Few Wii games have been designed to please long-time Nintendo fans as much as the recent Wii Punch-Out!! Developers on the game recently explained to Kotaku just how the game came together, who did what, and what got left out.
Punch-Out on the Wii was a collaboration between Nintendo's Japan home office and Canadian studio Next Level Games. Developers in both locations recently fielded Kotaku's questions over e-mail. Their answers gave rare insight into how these kinds of collaborations work.
And, as a bonus, the developers explained why players didn't get to punch Princess Peach or Super Mario in the mouth with Little Mac's gloved fist.
As much as Nintendo wanted Punch-Out, like its other games, to reach new gamers, this was a title the company also wanted to reach the old-school Nintendo fan. "We firmly believed we could not betray our traditional fans' expectations," the game's Nintendo producers Kensue Tanabe told Kotaku over e-mail. " We consulted with Next Level Games and decided to follow the overall design of the NES title in every aspect of the new one. Characters were designed to look almost the same, and we also asked NLG to design them to be beaten with the same tactics of the NES version. This is also when we first decided to adopt the "classic" control scheme of holding the Wii Remote sideways." (Read Kotaku's Punch-Out!! review.)
The interview helped reveal a bit of who-does-what, the division of labor and ideas that can often be a mystery in collaborative projects. This game's development team spanned the globe, connecting Japan-based Tanabe and Nintendo with Canada's Next Level Games. Choosing the game's roster, for example, was a collaboration. Tanabe said Next Level wanted to go with mostly fighters from the NES version of Punch-Out. Next Level proposed the others, including Aran Ryan, who Next Level's Punch-Out gameplay lead, Bryce Holliday, described as the game's "resident hooligan."
Credit for the inclusion of a certain famous Nintendo character as an opponent, however, came from an executive at Nintendo of America, with support from Next Level. Tanabe revealed to Kotaku that he had a different idea for who to include from Nintendo's library of icons: "Princess Peach, but the thought of punching women out made me give up my idea."
Holliday said that Next Level dropped plans to include some other Nintendo icons in the game "to help solidify the WVBA world and its characters rather than simply borrow from existing Nintendo IP." WVBA is the fictional boxing league in the game. He added: "nobody would want to punch Mario." (Mario didn't even make it into the game as the referee this time — as he did in the NES version — because, Tanabe said: " We estimated that if Mario appeared within the toon-shaded 3D atmosphere of the game, it would not be a suitable match.")
Tanabe credited Next Level with pitching the game's graphical style. According to Holliday, Nintendo was supportive, generous in the amount of time it gave the Canadian team to test the look and hand-craft the game's animations.
Throughout their interview, Tanabe and Punch-Out's developers at Next Level Games came back to discussing the new game's Title Defense mode. This mode moved beyond making Punch-Out a nostalgia title by pitting Little Mac against new and re-mixed versions of his classic opponents in a series of rematches that pick up where the first game's finishing moment of winning the top championship would have ended. Beyond giving something for experienced players to dig into after they beat a mostly familiar roster in mostly familiar ways, the new Title Defense, according to Nintendo's Tanabe, helped meet modern expectations for game size. "The volume of content in video games has grown significantly since the NES days," he said. "I'm sure a NES-sized game could never satisfy players today."
Next Level producer Ken Yeeloy echoed his colleagues' comments and added that the Title Defense mode helped add color to already-colorful personalities. "It … fit it with the idea of giving the characters more background and story to them," he said. " Since their personalities are such a focus in the game, learning from their previous fight with Little Mac and becoming better made sense and we felt users would appreciate that."
Before the Title Defense part of Punch-Out begins — beyond just its first several fights — the new Punch-Out reveals itself to be a crushingly hard game. Tanabe said that he believed the zeal of new gamers might compel them to overcome that challenge. His unflinching take at that question might seem un-Nintendo given the easiness of many recent games from the company designed for a broader audience. Compare, for example, the level of difficulty in New Super Mario Bros. to its tougher predecessors. Next Level's Holliday said that his team simply tried to create something that was easy to pick up but a challenge to master: "Games are about choice and we believed at the beginning of the project we wanted to give any user of any skill level a great opportunity to enjoy what we loved as kids. Every circuit provides a distinct challenge. A new player who beats King Hippo gets a sense of accomplishment, while those who've played the original will choose to grind it out with the puzzles in the Title Defense World Circuit. Losing in this game can actually be enjoyable because it gives you the clues to the design of the puzzles and will hopefully let you get a little further every time you play."
The difficulty level took some tuning, but an even more formidable challenge, it turns out, may have been figuring out how to make this game work for two players." Unlike other fighting games, Punch-Out!! did not provide an easy template to realize multiplayer gameplay," Tanabe said. "As players are always viewing over the shoulder of their fighter. It made the situation more challenging that we could not manage the distance between fighters unlike other side-view fighting titles. I think it was the realization of idea of Giga Mac at Next Level Games and the specification of stunning the opponent when punches are dodged which helped implement this new style gameplay in Punch-Out!!, which is unique to Wii and has a lot of possibility."
The developers were expectedly coy about the future of the Punch-Out series. They agreed that whatever could come next would have to, in Holliday's words, be "fresh and new." Said Tanabe: " We are not planning a sequel where simply the fighters are replaced. If we get so many requests for Little Mac and other fighters to come back, we will make another game in a totally new, different way. But of course, Doc Louis must also be there!"