Wade Hixton's Counter Punch review
Punch Out meets Looney Tunes
Gee, this game plays an awful lot like Mike Tyson's Punch Out. From its emphasis on memorizing opponents' patterns of attack to not being able to move much in the ring, it's so heavily inspired by that game that it often comes across as a bit of a shameless clone. The only thing missing is Mario as the referee! But actually, it's in how far they take it that really gives this game its X factor. With that being said, it does a damn good job of utilizing the formula and even does a few things of its own in an effort to make it look like a different game. Really, it's in its attempts to be different juxtaposed by how well it executes the Mike Tyson's Punch Out formula that it manages to succeed – at least to the handful of people who had played it, anyway. It could use some tinkering here and there to really make it a knockout, but as it is, it's a pretty good game.
If you've never played Mike Tyson's Punch Out, the idea is that it's you and one other person in the ring. Last man standing wins. You win by knocking the opponent down three times in a round – no winning by decision here, folks. You start by only being able to dodge to the left or right, throw a body jab or head jab, and block. Throughout the course of the game, you'll be able to buy special attacks and combos with the money you get from the fights and challenges in the story mode. Things like uppercuts and hooks and even a counterattack – hell, you can hire other people to distract your opponent or slow down the count for you when you're on your backside. It is a natural upgrade to the formula, adding in some upgrades, but to keep things balanced, it's only the extra combos that can be bought. No RPG stat stuff. That'd turn this game into a lame button masher rather than a strategical boxing game. Okay, strategical might be stretching it a bit, but since the formula does revolve around observing how the opponent fights and landing punches at their empty spots whenever you can, it's... got a fair amount of strategy. Certainly more than a 2D boxing sim would have, anyway; just not as much as a highly complex game of 3D chess.
I will admit, this style of play can be a tad tricky to adjust to if you're too used to the likes of Fight Night and... I don't know, Ready 2 Rumble. Rather than being able to freely move, you're restricted to this one spot and can only move to get out of the way of a punch. The opponents are bound by the same rules, so the idea is-- well, you know. However, it only further exasperates just how unique each of the opponents are. There are all sorts of character specific attacks and even attack tactics that you really have to keep on the ball here. One guy pulls a disappearing act and then comes back to sock you in the face... and one guy sics his pet racoon onto you. It actually puts Punch Out to shame in terms of its off beat goofiness, helping Counter Punch in really standing out from its influence. In other words, it's an even cartoonier, offbeat version of Punch Out.
Dude I just barely tapped you!
Besides that, there are some optional challenges you can do for some extra cash. After beating an opponent, you can rematch them under certain stipulations like you can only dodge or you have to knock them down once before time runs out. In theory, it's supposed to add more challenge to the game; in practice, it just goes to show some of the holes in Punch Out's formula. The difficulty comes more from learning how to properly counter your opponent's strategy than anything else and once you got it memorized, they're either fairly easy or a goddamn formality. None of them are bad and hell, some of them do add something to the mix – having to beat them down more quickly really tests you on how much you remember of their patterns and also forces you to be more aggressive in your defensive combat – but those are the exceptions and not the rule. Even then, it doesn't add heaps. It really makes you wonder if their decision to go all out was because of this.
To clarify, the idea of Punch Out was to give you a series of innately distinct opponents who give you a different, harder set of attacks and trickier special attacks to adapt to. This is to make up for the fact that older hardware couldn't quite deliver a convincing boxing simulator – it's the difference between Ring King on Nintendo and the latest Fight Night game on Xbox 360. Where Punch Out really stood out was its vast variety of opponents. Counter Punch offers a smaller pool of fighters you can fight twice – once to progress the story and once more to simply earn extra cash – but they're even more crazy and over the top. In saying that, the game is a tad too short. I get that it's a portable game, but even Punch Out on the NES is longer than this because of its higher quantity of opponents and tougher fights. I guess in an effort to keep it from being too short and easy, your opponents can take a hell of a beating while you... not so much. Still, it's just amazing how goofy your opponents are and it's absolutely lovable, making up for whatever shortcomings come the game's way.
Besides its shortness though, this game does have a couple of small issues. For one thing, while the final boxer makes for a climactic final boss fight in theory, he's like a bazillion times harder than everybody else! It's like getting you to fight Mike Tyson right after the first Piston Honda match! Basically, you'll be fighting him quite a lot before you can get his deceptively complex patterns down. It's not the fight itself, but the sudden difficulty jump that can really annoy you, even if it is the final boxer. The other thing is that the controls are a tad unpolished. The movement can feel a bit loose and takes some getting used to - even if you're a Punch Out veteran – and accessing special moves requires you to very precisely press A and B at once as well as a direction on the D-pad. I mean it when I say very precisely because you can accidentally just give them a left or right body hook instead of a combo attack because you were a microsecond off. It's another thing you'll get the hang of, although it's still not all that difficult to bugger it up in the heat of the moment.
But what'll make you fall back in love with the game is the story itself. Oh, it doesn't seem like much – it starts with Wade's car breaking down in a boxing obsessed town, but over time, he finds himself in situations involving a bunch of oddballs wanting to beat him to a pulp. Where it stands out is in its light hearted mood. The dialogue has a fair few lawyer friendly references, some offbeat jokes and, on the whole, hardly anything to do with anything besides I guess Wade being at the wrong place at the wrong time. As you'd expect, character depth and winding plots are non-existent, and sensibility has absolutely no place here. There are boxing gorillas, demons from hell, evil dopplegangers and witch doctors to take down. It's all about the writers having fun with stereotypes (without getting racist), cracking jokes and making references while coming up with excuses for Wade to get into fights – what's not to love? I mean, unless you don't like wacky stuff, that is...
Just wetting my whistle while I wa-- OH SHIT I'M SORRY HERE'S YOUR SEAT BUDDY JUST KEPT IT WARM FOR YOU!
Adding onto that is the visual style. It makes for the perfect visual aid to all of this nonsense – it's got this clean, fluid look to it that allows each of the animations to be as wacky as can be. The characters look very cartoony, either appearing with exaggerated features (half your opponents and even Wade himself rock out biceps and 24 packs like Johnny Bravo) or excessive style (let's just say that pimp's got all the bitches). Each of their special moves have a certain goofiness to them and that's made possible with the animation. True, they're all like four frames which should be a recipe for disaster since all of the models are huge, but whether it's because the fps is at just the right rate, the Game Boy Advance screen is small enough or the animations are just that ridiculous, they manage to look very fluid. In other words, it's all big and silly, and it manages to look good while being big and silly. With that being said... seriously, static images for the story scenes? Not that they look bad or anything but I mean... did you guys run out of time, money and/or memory on the cartridge to implement animated cutscenes? Excuse me while I go cry in a corner...
The sound design is hit and miss. I do like the cartoony sound effects as they match the aesthetic very well. The punches, falling down and the ref's voice sound like something out of Looney Tunes or something like that. But the music is a complete non-entity. What's that, there's a bass chord that plays during the cutscenes and then some fast bass playing accompanied by some beats during fights? Shit, you could tell me that the music is actually a remix of Punch Out's soundtrack or that it's a MIDI version of Painkiller and I'd believe you. That's pretty much how forgettable and boring the music is. It doesn't really make the cutscenes any better, or the fights any more energetic, and they don't really do much on their own either since the songs ride on a single rhythm with a dull, listless structure that suggests to the player “well, the sound composer just wanted a paycheck and being creative is hard work!” Thankfully, the rest of the game didn't follow suit, or I'd be one unhappy camper.
Wade Hixton's Counter Punch receives an 8/10 for being big and silly. Well, maybe not big as in it's a 45 hour long magnum opus; more like within the short amount of time you'll be going through the story mode, you'll see characters with more ham than a pig farm. It has some imperfections like how it becomes a formality once you memorize their patterns, the slightly loose movement controls and ultra precise commands required to use special attacks, but the sheer fun of it all makes up for most of that. It presents an art style that lives and breathes excitement, and its simple yet more tactical approach to boxing is more than enough to captivate your senses. It'll always follow in Punch Out's shadow, that much isn't going to change anytime soon, but let's be real – that's a shadow worth following in, especially if you have you own special take on it that works almost as effectively.
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