July 6, 2009

It’s been fifteen years since Nintendo laced up the gloves and stepped into the ring, but there’s no ring rust to be found on Little Mac. Punch-Out!! was last seen on the SNES, but fans are more likely to remember the original NES Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! (or non-Tysoned reissue); this new game is actually much more of a sequel to its 8-bit predecessor than to its Super cousin. Considering the span of time between games, however, it’s actually reasonable to assume that many gamers are experiencing Punch-Out!! for the first time. (It should be noted that both previous editions are available via the Virtual Console.) Those who have played games like EA’s realistic Fight Night series and/or the more cartoony Ready 2 Rumble franchise could be in for a sucker punch when they came in expecting Nintendo’s take on the sweet science.

What sets Punch-Out!! apart from all of the other boxing games is the fact that it’s not really a boxing game at all. As with the two previous editions of the franchise, Punch-Out!! is really more of a puzzle game that happens to be wearing boxing gloves and smashing you in the face. Each of your thirteen opponents has a pattern to learn and what works against one will earn you a missing tooth against another. Your first few opponents will force you to learn the basics, like dodging and counter-punching, but after you conquer the Minor Circuit you’ll need every trick at your disposal to dispatch the remaining combatants.

Fortunately, the big gameplay innovation of actually being able to practice against your opponents (or holographic facsimiles thereof) in advance is a huge help here. The illusory sparring partners won’t damage you when their virtual punches land, so it’s impossible to lose against them, but knowing their tricks in advance will save you some actual stitches. You can pick up some advice from your old trainer Doc between rounds, but most of your learning will be of the Hard Knocks variety. Once you defeat an opponent, the real deal is unlocked in your Exhibition Mode instead, with some challenges for subsequent rematches and replay value.

Thirteen opponents may not seem like much, but once you earn the World Championship a new mode is unlocked: Title Defense Mode. Each of your previous conquests totally revamps their fighting style, adding a whole bunch of new tricks — and harder hits, effectively doubling the number of opponents in the game. There’s a final, secret challenger to be found after a successful run through TD Mode (and earning the final mode, Mac’s Last Stand), but I’m nowhere near good enough to have seen him.

Punch-Out!! offers two control schemes with an option for a third. The classic way to play works basically just like the NES version while holding the Wii Remote sideways, although I find a couple of buttons awkwardly-placed. The new Wii way to play involves swinging the Wii Remote and Nunchuck as fists; normal waggles default to hooks (body blows), but either pressing up on the C-stick or holding the B/Z button will let you jab your opponent in his grill. Once you accumulate stars (up to three), holding the A or C button and swinging will consume all your stars and fire off a brain-scrambling uppercut that will usually drop ’em like flies (if it connects…). Owners of the Wii Balance Board can also employ their footwork to dodge and duck, but I’m not one of them so I can’t really speak to that method of play; I also can’t comment on the split-screen Versus mode, although in theory it strikes me as being a somewhat tacked on extra.

Overall, Punch-Out!! improves over its NES ancestor in just about every way. Comparisons to Super Punch-Out!! are less direct, due to significant gameplay differences, and will mostly depend on your preference of those changes. Taken on its own merits, however, Punch-Out!! is simply a blast that should be enjoyed by all gamers, nostalgic or not. At its higher levels it might skew a bit more towards the hardcore gamer than the casual type, but everyone should be able to get a kick out of knocking the croissants out of Glass Joe.

ESRB: E10 for Cartoon Violence and Comic Mischief; there isn’t any blood, but characters do suffer some noticeable bumps and bruises as the match progresses.

Plays like: the ultimate version of the original NES Punch-Out!!, minus Mike Tyson

Pros: large, expressive characters and precise control; technically over 25 opponents

Cons: Some players may prefer the one round/S-meter system used in Super Punch-Out!! more than a return to the 3-round/star punch format.

Score: 5/5

Questions? Check out our review guide.