From Bald Bull’s signature charge to Little Mac’s pink sweatsuit, everything from Nintendo’s original Punch-Out!! is iconic. For many nostalgic gamers, the series — comprised of the NES game (originally endorsed by Mike Tyson) and its underappreciated Super sequel — is just as revered as Nintendo’s more prolific franchises. It remains a mystery, then, why everyone’s favorite diminutive pugilist has been kept out of the ring for the past 14 years; but Little Mac and crew are finally back. And while the controls remain unchanged, this update still manages to eclipse its classic predecessors.
Nintendo has had success in the past farming out dormant characters to outside developers, most notably with Retro Studios’ Metroid Prime trilogy. However, I was skeptical when it was announced that Next Level Games would be reviving Punch-Out!! for the Wii. The original game was great fun, so how would a modern sequel beef up the feature set without muddling the series’ simple charm?
Well, my fears were unfounded, as Mac’s timed dodges and counter punches proved surprisingly versatile. Rather than add a bunch of new attacks to the player’s repertoire, the developers instead chose to build upon the returning opponents. For example, Soda Popinski was always a bruiser, but now he’ll actually take out a soda bottle mid-fight to regain health. Don Flamenco still taunts you, but once you knock off his toupee, he becomes much more aggressive.
At the same time, the three circuits will still seem very familiar to series veterans. Among the game’s 13 main boxers, only one of them, the flamboyant Kid Disco, is a new contender. However, once you claim the championship belt, the “Title Defense” mode opens up. It’s at this halfway point that the game cements itself as one of the absolute best on the Wii. After Little Mac knocks out all of his rivals, they all head back to the gym and pick up even wilder fighting tactics.
For instance, King Hippo wises up a bit in his second bout. Rather than leave his bandaged navel open to attacks, he tapes a manhole cover to his stomach. This forces you to figure out how to remove the layers of tape before you can do any real damage to him. Almost all of the fighters receive similar gimmicks, such as a squirrel sidekick for Bear Hugger and headgear for Glass Joe. Title Defense mode captures the more outlandish spirit of Super-Punchout!!, making the Wii sequel the perfect synthesis of both games. It’s truly remarkable how much mileage Next Level Games is able to squeeze out of such a basic engine.
It certainly helps that the game looks as gorgeous as it does. The boxers are all cell shaded and frequently take up most of the screen. For fans of the original games it’s a real treat to see that many of the fighters have retained their signature animations. Super Macho Man still has dancing pectorals, Bald Bull still does his chicken dance when he knocks Mac out, and Soda Popinski still cackles menacingly whenever he gets a chance.
Speaking of which, the voiceover cast also deserves praise for bringing each character to life. All of the international fighters speak in their native tongues — without subtitles. Though all of the rival boxers are blatant stereotypes, the introductory and between-round dialogue is so silly and over the top that they never manage to offend. (However, some critics, including Scott Sharkey of Retronauts fame, have justifiably expressed concern that Kid Disco’s spandex costume and lisp feel out of place).
With this cartoony veneer and a throwaway two-player mode, more casual Wii owners may be under the impression that this is a Wii Sports boxing revamp. This could not be further from the truth, as Punch-Out!! is also unrelentingly difficult. The motion controls are ill-suited here, as absolute precision is required to stay competitive.
For many fans, this is exactly for what they have been hoping to see. If you simply want to pummel characters into submission, you should probably look toward a Smash Bros. title instead. However, if you have a slight masochistic streak and enjoy old-school pattern recognition, Punch-Out!! is your game.