Look at Pac-Man Championship Edition, which proved you can still apply compelling new twists to the oldest designs. Or OutRun 2, which proved that if the design is strong enough, you don't have to; you can just transplant it into modern technology and the world will fall in love all over again.
Punch-Out!! falls into the latter category. This fondly remembered but seldom copied boxing game - not a traditional beat-'em-up so much as a cunning, rhythmical boss-rush - is reborn just as it was, only more so.
The player controls Little Mac, an indomitable teenage pipsqueak from Brooklyn trying to make a career in the ring - classic underdog stuff. He appears at the bottom of the screen as a succession of grotesque cartoon opponents loom over him, strutting, preening, bullying and pounding. You need to learn their attack patterns (and showing-off patterns), dodge and counter their punches, and look for specific windows where you'll be able to daze them, then get in a flurry of blows or earn a devastating Star Punch to save for later.
Whether using the remote and nunchuck to throw gesture punches or the traditional button arrangement on the remote alone, the controls couldn't be simpler. Up, down, left and right on the d-pad or stick perform block, duck, and left and right dodges. Throw left and right punches with simple, quick gestures or the 1 and 2 buttons. Aim high by holding up. Hold down A and punch to unleash your Star Punch (up to a rating of three stars).
Timing is everything in Punch-Out!! and both schemes are crisp and responsive. The simplicity of the gesture controls, especially the reliance on button modification rather than different movements for high punches, was an excellent choice. The traditional controls are a little sharper, but the choice comes down to personal preference and whether you want aching forearms or sore thumbs the next day. You can use a balance board to control ducking and dodging by shifting your weight but this is too slow, unpredictable and tiring to work with such a relentlessly precise and fast-paced game.
Punch-Out!! is basically a reaction-test, but it's not a straightforward one. It's also a kind of puzzle, or treasure-hunt, as you sift through each fighter's tics, tells and idiosyncrasies looking for openings, and test the effects of different combinations of dodges, blocks and punches against different enemy routines.
At a fundamental level, it's a war of attrition as you find ways to escape a beating and wear your enemy down with regular punches. But there's much more to discover and perfect than these basic and inelegant victories, especially with regard to the Star Punch opportunities; opponents can have five or more of these each, from their loudly telegraphed moments of vanity to the tiniest window in a ferocious attack.