It’s criminal that Nintendo let 15 years pass between the Super Nintendo release of Super Punch-Out!! and Punch-Out!! on the Wii. Between then and now, there have been plenty of opportunities to drag Little Mac out of retirement -- the Game Boy Advance, the Nintendo 64, and the Nintendo DS, to name a few. What was the God damned hold up?
So when Nintendo finally decided to pull it out of the closet for the Wii, it raised a few red flags for a longtime Punch-Out!! fan like myself. The success of Wii Sports (and the included boxing game) seemed like the perfect catalyst for a more fleshed-out boxing title, and the Punch-Out!! franchise seemed like a no-brainer choice.
To say I was concerned was an understatement. Would Nintendo leave the series’ core mechanics in the dust, focusing instead on a new breed of motion controls that would deviate from the experience I fell in love with? And if they decided to stick with the old-school formula, would it feel dated and thin compared to other titles on the market?
Hit the jump to find out.
Developer: Next Level Games
Released: May 18, 2009
Fans of the original game can breathe a sigh of relief, as nearly everything you cherished about the original remains intact in Punch-Out!! for the Wii. Developer Next Level Games knew it had a good thing going with the basics, and decided not to play with the formula too much, while making a number of key strides and taking a few unexpected chances that ultimately pay off in spades.
The game follows the boxing career of our old pal Little Mac, who, alongside his trainer Doc Louis, has to best 13 contenders in order to win the WVBA World Championship. If you’ve played the previous games, you’ll recognize just about everyone on the roster, from Bald Bull to Mr. Sandman and Bear Hugger to Aran Ryan. Of the main roster, one character -- Disco Kid, who is introduced very early on in the career -- is new. That’s right, 15 years have passed and the series has only introduced one new character, a flashy disco dancer that fits in nicely with the existing roster. Still, it’s a bit disappointing to see so few new faces, particularly when Super Punch-Out!! introduced so many new faces some 15 years ago.
Luckily, in spite of so many familiar characters, Next Level Games keeps it feeling fresh. Early matches, like the introductory battle against Glass Joe, will probably be simple for any veteran. In fact, most of the Minor Circuit is a breeze the first time through; King Hippo’s pattern is nearly identical to that found in the original game, and I breezed through it without much issue. But that quickly changed, as the timing and patterns of opponents get more tricky and rather difficult as you near the career’s initial goal of obtaining the championship.
It’s at that point that things truly get interesting, as Little Mac must defend his championship against the game’s full roster of characters, all of which have undergone some major tweaks. In the Title Defense mode, you’re not simply fighting the same characters with the same attack/defense patterns again. Each of them has switched up their offensive and defensive game, and sometimes their look, addressing their individual weaknesses in some seriously creative and remarkable ways.
Glass Joe, for instance, is now wearing head gear, and he learns a strange jab timing that will throw off even the most seasoned player. King Hippo has hilariously guarded his soft tummy spot with a manhole cover he’s duct taped to himself; you’ll have to figure out a way to remove the cover before toppling the plump pugilist.
When it comes down to it, Punch-Out!!’s gameplay is all about timing and figuring out boxers’ patterns; it’s a game of reflexes and light puzzle solving. Next Level Games has completely nailed this on all accounts, with some of the most imaginative and interesting boxer patterns found in the series to date. It can also get seriously tough, sometimes frustratingly so. But errors are always on the player, with little to no opportunities to call it “unfair” and never as a result of controls not reacting in a way you’d expect.
Playing through Punch-Out!!, the Wii Remote was thrown more than few times, which brought back plenty of memories of playing the first two games. And while I cursed the game (and Doc Louis, along with his patronizing attempts at inspiration), I knew my failure was always my burden as a gamer. Success was always rewarding, and always a result of understanding patterns and reacting quickly and appropriately.
Where controls are concerned, Punch-Out!! offers a variety of control schemes: holding a single Wii Remote sideways; using a Wii Remote along with a Nunchuk; or combining either of the aforementioned control methods with the Wii Balance Board for Little Mac’s evasive movements.
Longtime Punch-Out!! fans will feel right at home using the Wii Remote on its own. The controller’s 1 and 2 buttons are mapped to punches, and using the D-pad, you can make Little Mac duck, or dodge both left and right. Little Mac’s “Star Punch” is activated by pressing the A button; stars are gained by hitting your opponent at the right time, and up to three can be banked and used at once for a more powerful uppercut attack.
Attaching the Nunchuk to the Wii Remote adds some motion control functionality, which (fortunately) is extremely basic in its use. Instead of using the 1 and 2 buttons to punch, you merely shake either your right or left hand to make Little Mac swing that respective punch; holding Z in conjunction with your shakes will result in body blows. The Nunchuk’s analog stick acts as a replacement for the D-pad, allowing you to dodge and duck.
The most surprising control scheme is the option use of the Wii Balance Board, which can be used to control Little Mac’s movements in conjunction with either of the other two control schemes. With both feet on the board, you shift your weight left or right on the board to control your dodging motions in the respective direction. Putting pressure on the board with both feet in a ducking motion will result in -- you guessed it -- Little Mac ducking down.
Personally, I was most comfortable with the single Wii Remote control style; I picked it up at once, as if a day hadn’t passed since I last held an SNES controller to play Super Punch-Out!!. The Wii Remote/Nunchuk combo works pretty well, too; the shaking of the Wii Remotes feels natural, and isn’t a tiring work-out experience like the boxing found in Wii Sports. Regardless of which scheme you use, the controls are precise, and react quickly and predictably. Ultimately, this is a choice that will boil down to personal preference (although I suspect fans of the classic games will default to the standard Wii Remote scheme).
Unfortunately, the same praise can’t be heaped upon the usage of the Wii Balance Board. It’s a great idea on paper and in theory -- one-to-one movement of your body to make Little Mac dodge from side-to-side seems like an obvious addition. The problem is that it’s simply not accurate enough for this style of gameplay, one that requires quick thinking on your feet (literally, in the case of the Balance Board) and fast reaction times. More than a few situations arose where moving my body weight slightly either left or right wouldn’t make Mac dodge fast enough. Overcompensating and exaggerating the movements didn’t do the trick, either; moving right on the board would sometimes make Mac dodge left, and vice versa.
While some of these issues could be chalked up to a board calibration issue (something I did more than a few times to get it right), the bottom line is that Punch-Out!!’s gameplay requires quick fast and accurate movements, something the Balance Board overly complicates, making it more of a novelty than a viable control option.
Another initial concern was whether or not the game could justify its full price tag; past games were light on features, simply leading Little Mac to the championship against a small roster of fighters. Fortunately, Punch-Out!! has more to offer than first meets the eye. The Title Defense mode is a great little surprise, and the variation in how some of the characters look and act is a welcome addition. Completion of the main game (including Title Defense) also rewards players with a “Mac’s Last Stand” mode, which offers a new layer to the game, easily doubling your total gameplay time.
Moreover, the game features the curious inclusion of a multiplayer head-to-head mode. In this mode, two players battle in a split-screen game that surprisingly feels a lot like the single-player game. Each player controls their own “Little” boxer (your name is based on the Mii you choose), with an arsenal of attacks unique to multiplayer. Setting the mode further apart from the single-player game is the inclusion of Giga Mac.
Players earn “Giga Mac Juice” by successfully dodging their opponent’s punches, or landing punches on their opponent at the right time. The transforming into Giga Mac is clearly inspired by Marvel’s Hulk, with your boxer being set off into a rage before doubling in size. You’ll have a handful of powerful moves at your disposal, too, including charged jabs, strong uppercuts, and more.
Multiplayer is surprisingly fun, and a nice addition to the series, but it doesn’t present a lot of gameplay. It would have been nice if the game offered multiple characters to choose from in this mode, each with a different look and style, but you’re locked into choosing Little Mac or ... Little Mac. The mode doesn’t support Wi-Fi, so you’re playing split-screen with someone on the couch or you’re not playing at all. It’s a nice diversion and an interesting addition to the standard Punch-Out!! modes, but this clearly isn’t the title’s focus and it shows. There is a great opportunity to build on this, however; if it doesn’t take Nintendo another 15 years to green-light the next Punch-Out!!, I look forward to seeing the multiplayer fleshed out.
Visually, the game’s hand-drawn cartoon style fits in perfectly with the series’ wacky feel. The look and animations bring each and every over-the-top character to life. Little details, like pineapple chunks flying off of King Hippo as you pound his belly, or the bruising on the faces and bodies of the boxers, give the game a sense of character that falls in line with what you’d expect from the series. Coupled with the voices, the new style fits in tightly with the gameplay, with visual and audio cues that you’ll need to pick up on in order to succeed.
While I’m still a bit bitter that it’s taken 15 years for Nintendo to deliver a new Punch-Out!!, it was unquestionably worth the wait. As a Punch-Out!! fan, I couldn’t ask for more -- classic gameplay that feels familiar, with a handful of fresh and unexpected challenges that are as entertaining as they are challenging.
For players new to the series, word of advice: to beat King Hippo, you’re going to have to... nah, I'll let you figure that one out for yourself. That’s half the fun. Just don’t spend too much time face-down on the mat, Mac.
Score: 9 -- Superb (9s are a hallmark of excellence. There may be flaws, but they are negligible and won't cause massive damage to what is a supreme title.)