SummaryA silly action game provides first-class strategic depth and exploration? The hell?
The GoodBasic boxing game, wherein you pummel your opponents while dodging or blocking their blows? Seems like the simple yet frustratingly inelegant design aesthetic of many a fighting game, no? Not quite. In fact, the vast departures that this game takes from the "fighting game" design route are what makes it an instant classic of gameplay.
Controls are simple. You have four basic attacks--high punches left and right, and low punches left and right. All of these are fairly quick, intuitively paced, and balanced. Blows to the opponent's face are quick jabs that do less damage than the slower body blows. In a departure from the original NES game a few special moves are provided when your stamina bar is full, and until you get socked their use is unlimited. The powerful uppercut and body blow are both far slower than regular attacks, yet do an incredible amount of damage.
The blocking/dodging system is an innovative move (reminiscent oddly of The Adventure of Link); there is no "block" button--and in this case the streamlined control opens up the gameplay immensely. When inactive the player automatically blocks low/high blows depending on where the player's guard is. If the player is pressing no buttons whatsoever, the guard defaults to low, and all enemy body blows will be cleanly and automatically intercepted. Holding "up" will raise the guard, and block high blows. Since all the tricky timing is handled automatically and there are two modes of defense against six types of enemy attack, this is the easiest defense strategy to master. However this ease of mastery comes at a price--after successfully blocking an attack, there is usually no window for counterattack. But wait--not all enemy attacks may be blocked (all yours are blockable, however :P).
Which brings us to the other primary defense: Dodging. Dodging is similarly innovative. To simulate the open areas of the ring and the movement of the boxers, pressing left or right initiates a brief dodge. The limited time the player is out of the line of fire is an acceptable facsimile of the other boxer maneuvering back to firing distance, though the player doesn't actually "move" around the ring at all. Given this limit, defending against unblockable blows therefore requires some timing skills, and tactical considerations. Enemy hooks coming at your right side high or low cannot be dodged by moving to the right, but they may be ducked, or dodged left. Enemy uppercuts may be ducked, or dodged in either direction. Most special moves require dodging, as many are unblockable. To prevent dodging from becoming the defensive strategy to beat all others, some fast chained attacks from the enemy are not dodgeable due to their high rate of fire. They are eminently blockable, even if their conclusion is usually an unblockable uppercut. :D
It's possible to defeat the game with a good working knowledge of dodging and blocking. Of course, if defense were the only answer to all attacks, turtling would be the only real strategy to beat the game. Sit there, wait for attacks, dodge. Well it's not that simple. If defense strategy is fun and complex, combining it with attack strategy is what makes the game more than just pattern-memorization or a twitch dodging game.
The learning curve of attacking is really a marvel. Your abilities never change, but your use of them increases in seemingly discrete levels as you discover the possibilities. The base level is simply nailing the opponent where his guard isn't. That's right, the enemies are bound by the same guard restrictions--they are either blocking high or low at any time in the game. While early opponents are slow on the uptake when shifting their guard to respond to attacks, by the second or third opponent this won't be a game-winning strategy anymore, despite its relative ease. Powerful blows are difficult to land, as their slow delivery gives your opponent much time to dodge or block. And of course your opponent may always dodge. :D
On the next skill level, you learn to first dodge an attack and then make a follow-up attack during the enemy's recovery time. This window for follow-up is tied to the strength of the dodged attack--if it's a strong attack, expect more time to follow-up than a weak attack A successful follow-up attack will "stun" the opponent, and allow you to lay some serious whoopass down for a set number of blows or amount of time. This stun time is also tied to the strength of the attack--the stronger the attack, the longer the stun time. Stunned enemies are very susceptible to powerful slow attacks, since they are not capable of defense. This is where the special moves may be used with the most effect and least risk. Yet how boring! Just sitting there waiting for the enemy to attack? At later levels, stun time is brief and follow-ups require precise timing. Enemies develop directional recoveries, wherein you have target them carefully--up or down, left or right? Not only is it dull, it gets increasingly difficult and risky as enemy skill increases. Fortunately there is another option.
Counterattack! Every enemy attack is telegraphed by an animated signal before the attack begins. Up to the last opponent in the game, these signals usually telegraph the attack location and strength. This helps with dodging and blocking, sure, but if you hit with a quick, precisely targeted attack during the signal period, you can stun the enemy without having to dodge at all. This is enormously fun, rewarding and damaging. Bald Bull wants to slap you some glove upside the right side of your face, raising his left glove threateningly? Hit him with a jab to the left side of his head, and he's off to stun city. The thrilling part of this attack mode is that a series of successful counterattacks will often daze your opponent, wherein he staggers aimlessly about without defense and is vulnerable to knockout from any punch in your arsenal. This provides the quickest KO times, the most satisfying victories. And, of course, the most thrilling, skillful gameplay.
The trick is knowing when to use each strategy, as there are times wherein each is the most effective response. Pattern recognition and some precise timing is still necessary with tough opponents (or Hoy Quarlow :P), but it is possible to master these tactics and be the absolute master of any opponent. No longer do you have to flee precipitously at the first sign of attack as in the first Punch-Out!!--you can stop that deadly glove in its tracks and make your enemy pay for his attempt. Fantastic.
The other real bright spot of this game is the fluidity and response of the controls--they're pitch perfect. Hit detection is great, and you never are left wondering why the hell your blond anime avatar failed to do exactly what you told him to do--it's immediately apparent that the only one to blame for losses is the player, however steep the demands of the challenges. The art design is solid, and moments like Gabby Jay's "Yay!" alone should have made this an instant cult classic for fans of the original. The difficulty is steep, but mastering Nick Bruiser without taking a hit is a fantastic gaming experience.
No button mashing will work here. No "combo" list of arbitrary buttons to hit sequentially while an unblockable cinematic unfolds on the screen are to be found here. No dumb sneaky tricks like the Street Fighter hit/sweep or the Mortal Kombat sweep/uppercut variant are possible. It's all about skill! It's all about strategy. It's amazingly fun.
The BadLittle Mac is gone! Our 4'8" underdog avatar from Punch-Out!! was such a satisfying symbol of unlikely badassery as he took down his towering opponents. He will be missed. As will the intimidating yet ridiculous half-censored racial stereotypes he was presented with as opponents. Soda pop was in that bottle? Right. Wacky enemies like Soda Popinski and King Hippo are missed. The enemy design in this sequel doesn't quite strike the same balance of borderline bigotry and hilarity inherent in the NES classic. "Bob Charlie?" Come on!
At times, the precise timing required to beat opponents gets ridiculously steep. And since your avatar is so overmatched in terms of strength, a single mistake can almost decide the match in later levels where opponent defense is high. For the most part, these are quibbles--Nintendo did an amazing job of allowing the same set of abilities to be an effective response to opponents of highly varied difficulty. What changes? The player's skill and strategic knowledge. No RPG points or any such nonsense--if you feel lonesome for them, feel free to write down "INT +1" on a sheet of paper after you TKO Hoy Quarlow in under a minute without taking a hit. :P
The Bottom LineAn elegant action masterpiece, with strategic considerations and rewarding gameplay that almost no other fighting games can hope to offer. In all measures of gameplay, a big improvement over the first.