Review: Punch-Out!! (Nintendo Wii)

Kapow!
Punch-Out!!
Genre: Arcade Sports
Developer: Next Level Games
Publisher: Nintendo
Release Date: 05/18/2009

The NES version of Punch-Out!! is, in my humble opinion, one of the very few truly perfect games ever made. I’m not saying it’s necessarily the best game ever, as there are other games I would rate more highly based on innovation or pure ambition, but as far as a game completely achieving what it set out to be, few games can match up to Punch-Out!! on the NES.

It’s because of this I’ve always been torn over the possible revival of the series. I mean, new Punch-Out!! (okay, no more typing those exclamation points) sounds great, but really, how do you improve a perfect game? How do you modernize Punch-Out without ruining the formula? Even Super Punch-Out, with only minor tweaks made to the classic gameplay, still ended up being a disappointment in the eyes of many fans. Bringing Punch-Out to a new generation of gamers would have been no small task for any developer; let’s see if Next Level Games was up to the challenge.

1) Story/Modes

The story for the new Wii version of Punch-Out is the same as it’s always been; a simple tale of the underdog triumphing over impossible odds, and really, what more do you need? The developers of this title have added some color to the basic story, with well-produced cutscenes detailing Little Mac’s training, and short slide-show “movies” that introduce, and give some background information on all your opponents. For those who delve far enough into the game there’s even a nice little, almost bittersweet ending movie that seems to serve as the capper to Little Mac’s illustrious career. I’m sure if this game proves successful Mac will come out of retirement yet again, but it’s still a cool moment for longtime fans of the series.

Mac's on the juice

As far as modes are concerned, it really depends what standard you’re judging by. Compared to past Punch-Out titles, this game is packed with content, with three variations of Career mode, an Exhibition mode and multiplayer. On the other hand, if you compare it to more realistic sim-oriented boxing games like EA’s Fight Night series, the selection of modes starts to look pretty anemic. Personally I was pleased with the options available, but those new to the series may find themselves wondering where some of the content went.

Story Rating: Enjoyable

2) Graphics

It’s hard to compare Punch-Out to the likes of Metroid Prime 3, or Mario Galaxy, as those games are so much larger and more ambitious than this game, but in it’s own limited way Punch-Out is by far one of the best looking games on the Wii. Mac, his opponent, and a darkened arena; that’s all that’s ever on screen at once, but within those narrow confines the guys at Next Level Games have polished things to a glossy shine. They tossed out the generic anime style of Super Punch-Out in honor of a slick western style, similar to what you might see in modern hand drawn Disney cartoon. Fittingly given the new visual style, the game features some absolutely fantastic animation, which characters sporting hilarious over-the-top attacks and taunts, as well as all manner of subtle ticks and expressions. Whether it be Super Macho Man flexing his ass cheeks at you, or Bear Hugger frolicking with his pet squirrel, just watching your opponent’s antics is almost half the fun. Everything’s been given more of a cinematic treatment as well, with fancy camera angels, slo-mo and lighting used to give knockouts and dramatic moments more impact. It’s clear Next Level sunk a huge amount of effort into these visuals.

Graphics Rating: Amazing

3) Sound

The NES version of Punch-Out featured the best main theme of the 8-bit era. No arguing you. This is a fact. That tune was a major part of the elusive Punch-Out appeal, so I’m glad to report that Punch-Out Wii features a pretty kick-ass new version of the theme. It’s impossible not to get pumped-up once those horns start wailing. You also get 14-different wacky remixes of the theme, one for each one of your opponents in the game. Piston Hondo has a stereotypically Asian sounding version, Von Kaiser’s sounds like something you’d hear playing as the Germans march into Poland, and so on.

Watch out Captain N!

One surprise, considering this is a Nintendo game, is that Punch-Out also contains a ton of voice acting. Mac himself is the typical strong, silent Nintendo protagonist, but all your opponents blather away before and after fights (often in their native tongue) and Doc Louis is a regular chatty Cathy. The voice work is well recorded for the most part, and really adds nicely to the game’s humor.

Sound Rating: Classic

4) Control and Gameplay

While it seems impossible to me, the reality is, due to the series’ 15-year absence, we’re now living in a world where most gamers haven’t played a Punch-Out game. Well, for those new to the series expecting a modern boxing game along the lines of Fight Night, you’re in for surprise. Your abilities are extremely limited; you can dodge left, right, back or block, throw left or right body shots, and left or right jabs to the head. You’ll also occasionally earn a star by hitting an opponent at a specific time, which allows you to throw a single powerful star uppercut. That’s all there is to it. No fancy combos or maneuvers, no half dozen bars and gauges on screen. Your opponents have no AI to speak of; they instead follow set patterns, and simply throwing random punches at them will quickly get you blocked and counterpunched into oblivion. You have to wait for very specific openings to get your shots in.

Next Level Games haven’t messed with things, and while it’s very limited, the formula is still surprisingly fun here in the year 2009. While most boxing and wrestling video games quickly become repetitive once you learn how to exploit the basic AI all the fighters use, Punch-Out forces you to play intelligently. Every boxer is a unique puzzle and discovering their secrets, learning their nuances and then finally knocking them out is hugely satisfying. Most of the boxers in this game appeared on the NES or SNES and retain familiar weaknesses, but they’ve also been significantly tweaked, and once you beat the game you’ll unlock Title Defense mode, which mixes things up even further. The characters in Title Defense all have new looks, completely different patterns and the weaknesses that you’ve been exploiting since the 80s are now gone. It may seem like little has changed in the Wii version of Punch-Out at first glance, but there’s a ton of new fun lurking under the surface.

That's rassis!

As for controls, you can either play with the Wiimote alone, the Wiimote and nunchuck or the Wiimote, nunchuck and balance board. Your control style can be swapped at any time, it’s simply a matter of plugging/unplugging the nunchuck or turning on/off the balance board. The Wiimote and nunchuck controls have been kept simple and actually work quite well. Next Level Games didn’t try to do Wii Sports boxing, instead you simply gesture with the Wiimote and nunchuck to punch right or left, with dodging, and switching between body and head shots handled with the analog stick. Yes, punching is a bit slower with this method, but Punch-Out isn’t really about fast punching, it’s about fast dodging. If you dodge your opponent correctly they’ll leave themselves open plenty long enough for you deal some damage with the motion controls. Really the only problem with the motion controls is they will wear your arms out after a while; most people will switch to playing with the Wiimote on it’s side NES-style after a while just to avoid having a their arms drop off. Oh, and the balance board controls are pretty much useless, but hey, are you really surprised by that?

Control and Gameplay Rating: Classic

5) Replayability

A lot of early previews/reviews made somewhat alarming claims that Punch-Out, a 60-dollar game, could be beaten in around an hour. Don’t believe it. It’s just typical chest beating by “professional” game journalists who haven’t put behind them the days when exaggerating their gaming ability to their fellow losers helped make them feel better about never having touched a boob or bought pants without an elastic waistband.

Most players will probably take 2 – 4 hours to play through career mode the first time, at which point they’ll unlock Title Defense mode which is much more difficult, and if they can beat that there’s “Last Stand” mode to tackle. It probably took me around 15 – 20 hours to completely play through career mode, and this is from someone who’s been playing Punch-Out for 20 years. Add to that a ton of achievement-style challenges to take on in Exhibition mode and the fairly entertaining multiplayer mode and you’ve got yourself a game that’s going to last you a helluva lot longer than an hour.

Replayability Rating: Great

6) Balance

Fear not Punch-Out fans, your beloved series has not been stricken with casual-itis. First time through career mode you’ll notice the challenge level has been leveled a bit. The final Major Circuit guys aren’t as crushingly difficult as they were in the NES game, but some of the earlier fighters have actually been toughened up. Don’t look too shocked as former pushovers like Great Tiger and Don Flamenco give you a run for your money. Almost anyone, with persistence, will be able to beat career mode at least once, but Title Defense mode is purely for the old-school hardcore Punch-Out fan (the Title Defense version of Bald Bull could mop the canvas with Mike Tyson). The game may be a little too hard for the soccer mom demographic, but serious gamers should be pleased.

Balance Rating: Great

7) Originality

Next Level Games didn’t exactly reinvent the wheel with this one. The game play, characters and storyline are all familiar, although new patterns for the boxers, new single player modes and multiplayer mix things up enough to keep this section from being a total failure.

Originality Rating: Mediocre

8) Addictiveness

Punch-Out is king of “okay, just one more try“ gameplay. What exactly about these games keeps me crawling back, thumbs throbbing, for more abuse I don’t know, but I think I need an intervention.

Addictiveness Rating: Unparalleled

9) Appeal Factor

During the series 15-year absence Punch-Out has developed into quite the little pop culture juggernaut. Little Mac, Doc, Glass Joe and the rest are almost right up there with Mario and Zelda in the pantheon of recognizable Nintendo characters. Hell my grandpa recognized the characters when a Punch-Out commercial hit when we were watching TV. Nintendo has done their usual somewhat half-assed job of promoting the game, but once the word starts to spread I predict fairly big things.

Appeal Factor Rating: Great

10) Miscellaneous

Soooo yeah, the Punch-Out games? Horribly horribly racist. In a loveable cuddly sort of way of course. A lot of people were concerned, with good reason, that Punch-Out would lose some of it’s unique, uh, color in today’s PC world.

TKO from Tokyo!

Well I’m happy to report that Punch-Out for the Wii not only retains its trademark stereotypes, but they’re actually worse than ever. Great Tiger isn’t just a turban-wearing magician anymore; he’s a goddamn genie who rides a magic carpet to the ring. Punching Piston Honda makes sushi dance around his head. Oh, and wait until you fight new character Disco Kid…he’s fabulous. How they’re getting away with all this in 2009 I have no idea.

Miscellaneous Rating: Amazing

The Scores
Story/Modes: Enjoyable
Graphics: Amazing
Sound: Classic
Control and Gameplay: Classic
Replayability: Great
Balance: Great
Originality: Mediocre
Addictiveness: Unparalleled
Appeal Factor: Great
Miscellaneous: Amazing

Final Score: Incredible Game

Short Attention Span Summary
Punch-Out for the Wii is a remake. Yes, I know Nintendo isn’t identifying it as such, but it really is. If you’re expecting the game to radically reinvent the series you’re in for a disappointment, but accept it for what it is, that being one of the best remakes ever made, and you’ll have a blast. Next Level Games have perfectly captured everything that made the NES version of Punch-Out such an enduring classic, while at the same time making everything bigger, brighter, deeper, more varied and just plain more fun. As long as you’re not afraid of getting your butt kicked a few (or a few dozen) times, this game is a must have.

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