21st May 2009 | 10:18
There's an idea in Punch-Out!! that really shows Nintendo at their best. As Little Mac you're capable of taking two knockdowns before it's lights-out with a KO. The devs clearly relish the moment - lose that third energy bar and the camera whips around with Raging Bull panache to follow a bruised Mac to his knees. But it's not over. Hammer attacks as you hit the ropes and there's a chance Mac will get up. And at a turning point in a tricky bout this is just incredible.
Don Flamenco1 has us on the ropes. We're ten punches away from KO-ing the preening Spanish dandy. But before we have the chance to fell him he hits us with the old 'uno dos tres' - a devastating chain of three pirouetting swings. Is this the end of the dream for Little Mac? His battered form collides with the ropes, begins to sway into a fall, *deep intake of will he/won't he breath*, only for his leg to find that last bit of fight and hold him up. In movie terms, this is Rocky, The Champ and Cinderella Man all in one.
Punch-Out!! may not be realistic boxing - that would put a stop to Great Tiger's body-cloning magic attacks - but we'll be damned if it isn't how boxing should be. When Ali boasted of stinging like a bee he must have been talking about Next Level Games' bullet-like punches. You face lumbering meat stacks, but Little Mac is a hornet, his fists sniping his opponents with such speed that every ricocheting jaw and shuddering ribcage is accompanied by bulging eyes of surprise.
His offensive speed is all down to control schemes designed for sharp jabbing motions. We always knew that stabbing at the 1 and 2 buttons of the NES-apeing set-up was going to brutal and to the point; the big surprise is how well the motion controls work. You jab, Mac jabs. With dodging and uppercuts controlled by the analogue stick there's really nowhere for the motion work to go wrong. Any flail will do. With 13 opponents crushed by NGamer's flimsy real-life 'guns', we can attest to it.
Then again, without controls designed for hair-trigger responses you'd be getting nowhere. The opening fight against brittle-bonced Glass Joe aside, Little Mac's diminutive form places him in a clear defensive role. Punch-Out!! isn't about sluggers holding each other up in the final round, but surgically applying your hits in and around the offensive flurries thrown your way. Go in all fists and you'll hit block after block, drain your stamina meter and earn a fist-shaped ticket to the game over screen.
Instead, fights are puzzles built around audio and visual cues. For heavyweights allegedly trying to fight their way to the top, the cast of boxers don't half enjoy giving away their strategies. Some are direct: shouting out move names to signal whether a duck or dodge is needed. Others require you to listen over the blaring music (variations on the relentlessly enthusiastic brass theme) for subtle audio cues - the mechanical wind-up of cuckoo clock-inspired Von Kaiser giving away a jab, for example.
Say you learn the cues; this doesn't mean the boxers are going to KO themselves. Listing tells in a review is one thing, recognising them in action - especially when each character sports ten or so - and responding
is quite another. Recognising and avoiding is just the beginning; the real elegance of Punch-Out!! is learning how to go from a scurvy rat stealing cheap shots when he can get them to commanding the ring despite being one eighth the size of your opponent.
On the first page of the review we used the term 'surgical' to describe your strikes. Try earning power hits and you'll see why. Rivals tend to give a couple away for free - snagging them during taunts tends to earn a star - but the rest must be deduced with repeat play. The majority are from countering powerful hits; not just using the correct punch but using it during the exact required frame of animation. We told you it was surgical. And all with a D-pad and two buttons.
Punch-Out!! boasts the sort of design clarity that went out of fashion when consoles started coming with 20-button controllers in the late '90s. But its intricacies are so subtle that it's entirely possible to rinse the 13-
man Championship mode and not realise how smart a game you've just played. The same can be said of the original Punch-Out!! and Super Punch-Out!!, but where they relied on dedicated play to prove otherwise, the devs wisely signpost it.
Signpost 1: Defend The Title mode, unlocked once you've completed Championship mode. All the boxers you humiliated on the way up? They're out for revenge and they've adapted their strategies to force perfection from your play. Glass Joe's jaw is safe under protective headgear and Von Kaiser has shaved his head and toughened up. Comic alterations aside, combatants sport new moves, timings and tells - if your climb to the top was slow, Defend The Title refuses to let you pass. Nightmarishly tough, but fairly so - a big step forward for the devs of Mario Strikers Charged and that AI.
Signpost 2: what looks like basic training in Exhibition mode is really a game unto itself. Every fighter is here to practise against (in both their initial and Defend The Title form) but each has three special objectives. From simple 'achieve TKO in the first round' to the insanely tough 'achieve TKO without using any dodges or blocks', you're constantly asked to reappraise your approach to the game. Hey, if the only way to demonstrate depth is to shout about it, so be it.
If this reads like a defence of a game rather than a glowing recommendation, it's because Punch-Out!! is a lot like Little Mac himself. While certainly talented, he's not the biggest of contenders - there's no denying that a cartoon boxing-puzzler is rather niche. Let's remember that for all the game's smarts, we're talking about punching big men in the face. You'd have to be drinking whatever Soda Popinski's swigging to claim otherwise.
And like we said, the extra goodness - while appreciated - is really doing nothing more than pushing newcomers towards realising the cleverness the games have had since the NES - the cleverness the games still have on Virtual Console. If we were feeling mean, we'd point out that with its in-depth score breakdown Super Punch-Out!! is still the better high-score challenge. Best times aside, there's perhaps not as much here as those extra challenges would suggest.
But just as this adversity rises, and Punch-Out!! finds itself on the ropes trying to justify its place in your Wii collection, it does something to make you smile. Don Flamenco lays a rose on Mac's defeated body. Or doughy coach Doc Louis barks out something nutty about "punching some sucka!" Or you're shown a picture of a Russian giant in his pants carrying crates of fizzy drink atop his shoulders. Question it and it may teeter, but while you're in its world, Punch-Out!! always has a leg to stand on.