A Punch-Out!! is a tricky one. It masquerades as a new game, making its home on the Wii, sitting on store shelves in its shiny new box, but make no mistake about it – Next Level’s reworking of a classic franchise is as retro as it gets. Not that this is a bad thing, obviously, since some of the best games of this generation take their lead from the games of yesteryear. Street Fighter IV, Geometry Wars 2 and the like all find inspiration in the past, but none cling so dearly to their reference material as Punch-Out!!, a boxing game only as much as Dead Or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball is a volleyball game.
No, Punch-Out!! is more a puzzle game than a sports title, possibly closer still to Simon and similar pattern memory games. Each new opponent brings with them a completely new rule set to learn and attack patterns to memorize, ranging from weakling Glass Joe – who won’t even attack until he’s mocked you, and can be dropped in a single punch – working all the way up to champion Mr Sandman. By this point you’ll have a plethora of commands and evasive manoeuvres to remember and, more importantly, react to.
Unfortunately, the path to the title is short, with a mere 13 fighters standing between you and the belt. Its an easy ride up to the last few as welt, with few complex patterns to work around until the belt is in sight. With a bit of practice, even Super Macho Man and Mr Sandman don’t represent massive hurdles. Patterns go beyond predictable to the point where you can actually memorize every attack the opponent will throw. He goes down and the credits roll. £40 doesn’t go very far these days. Or so it seems…
As the amusing credits mini-game draws to a close, it becomes clear that all that has come before was just a warm-up for the main event like in dota2navigation. A second round of bouts ensues, each fighter returning for a shot at your title, but every one of them has been in training for their second chance. The extent of these changes is evident even from the return of Glass Joe, this time rocking an attractive sparring face-guard to protect his flimsy face – with immunity to high shots and an expanded arsenal, expect no quarter from even this once-laughable Frenchman. As you struggle through this second circuit, the genius behind Punch-Out!! really shines through and the later fights require more in the way of precision, memory and reactions than any other Wii game.
Amazingly, said response times are even possible when using the motion controls, which isn’t something we can say very often. While the NES-controller-esque sideways Remote is very much our preferred option, grabbing a Nunchuk and getting physical is every bit as accurate as it needs to be and will likely be the favored setup of many. The decision to differentiate between high and low punches with a button press, rather than motion sensing, is crucial to success in this respect, deftly avoiding the muddy punch soup in which Ready 2 Rumble drowned. Balance Board support is a far less attractive proposition, but given that it’s wholly optional, we can’t see many people sticking with it after a quick test.
Punch-Out!! isn’t just about memorizing attack patterns, though. You can duck and weave until you’re blue in the face, but it’s meaningless unless you throw some punches of your own. In any situation, you’re usually faced with a number of options. The most common and generally useful is to dodge a blow then sneak in a counter punch, which will often stun your opponent just long enough for you to land a few follow-ups. The riskier option is to attempt to counter rival attacks as they come in. Your timing has to be spot on, but this method usually opens bigger windows and often rewards you with stars that can be used to throw powerful Star Punches. Up to three stars can be stocked, but if the other dude’s glove so much as grazes you, you’re going to lose the lot. This introduces its own risk/reward mechanic, challenging you to either chuck out mildly damaging specials as soon as the opportunity arises or attempt to save up three stars for what is more or less an instant knockout.
And it’s not just in the Title Defence circuit that Punch-Out!! surprises and excites. The exhibition modes in most games are so mundane and typical as to seldom warrant mentioning, but in this case, another twist presents itself in the form of challenges. It’s more a trial mode than anything else, a trio of goals for each character, pushing you in different directions and encouraging the player to learn every intricacy of the game. They vary from dropping a rival in a set number of punches, exploiting a weak spot or winning without defending or dodging, and just experimenting with each character to satisfy these conditions is an utter delight. The practice option comes in especially handy for learning how to counter and earn stars from the harder opponents, allowing you to test the water without the threat of damage as you poke away at any of your stereotyped rivals.
Casual racism aside, Punch-Out!!is a long overdue re-imagining of one of Nintendo’s most overlooked brands and is, for us, the epitome of what a good Wii game should be. Next Level acknowledges and works around the limitations of motion control, bringing the Punch-Out!! series up to date without losing any of the charm that made it a fan favorite in the first place.