There's an idea in Punch-Out!! that really shows Nintendo at their best. As Little Mac you're capable of taking two knockdowns before it's lights-out with a KO. The devs clearly relish the moment - lose that third energy bar and the camera whips around with Raging Bull panache to follow a bruised Mac to his knees. But it's not over. Hammer attacks as you hit the ropes and there's a chance Mac will get up. And at a turning point in a tricky bout this is just incredible.
Don Flamenco1 has us on the ropes. We're ten punches away from KO-ing the preening Spanish dandy. But before we have the chance to fell him he hits us with the old 'uno dos tres' - a devastating chain of three pirouetting swings. Is this the end of the dream for Little Mac? His battered form collides with the ropes, begins to sway into a fall, *deep intake of will he/won't he breath*, only for his leg to find that last bit of fight and hold him up. In movie terms, this is Rocky, The Champ and Cinderella Man all in one.
Punch-Out!! may not be realistic boxing - that would put a stop to Great Tiger's body-cloning magic attacks - but we'll be damned if it isn't how boxing should be. When Ali boasted of stinging like a bee he must have been talking about Next Level Games' bullet-like punches. You face lumbering meat stacks, but Little Mac is a hornet, his fists sniping his opponents with such speed that every ricocheting jaw and shuddering ribcage is accompanied by bulging eyes of surprise.
His offensive speed is all down to control schemes designed for sharp jabbing motions. We always knew that stabbing at the 1 and 2 buttons of the NES-apeing set-up was going to brutal and to the point; the big surprise is how well the motion controls work. You jab, Mac jabs. With dodging and uppercuts controlled by the analogue stick there's really nowhere for the motion work to go wrong. Any flail will do. With 13 opponents crushed by NGamer's flimsy real-life 'guns', we can attest to it.
Then again, without controls designed for hair-trigger responses you'd be getting nowhere. The opening fight against brittle-bonced Glass Joe aside, Little Mac's diminutive form places him in a clear defensive role. Punch-Out!! isn't about sluggers holding each other up in the final round, but surgically applying your hits in and around the offensive flurries thrown your way. Go in all fists and you'll hit block after block, drain your stamina meter and earn a fist-shaped ticket to the game over screen.
Instead, fights are puzzles built around audio and visual cues. For heavyweights allegedly trying to fight their way to the top, the cast of boxers don't half enjoy giving away their strategies. Some are direct: shouting out move names to signal whether a duck or dodge is needed. Others require you to listen over the blaring music (variations on the relentlessly enthusiastic brass theme) for subtle audio cues - the mechanical wind-up of cuckoo clock-inspired Von Kaiser giving away a jab, for example.
Say you learn the cues; this doesn't mean the boxers are going to KO themselves. Listing tells in a review is one thing, recognising them in action - especially when each character sports ten or so - and responding
is quite another. Recognising and avoiding is just the beginning; the real elegance of Punch-Out!! is learning how to go from a scurvy rat stealing cheap shots when he can get them to commanding the ring despite being one eighth the size of your opponent.
On the first page of the review we used the term 'surgical' to describe your strikes. Try earning power hits and you'll see why. Rivals tend to give a couple away for free - snagging them during taunts tends to earn a star - but the rest must be deduced with repeat play. The majority are from countering powerful hits; not just using the correct punch but using it during the exact required frame of animation. We told you it was surgical. And all with a D-pad and two buttons.