Boxing is a fascinating sport. Two human beings enter the ring, then skilfully and tactfully beat the tar out of one another using nothing but their own gloved fists. It’s the perfect fodder for a video game, and that’s exactly why the Punch-Out!! series is such a classic.
Originally released in North America as Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!!, then shortened simply to Punch-Out!! after Nintendo’s license to use the famous boxer’s likeness in the game expired, this title remains one of the most lauded NES games to date. Taking the role of fledgling boxer Little Mac, your goal is to work your way up the ranks by defeating a variety of foes with names such as Don Flamenco and Soda Popinski on your way to becoming the world champion. There’s no real plot to discern here — just pure, unadulterated, gaming goodness.
Though Punch-Out!! may be a boxing game, it’s less about button mashing and much more about learning your opponent and using his weaknesses to your advantage. Because of this, it is entirely possible to read it as being more akin to a puzzle game rather than a traditional brawler. Instead of wildly tapping the B and A buttons to deliver left and right hooks — which will inevitably be blocked — your time is much better spent paying attention to your opponents’ movements, and noticing when you have an opening to strike or when you should dodge and counter. Unlike so many modern fighting and boxing games that can be won simply by pounding on the punch button, Punch-Out!! requires a certain grace and finesse.
Like many early NES games, the button commands are incredibly simple, and they’re responsive enough to allow you to execute movements with precision. Using the D-Pad, you can dodge left, right, or block, and pressing B and A swing your left and right fists, respectively. Timing hits perfectly will earn you stars that allow you to unleash devastating uppercuts, and these are performed with a simple tap of the Start button. The NES gamepad didn’t have a wide array of buttons with which to perform complicated combo moves, but this game manages to use the controller to the best of its ability and provide a simple yet intuitive method of control.
Not only does Punch-Out!! play well, but it’s also a great looking game. Because there isn’t really much on-screen at any given time, the characters sprites are much larger than those from other games of the era, allowing for more detail to go into their composition. This additional detail is necessary for paying attention and tracking the opposing fighter's quirks that give their attack patterns away. Whether it’s a shake of the head or an open mouth that reveals your opponent’s weakness, everything is clearly on display.
The one downfall of this game being about memorizing patterns rather than engaging in direct combat is that once you’ve figured out all of your opponent's moves, the challenge is significantly diminished. Finding the perfect timing can take a while, and deciphering the right combination of jabs to the stomach or hooks to the jaw isn’t easy, but after multiple playthroughs, the task at hand can become a little mundane. That’s not to say that Punch-Out!! is an easy game by any means — in fact, it has a difficulty curve that borders on maddening — but its lasting appeal comes from the iconic cast of characters and genuinely fun gameplay that it provides, rather than unachievable victory.
As far as ports go, this Wii U version of the NES classic is spot-on. Everything runs just as smoothly as the original game, and the inclusion of save states is invaluable for those players hoping to make it all the way to the end without having to type in a code just to pick up where they left off. Off-screen play on the GamePad’s miniature display is an added bonus, and the control setup feels perfectly natural as well.
While not a perfect game, Punch-Out!! set the standard for a classic series that is alive and well today. Because of its odd balance between fighting and pattern memorization, it’s difficult to place this one is a specific genre, but that’s also why it appeals to so many players from all across the gaming spectrum. This port won’t disappoint fans of the NES classic, and it’s also the best place to start for newcomers to the series. Boxing puns aside, it’s a real knock-out.