The original WiiWare version of Rage of the Gladiator was a triumph in more ways than one; not only was it a hugely playable take on the classic Punch Out!! formula but it also managed to bring a considerable sense of gravitas to Wii's downloadable game service — a gravitas which was sorely lacking due to Nintendo's questionable approach to indies at the time, and the draconian file size limitations which meant that most WiiWare titles looked very poor in comparison to standard retail releases.
The game has since found a new lease of life on mobile formats such as iOS and Android, and has now come full circle with a welcome return to a Nintendo system — in this case, the 3DS, via it's eShop store. While this might seem like a cheap way to squeeze a bit more cash out of the title, Rage of the Gladiator is such an engrossing and entertaining piece of software that it's relatively easy to build up the enthusiasm to play it all over again — and the small but notable improvements which have been made certainly give this handheld release the edge over its WiiWare relation.
Rage of the Gladiator's storyline remains unchanged; you assume the role of Prince Gracius of Avalance, who is unfairly imprisoned when his father is murdered. Framed for the killing, a distraught Gracius is forced to fight a dazzling range of supernatural foes in the gladiatorial arena in order to prove his innocence — thankfully, he's no pampered sop and is more than capable of defending himself when the warhammers begin to fly.
Shorn of its Wii-based motion controls, this title adopts a pad-and-buttons interface which is reassuringly precise and has none of the uncertainty which sometimes plagued the waggle commands of the original. Like the aforementioned Punch Out!!, your actions are somewhat limited — you're rooted to the spot and can't outflank your rival. Instead, you must dodge blows, block them with your shield or leap in the air to avoid taking damage. Successfully evading your opponent's offensive opens up a window of opportunity where you can begin your own devastating combination of swipes and kicks. Land enough of these and you'll charge up your special attack meter, which can be tagged onto a combo for increased damage.
While it sounds like your moveset is somewhat meagre, it's surprisingly just how deep and complicated the gameplay can become. This is largely down to the sheer variety displayed in the characters you fight; no two are alike and each has a wide range of different attacks, taunts and specials. Some fire projectiles from a distance, others call upon additional help to keep you on your toes. For example, the snake charmer you encounter is flanked by two baskets, out of which a pair of deadly vipers appears — should you dodge in the direction of one while avoiding the charmer's attack, you'll receive damage from his slithery pet. These extra threats keep you on your toes and prevent Rage of the Gladiator from turning into a repetitive and predictable button-masher; they also make it more satisfying when you emerge victorious from battle, as you really have to plan your actions to ensure triumph.
Of course, once you've learned the patterns and tactics of each opponent then it's inevitable that the game will lose some of its lustre, but the developer has done an excellent job of delaying that for as long as possible. The three difficulty levels don't just make the ten enemies more powerful — they actually give them so many different moves and strategies that they feel like entirely new foes. Using the tactics you honed on the "Novice" rank when fighting on "Warrior" difficulty will usually see you face down in the dirt pretty quickly.
The game's longevity is extended further still by the equipment and upgrade systems which have been put in place. Success in battle earns you gold which can be used to purchase new armour, weapons, restorative potions and skill books, while special victory points can be expended to unlock new special attacks or boost your current abilities. Acquiring all of the game's content is no mean feat.
Although the Wii is a more powerful system than the 3DS, Rage of the Gladiator arguably looks superior on Nintendo's portable system. This could be down to the fact that the developer was working against a strict file size limit on WiiWare, but whatever the reason, this title looks absolutely stunning in portable form. Environments have more detail, enemies look better and generally the entire game appears to have received a lick of paint. The resolution has obviously dropped from the Wii edition and the 3D effect is a little extreme (we had to turn it off after a while because it made our eyes hurt), but in every other respect this is one of the best looking non-retail downloadable games yet to grace the 3DS eShop. The sound is equally impressive, with bombastic music and a raft of vocal samples.
Rage of the Gladiator remains one of WiiWare's undisputed highlights, and we've been pleasantly surprised to discover that the game is even more alluring in portable form. The pick-up-and-play mentality of the title is better suited to the 3DS, and while it's a shame that the immersive motion controls understandably had to be sacrificed in this port, after an hour or so you won't miss them at all.
With its excellent cast of enemies, three challenging difficulty levels and massive selection of unlockable items and skills, Rage of the Gladiator is a real knockout of a download. Even if you've played the WiiWare original to destruction, this is highly recommended — while the core gameplay remains largely unchanged, the 3DS version feels like a more refined and appealing offering. It plays, looks and sounds fantastic, and gets a massive thumbs-up from us.