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.
This is, then, a game about animation, at a basic game design level as well as in its irreverent cartoon humour. Few game developers can live up to Nintendo's standards in animation but with the masters' help, Next Level has nailed it; Punch-Out!! is fantastically smooth and fast, tuned to frame-by-frame perfection, and the huge, screen-dominating boxers are brimming with larger-than-life character. Opponents' routines are more varied, more surprising and funnier than they ever were in Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!! on the NES or Super Punch-Out!! on the SNES - never mind the arcade original.
There are three circuits' worth of fighters: minor, major and world, with 13 opponents in all. They're nearly all series favourites, and camp, gyrating newcomer Disco Kid is memorable enough not to let the side down. Punch-Out!!'s old-school gameplay is matched by a defiantly eighties attitude to political correctness, as each fighter lambasts crude ethnic and national stereotypes - from Von Kaiser's Teutonic disciplinarian to Don Flamenco's bullfighting Spanish fop, from the grotesquely obese island primitive King Hippo to the idiotically violent Irishman Aran Ryan. It's unapologetic, disgracefully entertaining and actually quite egalitarian. No-one escapes ridicule. Not even Canadians.
Defeating all 13 opponents won't take too long, although you may experience frustrated pad-throwing tantrums along the way. It's an unforgiving game but never an unfair one, and it's only your own poor timing or propensity to fall for its maddening bluffs and switches that will let you down.
It's telling how fights that seemed unwinnable are bafflingly easy when you revisit them later on. You must be prepared to take your lumps as you learn each fight though, and the humiliating, pounding impact of opponents' blows, so brilliantly conveyed by the animation, sound and subtle camera (and so satisfying when you're dealing them yourself) can be hard to stomach if you're stuck in a rut.
Next Level has extended Punch-Out!!'s longevity in two ways. The first is Title Defence mode, unlocked after you beat all the fighters; every one comes back at you, much tougher than before, with new outfits, routines, attacks and quirks. In effect, it's a whole new series of fights that more than doubles the length of the game, just as creative and fun (if not more so) than churning out a larger roster of fighters would have been.
Title Defence straightforwardly gives you more for your money - but Exhibition mode might be the more interesting time-sink in the long run. This allows you to replay each fight, finessing your technique, improving your time and discovering all its secrets. There are also three achievement-style goals for each fight to aim for: land every punch you throw, don't dodge, find five different ways to earn stars, knock out your opponent in five punches and so on. Collecting these is a great encouragement to fully explore Punch-Out!!'s deceptive depth, more so than surviving the career mode (before Title Defence, at any rate).
The final addition to Punch-Out!! is multiplayer, but it's probably the least significant. This is a two-player split-screen mode in which you each control a Little Mac. Land enough punches and you'll transform into a monstrous Giga Mac. At this point the view reverts to a single camera with you in the background - effectively turning you into one of the hulking, ludicrous opponents from the single-player game.
As Giga Mac your attacks are devastating but slow, and easier to predict and counter than in the first phase. It's almost as if Next Level is admitting that the controls don't quite suit a multiplayer game, and has opted to make it as much like the single-player as possible. It works, just, but it's a half-formed idea at best, and the mode is no more than a disposable novelty.
That's not a criticism you can level at Punch-Out!! as a whole. Rarely has a vintage game been revisited with such sure-footed style. This is an immaculate remake, and everything fans of the originals could want: colourful, faithful, visually bold, perfectly polished, tight as a drum, simple on the surface but with nuanced layers to peel away if your eye is sharp and your reflexes are true.
If you're not a fan Punch-Out!! is still worth trying, but with caution. It's approachable at first but a hard taskmaster later on, an endurance test for your nerves and temper. You know, like videogames used to be. Well, you asked for it. And Nintendo is only too happy to plant it right between your eyes.
8 / 10