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Review: Punch-Out!!

Jordan Deam | 28 May 2009 13:00
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You wouldn't know it at a glance, but Punch-Out, Next Level Games' Wii update of the NES classic, takes a pretty conservative approach to game design: If it ain't broke, don't fix it. From the character roster to the core gameplay itself, it's virtually identical to the 1987 NES classic. It's pitch perfect nostalgia with some modern embellishments, but if you thought the original game was shallow, repetitive and inane, it's unlikely this remake will convince you otherwise.

That's no fault of the developers; there's a certain set of expectations that come with a Punch-Out game, and neither realism nor depth are anywhere to be found on that list. Fundamentally, Punch-Out is a test of pattern recognition and reflexes; stripped of its cartoony, cel-shaded characters, it more closely resembles a rhythm game than an actual boxing match. Your opponents remain virtually invulnerable until they throw a punch, at which point you must dodge in the appropriate direction and counter with a left-right volley of your own. Take this cat-and-mouse game and repeat it ad nauseam hundreds of times, and you have a reasonable approximation of Punch-Out's single-player experience.

But while Next Level Games may have intentionally left the gameplay in 1987, their updates to the Punch-Out characters and aesthetic feel both modern and timeless. They've taken the original game's 8-bit sprites and one-line between-round taunts and extrapolated them into vivid personalities. The game introduces each character through a comical, four-panel slideshow depicting them in their native habitat - a Parisian café for Glass Joe, a Spanish bullring for Don Flamenco, etc. Beyond adding a little depth to the fighters' personas, these vignettes actually give you some insight into their weakness as well - usually some combination of arrogance, distractibility and needless showmanship.

More impressive is how the developers managed to craft engaging characters through their in-ring appearance and mannerisms. Whether they recall the jerky movements of the game's 8-bit predecessor (as with Glass Joe's wobbly knock-out stagger) or add to the series' visual lexicon (like Disco Kid's flamboyant poses), Punch-Out's animations are a joy to watch. They're accompanied by voice work in the actual language of the characters' countries of origin, including (what I assume to be) the same between-round taunts that the series' characters have always made. These embellishments aren't superficial, either: Between the stellar animations and voice work, your opponents telegraph their blows in a way that begs to be studied and exploited.

While the Punch-Out's sleek new visuals might seem like the game's most substantial contribution to the series, the new controls give them a run for their money. They provide the precision of a gamepad - necessary for the hair-trigger dodging required in later levels - with the giddy pleasure of flailing around the remote and nunchuk and watching your opponent reel in terror. For those who want to eke every last dose of nostalgia out of their purchase, you can play the game with the original two-button control scheme, but there's no performance advantage to forgoing the motion controls. If anything, I found the updated control scheme more natural and, once I was able to rein in my gratuitous arm movements, just as precise.

There's no question that the Wii has a great Punch-Out game on its hands. But is it a great game? That depends a lot on your tolerance for gameplay that has become largely obsolete in the last decade. While the NES game's arbitrary point system is gone, the rest of the game's punishingly rigid mechanics are still in full force. As the game progresses, you'll either become increasingly comfortable with failure as you learn to spot your opponents' patterns and tics, or you'll want to put a controller through your TV. I spent nearly a half an hour just trying to survive a round with the game's final fighter, Mr. Sandman, before I succeeded, and when I finally downed him after over an hour of failed attempts, the resulting sensation was more relief than satisfaction. Somehow, that felt more familiar than anything else.

Bottom Line: Next Level Games has done an excellent job at bringing the world of Punch-Out into the 21st century, but the gameplay remains squarely rooted in 1987.

Recommendation: If you have fond memories of playing the original Punch-Out, the new version offers an enjoyable trip down memory lane. But if you're new to the series, you might not get the same value out of your 50 bucks.

Jordan Deam had an NES for exactly one summer after he broke his arm and his parents took pity on him. It was totally worth it.

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