Many old-school gamers will agree that Super Punch-Out!! is essentially a household name, an unprecedented classic that has yet to be unseated from its spiritual throne. Despite said classic being two console eras old, it remains untouched, having created a relatively unique standard yet to be surpassed. (Ready 2 Rumble was close, but even then I'd still run back to the NES edition to face off against Bald Bull, Mr. Sandman, and - of course - Mike Tyson: the true bad-asses of arcade boxing.)
Needless to say, developers have a lot to live up to. However, this didn't stop Majesco from entering the foray last year with its release of Boxing Fever. Depending on your perspective, one could look at its release as a homage or shameless emulation of the aforementioned arcade boxing mode. Though avid boxing enthusiasts may have very well welcomed it open arms as the spiritual successor. That is to say, had it been initially releaed on a next-generation platform.
Enter Black & Bruised, the envisioned console counterpart based upon the handheld edition, developed by the same development team, Digital Fiction. The entire premise has been completely reworked from the ground up. The most evident improvements include a vivid, cel-shaded engine, an abundant assortment of power-ups, multiple game modes, and a broader level of depth and appeal. It's essentially like playing an all-new game. Literally.
If there's one word to distinguish both titles, it's "personality." Between the off-screen narrator featured in the Story Mode (who for some reason always makes me think back to the days of when I watched The Dukes of Hazzard) and the various comments uttered by the boxing ensemble, acknowledging B&B as an upgrade is an understatement.
The premise of the game is pretty straightforward - beat the snot out of your opponent, and then some. (Well, at least in the Arcade and Survival Modes. The Story Mode contains character-specific storylines which pan out as you progress through each bout). Choose from one of nineteen characters (five of which are inaccessible until certain conditions have been met), then step into the ring and unleash your fists of fury. But just because it's an arcade game, doesn't mean button mashing is going to get you very far. Digital Fiction has beefed up the A.I. substantially and added a difficulty setting to configure the matches to vary in intensity from a mere pillow fight to a no-holds barred, teeth-buster. The question is, do you have what it takes to be the Ring King? The key to survival lies in selecting the ideal character balanced in strength, speed, reach, and movement. For example, characters such as the large n' heavy Jackpot excel in Strength but lack the speed to run circles around someone like Jumping Janet who's, um, pretty "bouncy," I might add.
In the end, it all comes down to your boxing prowess (and hand coordination) to execute a solid strategy to excel. Fighters can also make use of various power-ups which periodically become accessible during the match. Players must successfully execute ten punches against an opponent in order to acquire the power-up. At that point, they have the option to select it immediately or upgrade its potency by continuing to pummel the opponent. Power-ups can be upgraded to Level 2 or 3, giving players an enhanced offensive advantage. Various effects consist of regenerating your boxer's energy, stunning your opponent, or sending them flying back to the mat with their entire life bar drained to zero. It all comes down to knowing when it's best to level up, or go in for the down-and-dirty quick strike. Power-ups are anything but a lame gimmick here, as you'll discover in the more advanced levels, especially during the Story Mode ("Boxer's Life").
On the average difficulty setting, even an experienced player who's perhaps played through Ready 2 Rumble or Super Punch-Out!! will encounter a relatively solid challenge. It's definitely more challenging when you knock the setting up a notch or two. At that point, the bouts will make you feel more like the guest of punishment than the host. If you don't want your ego (and your character) to get knocked around, you probably want to try out a brief session in the training mode to hone your skills and learn various button commands for your specific character.
While the character models are certainly a huge improvement (for all the obvious reasons, moving from handheld to console), their movements could have been a bit more fluid. Despite the boxers being blessed with that cel-shaded look, Fred and Barney move more gracefully than these guys any day of the week. There just isn't enough surreal body language in place to make them look truly lifelike. I want to see body parts moving - and I don't just mean breasts (which for some odd reason seem to be pretty static) but muscles and other areas which signify movement or collision with other objects. To me, that demonstrates the integrity of a true well-animated game. These still are polygons after all.
There are a few subtle effects thrown in. Over the course of time as characters incur damage, it is signified by bruising on their faces. It would've been cool, however, to also see them limping about or something to illustrate "Hey, I am in pain." The control interface is considerably solid on the GameCube (I'd imagine having a much easier time whiffing button commands on a PSone pad, but that's just me). Should the default configuration prove to be somewhat cumbersome, there's an option to map the buttons according to your specifications.
Black & Bruised contains enough substance and style for players who've been awaiting a new arcade boxing installment to come around. It's still a mystery why we've yet to see one arrive from the Big N, but it's refreshing to see another developer get in the mix to get the genre in motion again.
· · · Bahn