The competition between Sony and Microsoft this generation has been sporting, friendly and downright civil. A far cry from the bloodthirsty, kill or be killed corporate attitudes of the past. While most industry observers have likely welcomed this shift in attitudes, I can't help but find myself needlessly nostalgic for the console races of yesteryear. When Sega introduced the Genesis in 1989 they poised themselves as the David ready to take down a Goliath. Infact, you would've been forgiven for thinking that Nintendo's market dominance couldn't be threatened by anyone. Unfortunately for them, Sega was ready to present themselves as the antithesis to Nintendo while slinging mud in their direction anytime an opportunity to do so presented itself. This lead to what may be the most famous marketing blitz this industry has ever seen. Sega had made a name for themselves as leaders in the coin-op space, so the first wave of software for their new console would consist of nearly 1:1 ports of their best arcade games. However, with too few recognizable franchises they decided to compliment their initial offerings with celebrity endorsed titles that were accompanied by the slogan: "Genesis Does What Nintendon't!". I don't think any game better exemplifies this segment of their earliest offerings better than James "Buster" Douglas' Knockout Boxing.
In 1990, the world of Championship Boxing saw arguably it's biggest upset in the history of the sport when the previously undefeated champ Mike Tyson was KO'ed by relative newcomer Buster Douglas. With Iron Mike's defeat came an opportunity for Sega to repurpose Taito's Final Blow arcade title as a game starring Mr. Douglas when publishing it for the Genesis here in the west. The result of the ensuing licensing deal between Douglas and Sega was James "Buster" Douglas' Knockout Boxing, a game that was both a near perfect arcade port and a celebrity endorsed title. The game would also simultaneously serve as a symbol of Sega's intent to one up their competition (Nintendo), who had signed Tyson for a similar deal to market their arcade-to-home conversion of Punch-Out!! only a few years earlier. Buster Douglas himself could even be seen in early Genesis adverts shouting "Does!" in time with the console's slogan.
The game offers players the chance to take on the role of Douglas while working their way to the championship title bout. You'll encounter a small roster of ficticious opponents representing a variety of nationalities until you're granted the opportunity to go up against Iron
Mike Head himself. However, that's where the similarities to Nintendo's Punch-Out franchise end. The game uses large detailed sprites that take up two thirds the height of the screen to showcase the power the Genesis offered over it's 8-bit predecessors. Taito has decided to eschew the simon-says gameplay of the Punch-Out series in favour of more reflex oriented gameplay. Adversaries forego telegraphing their movements in advance, requiring players to be light on their feet and use a strong offense to win a match. It's this different play style with it's emphasis on movement that I find most appealing. You simply don't know how a match is going to play out beforehand plus the action on display is fast and frantic.
Control is simple, as you would likely expect from an arcade title. Left and right on the directional pad controls your movement while up and down positions your arms high or low. The A and B buttons punch with either arm and the C button allows you to duck to quickly evade. Likewise you can also double tap backwards to quickly hop away from your opponent. Whether your arms are high or low will dictate if you throw a jab or a hook but this movement is also used to block. Pressing both A and B simultaneously will execute a power puch that can KO the other boxer if it connects. The controls are elegant and responsive, making it easy to jump into the game immediately. This low barrier to entry makes the game very approachable and it features a finely tuned difficulty curve to keep the game flowing. It won't be long before you find yourself infront of Iron Head... only to be promptly disposed of because he's nigh impossible to defeat. To this day I still haven't beaten Iron Head.
Knockout Boxing is very much a product of it's time, a remnant of Sega's past marketing strategy that boarders on advertainment. But, it's exciting arcade action delivers an alternative to Nintendo's offerings. It's larger-than-life animated characters marry a stunning presentation with exhilerating reflex based gameplay. In many ways it's the antithesis to Punch-Out!!, perhaps deliberately so and a move Sega would repeat when marketing their blue hedgehog a year later. While it doesn't have the depth or complexity of other boxing games of the time, it still stands as my go to version of the game. And perhaps one day, I'll be good enough to take on the champ.