This NES classic still holds up today, providing you can handle its severe difficulty.
Simply describing Punch-Out!!, originally released for the NES in 1990, as a boxing game would be doing a great disservice to the subtleties of its design. On the course of taking young Little Mac from plucky up-and-coming underdog to World Video Boxing champion, you will obviously plant many fists into the faces of your opponents, but the game does not concern itself with a long list of different inputs or even any element of positioning within the boxing ring.
Punch-Out!! is about reading signals – identifying what the opposing boxer is about to do, reacting swiftly by dodging or blocking and exploiting their narrow windows of weakness. Bouts can become very strategic, particularly once you figure out how to collect stars to power up your ultra-powerful ‘Star Punch’ uppercuts. While the trial-and-error method plays a significant part in the game, this unique style of twitch action still holds a strong appeal today with the latest re-release on the Wii U Virtual Console, although the punishment for failure might be a bit harsh by modern standards.
As a game made late in the life of the NES, Punch-Out!!’s animation quality is a cut above the rest. Characters on screen are expressive and move with a great fluidness, giving off little tells that form the essence of what the game is all about. The visuals also help to embellish the boxers themselves – each of Little Mac’s opponents is a national or cultural stereotype (my personal favourite being the Japanese fighter, Piston Honda), and they provide some humour to an otherwise very mechanical arcade-style game.
Let’s be perfectly clear, though: Punch-Out!! is extremely demanding of the player, both in terms of observation and reflexes, and if your only frame of reference for the series is the contemporary Wii successor from 2009, it should be noted that the NES title is much more unforgiving. The game is split into circuits containing three or four boxers each, and being kicked backed to the beginning of a circuit after losing the title match is demoralising, though the suspended save states feature on Wii U can help to alleviate this punishment somewhat. Purists will argue that this is simply how games were back in the early ‘90s, but the fact is, it makes Punch-Out!! difficult to recommend to somebody without the patience for out-dated video game difficulty tropes.
If you are looking just to knock some people around in the ring, no frills attached, stick with something like Fight Night. But if you yearn for the days where games were more of a distilled challenge or skill, look no further than this latest re-release of Punch-Out!!.