They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and Ghostfire Games' Rage of the Gladiator makes no bones about paying homage to Nintendo's classic arcade boxer Punch Out!!, using similar mechanics based around recognising enemy attack patterns to battle through a bevy of foes. Whilst its shoes are planted firmly in the Nintendo title's footsteps, this is a game that stands proudly on its own, with a good deal of craft evident in the details and additional elements that build upon its inspiration.
Rage of the Gladiator tells the story of the kingdom of Avalance and its prince Gracius, controlled by the player in this first-person arena fighter. As with Punch-Out!! player movement is limited, with defensive actions consisting of dodging, blocking and jumping, and offence taking the form of bludgeoning your foes with your war hammer and special combo attacks which can be purchased in the course of play. Players will take on an array of ten foes who will provide a good test of their ability to anticipate attacks and respond accordingly: this is a game that depends as much on thought and strategy as it does raw reflex action.
Of course for a game of this nature to succeed it needs good controls and Ghostfire Games have thoughtfully provided three different control schemes, each of which changes gameplay without feeling compromised. Playing with the Remote on its side, in a manner familiar to veteran players of Punch-Out!! on home consoles, presents a game which feels slightly faster-paced to account for the more immediate button-based action. Using the Nunchuk and Remote sees players using simple motions of both controllers for attack, lending itself well to a left-right rhythm like you'd use in one of the track-and-field events in Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games. We preferred the option of using Wii MotionPlus, which allows players to use the Remote to perform attacks in four discrete directions, whilst Nunchuk motion is used to trigger special attacks or perform a simple shield bash. Broad strokes result in excellent reading of the direction of your motions, though chains of very rapid swings can result in occasional reading of movement in the opposite direction due to a "wind-up" effect, although this doesn't affect gameplay. Gracius and his war hammer are more Mighty Thor than Musashi Miyamoto, so you won't see the one-to-one movement of a sword-fighting game, which is consistent with the fantasy-Punch-Out!! theme.
Gameplay consists of watching for opponent attacks and trying to counter, block with a shield (not possible against all attacks) or dodge them and follow-up with a series of your own blows. Dodging and chaining your own attacks in combos is key to success: you can chain up to five in a row which will also result in your enemy getting stunned; if your special combo meter is sufficiently full you can unleash a variety of attacks to further damage them, often with spectacular results. Either one of you can only be knocked down a total of three times before being defeated, so make sure you time those special attacks well – unless you enjoy the sight of prancing enemies dancing on your grave!
Initially you only have a simple series of hammer and shield blows available as a special combo, but thanks to a "skill tree" system you can purchase more combos – including magical attacks – and a range of other abilities and enhancements using points earned following each match. It adds a terrific RPG element that provides incentive to play on as you work towards fully levelling-up Gracius. Make your choices wisely because once you've clicked the "Continue" button on the skill tree menu you cannot reallocate your points.
Of course beyond improving your battle prowess you'll have ample incentive for beating your foes: unlocking the Challenge Mode of play. Challenge mode features the same opponents with new, more difficult attack patterns: the name is no joke, these guys are far tougher than the first time you met them! Whilst the increased difficulty is not to be sneezed at, it should be possible to defeat your opponents without any fancy moves; it all comes down to recognising what they're going to do and taking the steps to counter, block or avoid it. Each of your battles is given a letter ranking from C – S (if there's a lower score possible we certainly didn't see it) and if you manage to get a minimum of all A ranks in Challenge Mode and are fully levelled-up you'll unlock a further special ability, a nice reward for dedicated players.
Although Rage of the Gladiator is a WiiWare release and therefore necessarily limited in size by Nintendo's specifications, the quality of the audio and visual presentation is far ahead of the majority of downloadable titles. The voice acting is outstanding (where applicable) and each character has multiple lines of dialogue and short (skippable) intros as well as cutscenes following every fall. The models are chunky and well-animated with excellent use of colour and textures. Each of the characters has their own distinct body language and motions and the facial animation is as good as we've seen in any game on the Wii to-date. Combined with the voice acting each of the fighters feels like a fully-realised individual; further reinforced by having a textual back story to read prior to going into battle with them. Gracius's own story is told via interstitials consisting of some hand-drawn art and a voice-over; by the end you'll know the story of how he came to be in the arena fighting for his life.
All of this is underlined by a dramatic musical score that gives a sense of epic combat to the fights. Considering how much has been crammed into this release – which is at the upper size limit for WiiWare – the quality of the music compression and the rest of the audio effects is yet another noteworthy achievement for the developer.
If we have any gripe at all it's the lack of pointer use for menu navigation which makes travelling the sizeable skill tree a bit of a chore, and feeling tuckered out after bashing enemies in the noggin over and over again!
Rage of the Gladiator is the kind of WiiWare game we'd like to see more often, with excellent control, great design and bags of fun. All three control schemes are perfectly usable and whilst we're sure there are many traditionalists who will stick to the digital controls, we highly rate the MotionPlus implementation which features one-time calibration (no pointer clicking required between matches) and a pretty good workout besides. There's clearly been a lot of care put into this game; not only in making sure it plays well, but in making the characters come to life in a fashion that encourages replays just to experience them again.