Despite not being as forgotten these days, I do believe that the Punch-Out!! trilogy does not get the recognition it deserves and thus I wanted to give this series a thorough look. I am aware of the two arcade entries, the simple Game & Watch edition, and the arm-wrestling one, but the latter two are difficult to say much about and the NES adaptation features characters from both of the main cabinet instalments. Because of this, and the addition of a minimalistic plot, music during matches, animated cutscenes, a password system, and tweaked gameplay for making it playable on the 8-bit console, this version can be seen as a neat remake. With this in mind, let me introduce to you a title that honours the term “NES hard”.
Gotta shape up!
There is not really a story here, but there has to be something said about the personalities the opponents offer. All of them have different taunts and various comments on the fights that provide a lot of humorous characteristics, and while some are based on cultural stereotypes, it never comes off as offensive thanks to the lighthearted tone this project contains. Instead, it creates a good atmosphere and does enough to make the antagonists both entertaining and memorable.
Although, combat is certainly the key aspect of this boxing game. Your goal is to reach the top of the ranks by taking out one other contender in each match, essentially being presented with a string of boss encounters. There are three ways to win; either by knocking down the health bar of your rival to zero three times in the same round (which lasts three minutes), striking them so hard they cannot get up within ten seconds or letting the judge decide the winner through their performances if neither of the former has happened within three rounds.
Playing as Little Mac, you can dodge left and right, block, and punch with left and right arms that can either be aimed towards the body or head. All are important abilities, as you will have to read your opponents’ movements in order to figure out how and when they will attack, as well as the moments you get an opening. At first, evading hits and countering with alternate left and right jabs will be the way to go, but the enemies are diverse and get more difficult with each match. In a way, they are reminiscent of puzzles where reflexes will be tested, since you must have a keen eye for when you must do what in a quick manner. Between rounds, your coach Doc. Louise will give you hints, which even your foes can do unintentionally. This is a nice touch should one battle go on for longer than anticipated, due to giving you a helping hand.
You are definitely going to need this, since you are far from invulnerable. Besides your health bar is your stamina counter and with each blow you take or your antagonist deflects, it will go down. If it reaches zero, you can merely dodge and will not be able to fight back until you have evaded a couple of the rival’s swings, as you will then restore a small amount back. Lastly, if you can land a hit at specific moments, such as when the adversary has their guard down or before they smack you, you will gain a star that you can hold a maximum of three of. You can use one of them for a devastating punch by pressing start, but the moment you get struck, you lose one. This is a minor addition, though a fantastic one that makes dangerous risks worth taking.
Every manoeuvre is important to study due to the contenders being tremendous beasts that will put up a great challenge by using creative setups, such as rushing towards you or even teleporting, with the final encounter (be it Mike Tyson or Mr. Dream) being a force to be reckoned with. Only the first couple of enemies are easy for letting you get to the grips with this sport. This is truly one of the hardest games ever, though it is never cheap by letting everything rely on you paying attention, with getting accurate jabs rewarding you with stars for an easier time and mistakes leading to severe beatdowns. All fourteen competitors, including the three rematches with new movesets, will provide a good yet tough difficulty curve through its three circuits.
However, if you lose against one opponent, you will go back to the previous one! This is a design choice I do not understand, as this is a project all about learning the adversaries’ patterns, making this a harsh punishment by having you take on a boss you already defeated. The password system does let you take a breather, but you will only get a new one after each circuit, which does strengthen this inconvenience of revisited foes. Thankfully, the fights are not too long, especially if you have taken the time to learn the rivals’ weaknesses. Should this still become too demanding, allow me to offer a small hint; press select if you are low on health between rounds.
The best aspect about Punch-Out!!, is that it completely focuses on the battles, with a huge challenge that is well worth bragging about if ever overcome. Your reflexes and mind will be wonderfully tested, the stamina counter and star attack are intriguing details, and it all brings a beautiful tension along the journey. It can be unforgiving and downright brutal, but never unfair and make sure that every victory tastes sweet.
Gameplay Score: 8/10
Satisfying beatdown and visual personalities
With the transparent look being impossible to implement on the 8-bit console, it was a smart move to instead make Mac actually small and his opponents big. In fact, this led to providing everyone with strong animations and impressive facial features. Seeing also how it is important to read their subtle actions for getting out on top, I do love how the presentation becomes a significant part of the gameplay.
Of course, it is also amusing to see them conveying their characteristics through visual means such as Don Flamenco dancing or how your first rival is clearly terrified of you. All have cartoony appearances that are charming, and I adore how they will have bruises and wounds in the pictures between fights depending on how much of a beating they took. These sections also contain good breathing motions to simulate them being alive and cultural elements to highlight their origins.
The crowd in the background moves a lot and even blinks to simulate cheering whenever you come out victorious, adding to the triumphs. Although, the rings themselves are bland and really could have used an emblem of sorts to make them visually appealing, as their singular colour is the only thing that changes. It is a minor issue compared to how beautiful everything else is, but this is still a noticeable one due to taking up a majority of the screen. Luckily, the cutscenes for indicating your progression are a nice form of variety, with the one where you jog with your cycling coach and see the statue of liberty in the background being my favourite.
Enhancing the satisfying matches even further, are the fantastic sound effects. These are surprisingly impactful, with clear ones for whenever punches are thrown, jabs are dodged, someone falls to the ground, the judge is counting down, and the bell is clinging. Even the audience going nuts is immersive and everything feels substantial, which is saying something when all of this is done on the NES. As for the music, there are just a few melodies included in this project, but everyone is a magnificent piece that has stuck with the series for a reason! All the jingles for specific events are delightful, be they silly and uplifting or darker with a serious tone for losses, giving a diverse and fitting atmosphere.
By far the most recognisable song is the main theme and it is understandable why it is played in every single round. It starts out tense yet low before more notes are added for creating a more severe and faster-paced rhythm, giving a lot of variation that is on par with the best tracks on the system. By being a wonderful composition that embraces its powerful buildup, it is hard to get tired of at all. What is strange though, is that only some of the enemies get unique tunes due to their nationalities, but this is a bare nitpick as the quality of the rest of this package is superb.
Presentation Score: 9/10
Challenging, personal, engaging, and most notably: fun. Punch-Out!! is one of the best games of its era with a tight focus on boxing matches that test your reflexes and ability to carefully read your foes’ movements. With tons of unique characters, gorgeous visuals, and incredibly catchy music, you are in for a fierce treat that will make sure you work for your accomplishments. Just be ready for your mistakes to be indeed punishing.