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.
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