In the early 1980s, after Muhammad Ali retired, boxing was losing its mojo. It took two larger-than-life brawlers to bring star power back to the ring: Mike Tyson and Little Mac.
They were the stars of the 1987 Nintendo game “Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! If you had a Nintendo Entertainment System back then, odds are that at some point you laced up Mac’s gloves, stepped into the ring and pounded your way through a roster of palookas like Glass Joe and Bald Bull. The final match, if you made it that far, was against the fearsome Tyson.
We all know what’s happened to Tyson over the last two decades. Little Mac has kept a much lower profile (although he did pop up in last year’s “Super Smash Bros. Brawl ). But now they’re both coming back: Tyson in the movies, Mac in the long-awaited Wiiversion of the fondly remembered NES classic.
“Punch-Out!! (Nintendo, for the Wii, $49.99) is certain to cause flashbacks in gamers of a certain generation. It smartly retains the cartoony appeal of the original, although the characters are expanded into three dimensions.
Once again, your first fight is against the wimpy Frenchman Glass Joe. As you build your skills, you challenge tougher opponents like the belligerent German Von Kaiser, the boozy Russian Soda Popinski and the flamboyant Spaniard Don Flamenco. Nintendo has asked us not to reveal the identity of the final opponent, but he’s a perfect choice.
The major gameplay change is the use of the Wii’s motion-sensing controllers. Thrusting either the wand or the nunchuck toward the screen simulates a punch, and if you own the Wii Balance Board, you can use that to simulate ducking and dodging. As is often the case with Wii games, the controls aren’t nearly responsive enough; to become a champion, you’ll need to switch to the old-fashioned directional-pad-and-buttons setup.
The challenge ramps up nicely. Even a “Punch-Out!! newcomer should be able to handle Glass Joe on the first try, but when he returns later in the game, he’s much more formidable. Opponents telegraph their punches in early matches, but their reflexes are much sharper later. And even if you win the championship belt, there are plenty of side challenges (like knocking out a boxer with five punches) to keep you in training.
Multiplayer options are thin, since you can only play as Little Mac vs. Little Mac. And I wish developer Next Level Games hadn’t been quite so faithful to the original; there’s only one new character among the 14 boxers you face.
On its surface, “Punch-Out!! doesn’t aspire to the depth of a more realistic boxing sim like EA Sports’ “Fight Night. But don’t let its wacky appearance fool you. You’ll need quick thinking and sharp reflexes to make it to the top – and even more of both to stay there.
Three stars out of four.