Scan the Greats: Punch-Out!!

Back when I used to frequent the World of Warcraft forums, one of the most common requests I saw was for a dungeon that didn’t have any “trash”- packs of weaker enemies inbetween the main boss encounters in the area. It wasn’t a practical request, or one that was very well thought out. Setting aside that the progression of raiding would be disrupted if raids provided boss items in so little time, when done properly trash can be an opportunity to try interesting gameplay challenges that don’t have to last for an entire fight. The developers did eventually give the fanbase what it wanted- when they were running out of time, they made a new raid called Trial of the Crusader to hold people over until they could finish up their bigger project. The fanbase got exactly what they wanted, and they were disappointed with the reality, because the design they’d asked for proved boring. Just as the designers had warned them, it just didn’t mesh with WoW’s overall structure.

There were a handful of Punchout titles on early gaming hardware, before the series went into hibernation for fifteen years. It emerged in 2009 with a new title for the Wii, simply titled “Punchout.” The Punchout series magic is that idea WoW forumites constantly requested- there are no regular enemies or challenges in Punchout. There aren’t levels, there’s no repetition. The game is exclusively a series of unique bosses with their own personalities, style, and moveset. The design that couldn’t work in an MMO is nothing short of magical in Punchout.

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My fondness for fighting games and Punchout might make you think I enjoy them for the same reason- after all, what they aim to create is the same. A one-on-one brawl: no extraneous nonsense, just you and the man aiming to break your jaw. However, since it’s a single-player focused game,  Punchout is wholly different in the way it achieves this feel. Good fighting game AI is an oxymoron- you can make the AI more or less powerful, but it always feels random to the player. It is not satisfying to fight, and the tactics necessary to win are not fun. Punchout instead handles them like a classic action boss fight- your opponent has a variety of moves with specific openings and weaknesses, which the designers have strung together in an unchanging obstacle course of hooks and uppercuts. Reflexes are helpful to be sure, but ultimately success and failure is separated by observation and memorization.

It’s a game about learning, and you know that you can always push through whatever the game places in front of you with enough time and practice. You will never hit a skill barrier that you cannot overcome with sufficient pattern memorization. This turns out to be key, because the game is also aware that anyone can overcome its challenges with enough work… and thus feels free to drop some pretty intense battles in your lap. This game does not pull its punches- it has zero interest in coddling you. Piston Hondo’s goofy eyebrow waggling won’t seem so funny when he knocks you out cold before you hit the mat.

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The brutal difficulty initially seems at odds with the cartoony art style, but in fact, it’s a big reason as to why it all works. If the game had realistic graphics, or even just a less exaggerated art style, the pummelings your opponents give you would be frustrating or even visually distressing. Watching a man get beat up is a painful thing. But the cel shaded aesthetic softens the blow, and the swollen faces and bruises are humorous instead of grim. The levity cuts through the harsh reality of the game, keeping the tone from getting too dark.

I would love to talk about Punchout all day, but its simplicity is what makes it brilliant, so I’d just be repeating myself. There is no filler, there are no enemies you want to get out of the way so you can get to the big moment. All that Punchout has to offer is a series of boss fights, but it can promise that each one will be so engaging, charming, and tough that you’ll be grateful for its laser focus on what works. It’s not a long game, but with the number of times Don Flamenco is gonna knock you on your ass? You’ll get plenty of hours out of it. Dig up a copy of this overlooked gem, and get punchin’.