Nostalgia’s the key to lifelong gamers’ hearts, and Nintendo knows it. Between the Mario, Zelda, and Metroid series, Japan’s family fun factory has spit out approximately 27 collective installments (and I’m not counting remakes or spin-offs) since the classic NES console bit the dust back in the mid-’90s. It’s strange, then, that the arguable fourth arm in Nintendo’s old-school retinue — the Punch-Out!! boxing franchise — fell off the radar for two full console generations.
But, like the infamous Bald Bull, Punch-Out!! isn’t staying down (not without a star punch, anyway). Next Level Games — they of the Super Mario Strikers soccer series — wore the development gloves for this fifth installment (the first since 1994′s Super Punch-Out!! on the Super NES), and it’s clear from the get-go that Nintendo made the right decision. Jaded Wii owners, take note: This game is for you. Well, it’s for everyone, really — but it’s mostly for you.
The structure’s nothing new. You, as diminutive underdog Little Mac (with choco-holic coach Doc Louis at your side), trade punches with 13 increasingly challenging contenders spread over three boxing circuits. Next Level largely filled these ranks out with the cast of the NES classic Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! — of course, Kid Dynamite himself doesn’t appear (multiple felony convictions and a mile-long string of boxing controversies might figure into that absence), but everyone from rotund fan-favorite King Hippo to rightly feared powerhouse Super Macho Man makes a glorious return, with beautifully animated cel-shaded character models, cute pre-fight cut-scenes, and catchy theme music (endlessly remixed from the NES soundtrack) bringing them to vibrant life.
If this is your first exposure to Punch-Out!!, you’re in for what amounts to an intricate puzzler masquerading as a lite sports sim. Your emotive opponents telegraph each punch, affording you a window to dodge, duck, and counter with jabs and body blows. Exceptionally well-timed smacks earn you a star, and up to three stack for a whopping uppercut. Wear a foe’s health down enough times inside of a three-round bout (or send him to the mat three times in the same round for a technical knockout), and it’s on to the next match. Let him do the same to you, and it’s curtains for Little Mac. A word of advice: Don’t bother with the motion controls and Balance Board support. They’re unnecessary at best, as the game was made with traditional D-pad/button controls firmly in mind (though no Classic Controller support — a missed opportunity, I say).