When I was in my teens I had a job in a rundown amusement park on the shore of Oneida Lake in upstate New York. I managed Treasure Land, which was the least exciting of all the "Lands" in the park. No one ever came into Treasure Land except for drunk bikers and the one lesbian couple that was generally shunned inour town. Mostly what I did was to use a broom to sweep the lake spiders off the neglected Roll-O machines. These spiders were an angry brown color. I still have nightmares about them.
On my lunch break I'd hustle over to the Carousel, a dilapidated wooden structure that housed an out-of-order merry-go-round along with a handful of arcade machines. Among these arcade machines was a Punch-Out!! machine.
Instead of fighting spacecraft, or in the case of Satan's Hollow, fighting Satan's face, in Punch-Out!! you were fighting virtual human beings. Each opponent had a face and a name. This might not sound like much now, but at the time, it was a big deal. These opponents even laughed at you whenever they knocked you down. They taunted and teased. There was something very human and visceral about the experience that really appealed to me.
I rarely played the game, partly because the line to play it was always too long, and partly because it made me too nervous. Sweat would bead up on my forehead, and when I'd lose -- I always lost -- I would be so traumatized by the laughing face of Bald Bull that my hands would literally be shaking.
I played the NES version to death, knocking out Mike Tyson on at least two memorable occasions. (No small feat.) I played the 1994 Super Nintendo version to death, knocking out the game's final pair of bosses, Nick and Rick Bruiser, on many occasions. I've spent several not-unpleasant hours online pricing vintage Punch-Out!! machines and trying to picture how one might look in my apartment. Which brings us to Punch-Out!! circa 2009. After a 15-year hiatus, and after skipping the Nintendo 64 and GameCube generations entirely, Little Mac and his wife-beater return on the Wii.
Production values are on par with what you'd expect from a current-generation Wii title. Visually, the game really pops. Everything is so colorful and shiny that it looks like a cartoon. The animation is incredibly organic, even when the fighters are doing unnatural things, like teleporting around the boxing ring (Great Tiger) or striking embarrassing dance poses (Disco Kid).
Aside from some extended intros and outros before and after each fight, gameplay remains fundamentally the same. Throw punches; avoid getting hit by your opponent's punches. As usual, Little Mac's punches do minimal damage -- you'll have to really work to whittle down your opponent's health meter. Your opponent's punches, however, still do massive damage. In most fights, you'll have to hit your opponent around eight to 10 times in order to equal the kind of damage that he can do with one punch.
Fights are structured similarly to the NES version of Punch-Out!!. You've got three rounds to either knock out your opponent or out-punch him and win by decision. Unlike the previous games in the series, which always had a sped-up sense of time, the new version features three real-time rounds. In other words, one second of each round equals one real-time second. This makes the bouts feel more tedious and drawn-out than I would like them to feel. Even when the referee counts out a downed opponent, it feels like it takes him ages to count to 10. The whole operation, as a result, winds up feeling like it could use a strong cup of coffee.
Aside from Disco Kid (and a couple of not-so-surprising surprises along the way), you'll fight opponents who have appeared in previous Punch-Out!! games. Glass Joe, Von Kaiser, Piston Hondo (not Honda), Don Flamenco and King Hippo are, among others, present and accounted for. And, with minor variations, their fighting styles are almost identical to their styles in previous incarnations. For example, jabbing King Hippo in the mouth still makes his trunks fall down (as any Punch-Out!! fan worth his salt knows).
The roster of opponents includes some questionable inclusions, like Aran Ryan, who previously appeared in Super Punch-Out!!. He was one of the most banal characters in the game. Why Nintendo deemed this forgettable opponent and his Irish brogue worthy of being included in the sequel is a mystery.
Speaking of Irish brogue, the classic ethnic stereotypes are still in full effect. Instead of shying away from stereotypes, or attempting to make the boxers less caricature and more credible, Nintendo chose to embrace these clich?s. Glass Joe is from France, so of course he sips espressos before his fights, and when he gets knocked out, baguettes literally fly out of his head. Bear Hugger is from Canada, so he quaffs from a big jug of booze (or is it maple syrup?) between rounds. He has a bit of chest hair that's trimmed into the shape of a pine tree, and when he's dizzied, salmon swim around his bald head.
All of this is done so knowingly, with so many wink-wink touches, that I found it forgivable. There isn't anything the least bit naive about what Nintendo -- or Next Level, the game's developer -- is doing here. That said, I was personally hoping the game would be a bit of a departure from the old clich?s, and would feature more convincing, credible opponents. Ethnic stereotypes were exciting and novel in the '80s and '90s, when we had no idea that videogame characters could be anything more than stereotypes. In the year 2009, fighting a man from India who flies around on a magic carpet and who telegraphs his punches via a glowing jewel in his turban (Great Tiger) doesn't feel terribly dramatic.
There are many little shout-outs to the Punch-Out!! faithful embedded in the game. Listen closely to the soundtrack to hear clever remixes of old 8-bit chiptunes. The between-circuits training montage still features the classic pink jogging suit. And Doc Louis still offers inane advice between rounds. ("Join the Nintendo Fun Club ... er, I mean, Club Nintendo today!")
Doc Louis, in fact, turns out to be the most nuanced character in the game. He is, at turns, creepy, supportive (some of his advice is actually useful) and irreverent. In one truly funny joke, Doc Louis asks the mute Little Mac what his favorite protein shake flavor is. "Mine is chocolate," Doc Louis answers. He repeats this again and again throughout the game by asking Little Mac what his favorite fill-in-the-blank is, and always ends with, "Mine is chocolate."
The core problem here is that, as a Punch-Out!! fan, and after waiting 15 years, this simply isn't enough. An homage like this -- that's really what it is -- might have been acceptable on the GameCube. But now, it just comes off as feeling like unimaginative, conservative fan service. There is one truly unique moment in the game, which involves an especially prideful opponent losing something terribly valuable to him mid-fight, which made me laugh out loud. If only the game featured more of these moments, I might have been more forgiving.
It was initially comforting to find the old opponents and the old control scheme intact, but eventually I had a didn't-I-already-beat-this-guy-20-years-ago feeling that I simply could not shake off for the rest of the game. Factor in the game's difficulty level -- blame my fading reflexes, but after the first few circuits, things become almost brutally difficult -- and I'm left wondering who exactly the "new" Punch-Out!! is built for. Fans like myself appreciate the shout-outs, yes, but the d?j? vu that quickly sets in leaves the game feeling like a lackluster remake rather than a bold reinvention. And new gamers will probably find the game lacking in features -- there's no create-a-fighter, no online play -- that they'll wonder why anyone ever gave a damn about Punch-Out!! to begin with.
So, should you buy Punch-Out!!? That's a tough call for me. Part of me worries that if no one buys it, my old, beloved franchise will die. But maybe that's the more noble way for the fading champ to go out.
This review is based on a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher.
Want to know more? Get the first hour in Kyle Orland's Games for Lunch: Punch-Out!!