Things we liked
Mac is back: What separates Nintendo from its competitors is its colorful cast of characters. The recognizable cartoon faces of Mario, Link and Samus Aran have made appearances on almost every Nintendo console through the years, creating a Disney-type familiarity throughout their evolution from cartoonish 2-D sprites to detailed 3-D models. But one notable exception is Little Mac, the protagonist of the beloved Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!!, who's spent 15 years in retirement since Super Punch-Out!! for Super Nintendo. He's back -- along with chocolate-chomping, Carl Winslow-looking trainer Doc Louis -- in Punch-Out!!, a fun and addicting throwback to the arcade-style NES games of yesteryear.
A classic reimagined: Nostalgia is the name of this game. If you grew up loving Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!! for the NES (and who didn't?), you're probably going to find a lot to like about this reimagination. The interface is almost identical -- with the standard heart meter and three "star" punches for uppercuts -- and nearly all of the light-hearted ethnic stereotypes from the NES version are back (in cel-shaded 3-D), from Glass Joe and Von Kaiser to Super Macho Man and Mr. Sandman. Also brought over from the original is the deceptively simple, arcade-style moveset: head punch, body punch, dodge, duck or block. Like the original, success depends on learning each opponent's specific timing and quirks, many of which should be familiar to gamers who remember the NES version. (Smack King Hippo when his mouth opens and pummel him with body shots as his XXXXL trunks slip to his cankles.)
Three different ways to play: My biggest question about Punch-Out!! centered around the controls. Would they make a controller-based game like the original or would they make use of the Wii's motion controls? Next Level Games, the developer responsible for the popular Super Mario Strikers titles, gives us the best of both worlds. Players looking for a more traditional, arcade-like experience can turn the Wiimote on its side and play it like a traditional NES game, using the D-Pad and two buttons. There's also the active play option, where a user can plug in the Wii Nunchuk and control Mac by throwing punches at the screen. Players looking for the most challenging experience can dust off their Wii Balance Board and play atop it, dodging and ducking the punches along with Mac.
Sounding off: Next Level's painstaking attention to detail is not just seen but also heard throughout the game, as Punch-Out!! pays tribute to some of the most iconic video-game music of all-time. The game is dotted with familiar leitmotifs from the original, whether it's the updated take on the score from Mac's training montage (along the Hudson River) or Don Flamenco's intro dance (to the Overture from Bizet's Carmen.)
Challenges for newbies and vets alike: The Punch-Out!! games have always been rooted in a player's ability to counter based on opponent patterns. Plowing through the Minor, Major and World Circuits might only take a couple hours for experienced gamers -- but topping Mr. Sandman for the world title is only the beginning, as Punch-Out!! gives way to a challenging title defense mode where you fight through the entire slate of opponents again -- only this time they've made strategic adjustments (offensively and defensively) based on your first fight. So Glass Joe wears headgear and King Hippo protects his belly with a manhole cover. There's also a series of achievement-style challenges, where you earn rewards for, say, knocking out an opponent in under one minute.
Check out this Punch-Out trailer:
Things We'd Change
Thin head-to-head mode: The addition of a head-to-head option is a nice tack-on -- but it feels like just that: a glorified game of rock-paper-scissors. Each player takes control of Little Mac in a split-screen view and attempts to fill a meter by outwitting the opponent. It's fun for a limited time but ultimately feels a bit underdone. If you're going to break with the one-player standard and introduce a multi-player option, why not enable players to take control of other characters from the game like Bald Bull or Soda Popinski?
Online emptiness: And speaking of head-to-head mode, why doesn't Punch-Out!! support the Wii's online component? More and more games for the Nintendo console are supporting features like worldwide leaderboards to compare your records, scores and performances with other players from around the globe. Seems like it would have been a natural fit for Punch-Out!! -- and it's one of this game's rare missed opportunities.
Balance Board: It's a great idea on paper. But the controls simply aren't as precise as they needs to be for a game as demanding as Punch-Out!!, which may very well be the most challenging game to be released for the Wii.
Players who grew up playing Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!! have a built-in advantage with the Wii version. So many details from that 1987 classic have been retained here, from opponents' "tells" to their Achilles' heels. (You can even press the select button in between rounds for a quick one-time energy boost.) Younger gamers with little or no investment in the game's nostalgic aspects may find the arcade-style controls simplistic. But folks with a fondness for old-school video games and a sentimental spot for the original Tyson game -- which was as close to a universal favorite as you'll find -- will find Punch-Out!! to be one of the most addictive releases in the Wii's brief history.
-- Reviewed by Bryan Armen Graham