Review: Punch Out!!

Classic hits
By MITCH KRPATA  |  May 26, 2009
3.0 3.0 Stars

VIDEO: The trailer for Punch Out!!

Punch-Out!! | For Nintendo Wii | Rated E10+ for Everyone 10 and Older | Developed by Next Level Games | Published by Nintendo
Ask anyone to list his or her favorite Nintendo games, and the odds are that Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!! will be one of them. In the heyday of the NES, Punch-Out!! was one of those ubiquitous releases, like Super Mario Bros. and the Legend of Zelda, that everybody seemed to know and love. To this day, I'm not the only one who can still tell you from memory the code to jump straight to Mike Tyson. (It's 007-373-5963 — not that I ever beat Iron Mike.)

Strange, then, that Nintendo has so rarely milked that cash cow. The new Wii edition, titled simply Punch-Out!!, is the first since Super Punch-Out!! in 1994. Even stranger, it arrives on a current-gen system almost unchanged from the original incarnation, and yet it seems fresh and vital. Neither an empty nostalgia trip nor a bold reimagining, the new Punch-Out!! is a testament to pure game design.

Its structure is that of its predecessors: as Little Mac, the diminutive Bronx boxer with a big heart, you take on a series of increasingly powerful pugilists in your quest for the World Video Boxing Association title. Each opponent has a limited arsenal, usually a few standard punches and one devastating super move. Each also has a particular vulnerability, such as King Hippo's infamous weak stomach. As opposed to the strategic give-and-take of a more realistic boxing sim, success in Punch-Out!! is a combination of pattern recognition and lightning-fast reflexes.

It plays more like a puzzle or rhythm game than a sports game. Opposing boxers telegraph their moves, with a visual or an auditory cue, and they flash red when they're about to strike. After evading an attack, Little Mac can counterpunch with metronomic precision. That makes the game sound easier than it is. The difference between a punch that Little Mac needs to duck and one that he needs to dodge sideways may be no more than a subtlety in his opponent's motion, and figuring out the timing of each attack is harder than it looks. Still, it takes only a couple of rounds to discover how to beat an opponent, and several more to do it right.

In the tradition of the series, Little Mac's opponents are exaggerated cartoon stereotypes, almost all of whom have appeared in past games. Glass Joe is the wimpy Frenchman; the Great Tiger commutes from India on a flying carpet; Don Flamenco is the Spanish lothario. That the characters are all such lazy cutouts is no sin, but it would have been nice if the 21st-century version of the game had tweaked them. There's just one new character on the roster, the Disco Kid, whose gimmick is that he's a flaming homosexual. Maybe they could have tried harder on that one.

But though Punch-Out!! boasts just 14 opponents in all, a new "Title Defense" mode beefs up the single-player mode. After beating the game once, you have the option of facing your opponents again — and this time they'll have shored up their weak spots. Wearing a manhole cover into the ring has to be a violation of WVBA rules, but somehow they let King Hippo get away with it.

There's also a new two-player mode that pits Little Mac against . . . Little Mac. In a neat twist, one player can transform into the hulking Giga Mac, but it would probably have been more fun to be able to choose from the game's cast of motley characters. As it is, the single-player mode is good enough. More than 20 years on, Punch-Out!! is still a knockout.

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