Punch-Out!! Review: Call It A Comeback

Nintendo revitalizes Punch-Out!! after a 15-year-long break with the Wii re-imagining of the NES original. Little Mac and Doc Louis return, as does the original Punch-Out!! cast, for a decidedly old-school, but carefully updated homage.

Punch-Out!! for the Wii pits Bronx-born pugilistic protagonist Little Mac and his trainer Doc Louis against a bizarre cast of characters that often out-power and outweigh our hero. That includes the return of quirky characters like the voluminous King Hippo, the mystical Great Tiger, and frail French fighter and perennial punching bag Glass Joe. The Wii version packs thirteen contenders, most of whom are plucked from the original game, with one brand new original character in the flamboyant Disco Kid.

The Next Level Games-developed Punch-Out!! also includes obligatory motion control, with options for Wii Remote and Nunchuk-style boxing, Wii Balance Board support, and simplified, old-school NES-style controls for players who actually want to beat the game.

Should Wii owners throw down some cash for Punch-Out!!, or should they simply throw in the towel?

Loved
Beautiful, Old-School Gameplay Refined: The Wii version isn't simply a remake of the NES or arcade games that also bear the Punch-Out!! name, it's an exploration of the gameplay mechanics that worked so well in the originals. Little Mac's opponents give audio and visual cues to indicate their trademark attacks are incoming, with the player having to learn when to dodge, block and duck—or preempt attacks to secure stars for powerful punches—all with split second timing, just like they used to. But each enemy's arsenal of punches, headbutts and elbows has expanded, as has Little Mac's typically shallow well of strategy.

Brilliant Puzzle Solving: The Punch-Out!! formula, more puzzle-based than sporting, is simple, but the amount of depth that developer Next Level Games has added to a returning cast impresses. Players, like myself, conditioned to dodge left for almost every attack, will be forced to adjust. And they'll be forced to root out new opportunities to land punches against once-familiar foes. Each contender is unique, some outlandishly so, as characters like the bobbing and weaving Aran Ryan and Great Tiger add variety to the lot of stand-and-swing challengers.

Title Defense: The Minor, Major and World Circuit won't pose much of a challenge to the old-school Punch-Out!! fan who TKOed Mike Tyson back in the day. It's quite possible to blow through those thirteen fighters in just a few hours. But when Little Mac is forced to defend his World Circuit championship belt in Title Defense mode, things get interesting. And they get brutally hard. When Glass Joe seeks revenge, you'll likely be amazed at how challenging he is the second time around. Punch-Out!! resets your expectations in the second half, sometimes to the point of controller-tossing frustration, but shows how brilliant this re-imagining really is. Good luck with Bald Bull II. He's a nightmare.

Control Options: The timing is spot on, as are the old-school controls, making it hard to accuse anything but your own reflexes for causing you to fail. If you really want to, you can play with a Wii Remote and Nunchuk, swinging your way to victory. For extra novelty, you can stand on a Wii Balance Board to dodge. Just don't expect to use the motion control scheme during Title Defense or Exhibition modes. But the type of player who would actually tolerate these control options probably has little interest in ever beating Mr. Sandman the first time around anyway.

Achievements: When all is said and done, with the World Circuit's has-beens defeated twice over, there's still plenty to do in Punch-Out!!, thanks to the game's Exhibition mode. It's the game's equivalent of Achievements, with more than 80 medals to acquire by unlocking Punch-Out!!'s most heavily guarded gameplay secrets under a set of conditions. Some, like landing every punch against Von Kaiser are easy. Others, like defeating Super Macho Man in the first round with no Star Punches feel impossible. But they're do-able.

Character And Caricature: The original Punch-Out!! featured a cast of contenders bordered on stereotype, a few steps away from culturally insensitive. And that was great. Even greater is that little of this has been changed. In fact, it has been improved upon. Sushi floats around Piston Hondo's head when dazed, with croissants orbiting Glass Joe's noggin while being pummeled. Bear Hugger is extremely Canadian and Disco Kid is... let's just call him flamboyant. Punch-Out!! sense of humor is only marginally softened in certain areas, but remains full of charm. Character specific music nods add nicely to the stereotypes.

Hated
No Classic Controller Support: The game supports simple Wii Remote controls, but not the option to use the more comfortable Classic Controller, with its larger directional pad and buttons. That's disappointing, as is the reliance on the Wii Remote to point for all menu choices, but that helps to explain why Classic Controller support wasn't added.

Some Boxer Cues Feel Cheap: There are certain points in the Title Defense mode where the fun comes to a halt and the rote execution of memorized patterns kicks in. (Let me show you my Soda Popinski notes sometime.) The argument can obviously be made that I was simply not skilled enough to breeze through the expert level matches, but some of the fraction-of-a-second timing and attack guesswork—I'm looking at you Don Flamenco II—might just incredibly piss you off too.

Punch-Out!! for the Wii is an amazing success. The gameplay is solid, with a suite of modes and options that reflect modern day expectations. A holographic practice mode and the option to restart matches ensure that the game's difficulty is kept in check somewhat, letting players fail on their own merits, not due to technical limitations that require things like 10-digit codes to save player progress.

The other modern-day design concession, a two-player mode that pits Little Mac against Little Mac, is probably the least welcome option, as it adds little to the tight Punch-Out!! experience, especially for anyone hardcore enough to play through every single-player aspect of the game. Minor quibbles aside, Punch-Out!! comes highly recommended—if you think you're up to the challenge.

Punch-Out!! was developed by Next Level Games and published by Nintendo for the Wii, released on May 18th. Retails for $49.99 USD. Completed all circuits and Title Defense mode. Tested Head-to-Head and Exhibition modes.

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